Citizen journo @Wendy_Bacon on Joe’s ‘Widen the Gap’ budget

Wendy Bacon

Wendy Bacon

Wendy Bacon is an investigative journalist and Professorial Fellow with the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism. She has worked for independent, alternative and mainstream media.
Wendy Bacon
- 11 mins ago
Wendy Bacon

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Wendy Bacon
She is also a contributing editor to New Matilda and have reported for Crikey, the Sydney Morning Herald , The Conversation and GuardianAUS in recent times.
Rosie Williams and Luke Bacon at BudgetAus event at FBI

Rosie Williams and Luke Bacon at BudgetAus event at FBi

[clear]Last night I headed over to FBi, a successful not for profit radio station in inner Sydney to meet up with the Budget_Aus team to listen to Treasurer Joe Hockey deliver his first budget speech. We were hosted by Heidi Pett and the rest of the FBi Backchat team who were working on their show about the budget for next Saturday morning.

We were all there to support the idea of open access to information and data journalism and in particular, Rosie Williams who is the founder of Info_Aus and No Fibs’ data journalist. Info_Aus has created Budget_Aus which has allowed us to search a database for information about the budget for the first time. The purpose is to allow citizens to find out what’s going on so they can respond and be part of the debate. This is especially necessary when politicians and even big media tell lies. After lobbying by Info_Aus and others, the government had agreed to release the data this year in excel format for the first time. Ideally this should allow information to flow more quickly and for more transparency.

We listened to Hockey’s speech as he delivered Joe’s snapshot of this year’s losers and winners, punctuated by admonitions that this was all for our own good. My own response is that when powerful people start repeatedly telling you a policy is in the national interest, you can bet that it might be in their interest but it’s unlikely to be in yours.

For our small Budget_Aus group, the only piece of good news came through on twitter after the speech. Community broadcasting has been spared from cuts recommended by the Commission of Audit. This is good news for BackChat, which receives some funding. Like the ABC, the community broadcasting sector has mounted a campaign to defend hundreds of community stations. But the ABC was not so lucky. As the younger journalists watched ABC 7.30’s Sarah Ferguson demolish Hockey, we discussed the potential ongoing threats to the ABC. This morning, CEO Mark Scott said that for a start the cuts mean that half of the funds sustaining ABC’s international reporting have disappeared. Program cuts and redundancies will follow as the public broadcaster struggles to fufill its legal obligation to the Australian public to provide international coverage.

At an individual level, I was probably the only other winner at FBi last night. I’ve left full time academic work after years of Coalition and Labor government university cuts that threaten programs and teaching quality. Instead I now live on my super and work voluntarily as a journalist and academic. I’ve become, just as I began – a citizen journalist.

I agree with fellow journalist David Marr, who said when he appeared on ABC’s Q and A this week that he would be happy to pay tax on his super. Indeed many of us would far rather pay tax than see the destruction of Medicare and unemployed younger people trying to live on no money. As someone in the cafe where I am sitting just said, “It’s crazy – do they actually believe people want to live on Newstart?” But no, Hockey made the deliberate choice to forgo the $9 billion that could have been saved by taxing super. This makes a mockery of his pretence that everyone is sharing a ‘burden’ – a burden that he has in any case partly exaggerated and partly cooked up to justify his attack on the living conditions of ordinary Australians. The temporary deficit tax is not so much about sharing the pain as about making the cuts more publicly palatable and the rich feel comfortable with the cuts to everyone else. If it is passed by parliament, the temporary levy will soon be gone while the impact of poverty, anxiety and poor heath is lifelong. Meanwhile, most of my baby boomer friends are left anxious about their impending retirement and people far richer than I clean up on super.

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FBi’s Backchat and BudgetAus teams at FBi on the budget.

Given the age of most of the people in the room, much of the talk was about the impact of the budget on young unemployed people and students. One of Backchat’s reporters is heading down the coast to the Illawarra where there is 20% youth unemployment. We talked about the reporter’s difficulty in finding long term unemployed people to talk because of the stigma of being branded a failure. I mentioned a graduate who despite coming from a disadvantaged background completed a degree at a private college and has applied unsuccessfully for hundreds of jobs for which he is amply qualified.  We talked about the housing prospects of students who can’t live with parents and will now have to pay higher interest on HECS debts that will also kick in at a lower wage. Only the very rich can afford to pay fees which are once again be introduced while Commonwealth fundings will be reduced by 20% from 2016. Even allowing for a few scholarships, the fee paying places will nearly all be occupied by students who have attended elite schools. There is no doubt that Hockey’s policies will widen the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’  in higher education.

Most of all we wondered what it feels like to be Hockey. He knows from his own experience that the deficit levy of $400 for the person earning $200,000 is at most the cost of several business lunches. But does he have any idea what it will be like for older people on the pension who will be continually anxious about spending money on basic food because they are worried about having to pay extra for medicines and for what can be quite frequent visits to the doctor. As he danced with his wife in his office to the “Best day of my life” just before he delivered the budget did Hockey spare a thought for the vulnerable people he was about to hurt? From where does the ideological belief spring that his own children are entitled to the educational opportunities at privileged inner Sydney schools while he cuts funds to disadvantaged public schools that could even up opportunities? My own view is that Hockey knows exactly what he is doing. He understands how angry people feel but he feels cosy in the company of those whose interests he serves -like the ones who paid for access as he celebrated his ‘big day’ yesterday at lunch and dinners organised by his North Sydney forum. This government is on a mission.

We listened last night for the words ‘environment’ and ‘climate’. I did hear ‘environment’ but it was only a mention of ‘business environment’, which seems to be the only sort environment the LNP cares about. I didn’t hear ‘climate’ at all.

This morning I heard that as well as being relieved of the mining and carbon taxes, the mining exploration industry is to be rewarded with a $100 million fund to open up even more land to mining exploration. Exploration and often the production that may follow already threatens agricultural land and environments (of the natural sort) all over Australia. Thousands of Australian citizens are protesting against the impact of exploration and mining of CSG and coal on vast tracts of land that have already been handed over to resource companies. Are mining companies really going to be paid to take over more?

Many health workers are already concerned about the long term health effects of mining. Amongst those concerned is the Climate and Health Alliance which doesn’t represent scientists doing breakthrough research for miracle cures who are the beneficiary of the big boost to medical research – but they do represent an impressive list of organisations including nurses, physiotherapists, psychologists and the women’s health network.

The Alliance released a statement: “By walking away from climate action, and scrapping important environmental initiatives, this government is imposing enormous economic, social and environmental burdens on the community. These will compromise those that already suffer ill-health or are less well off, as well as impose unjustified and avoidable burdens on future generations.”

Those health burdens may well include cancer caused by toxic chemicals but they will also include lots of other uncomfortable long term illnesses that will require trips to the doctor along with co-payments that are likely to steadily rise. Hopefully Budget_Aus and other Info_Aus projects may eventually be able to help communicate to the public the real health costs of the Abbott’s government failure to act on environmental and climate action.

Back at FBi radio at the end of Hockey’s speech, the data work began. Rosie Williams had been looking forward to the budget spreadsheets becoming available online. Disappointingly, that didn’t happen immediately but the spreadsheets have begun to flow through today.

Budget Aus 2014/2015 is on the way. Some current information has already been published. This will enable citizens like you and me and the organisations in which we are involved to find out what’s going on at a more detailed level. If like me, you are a novice to spreadsheets, it takes a bit of effort. You can also become involved and ask questions about BudgetAus at GitHub. Once the data is collated, visual work to highlight changes and compare budgets begins. In time, you should even be able to track the impact of the budget down to your own local community or interests.

It’s a tricky task to collate the data this year as lots of departments, portfolios and programs have been merged or appear under other names. When I interviewed Greens spokesman for the Environment Senator Larissa Waters this morning, she knew that the Biodiversity research program, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority and Wildlife corridors have all sustained cuts. Other details are harder to track. Last week a report came out on the dredging of Gladstone Harbour. The report found that the monitoring of the project under Labor had been completely inadequate. In that context I was shocked to read that there are only 10 compliance officers for 800 projects. Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt was quoted in the media as saying that the department was working on improvements including more compliance officers. Senator Waters called for an increase in the number and effectiveness of compliance officers. When I spoke to her this morning she did know that there had been cuts to the Enviromental Regulation program and that more than 100 Environmental staff will be cut but she is still trying to find out what is happening to the staffing levels of compliance officers. As in the areas of health and environment, the Federal government aims to offload its responsibilities to the state governments. This is the sort of story that can easily be forgotten. Budget_Aus helps track down the source of the funding and make comparisons between years.

Senator Waters told me that 129 jobs are going from Regulation of the Environment. It’s hard to see where the extra compliance officers promised by Hunt are coming from.

The media will continue to focus on the big items and political battles in the Senate. We do need to know about all of that. Governments should be held to account for broken promises but not to the point of leaving no space for the stories of who and what has been cut and the longer term impacts of those cuts as they evolve.  For many it may be days before news reaches them. Take the Aid budget which has been cut more than 1 billion over the next years. Which programs will be cut? What’s going to happen to the people who needed assistance but won’t get it?

Rosie Williams and her supporters are back at home at their terminals but they should not go unnoticed. Williams told me this morning: I only have half the data but once I have the lot (later today) I think that BudgetAus is going to show a very interesting comparison with last year given how many changes there have been. You can send your questions to me or No Fibs or Budget Aus – or follow the discussions on Git Hub.

The BackChat journalists will be out on the road. Major new rooms are providing live blogs of key events and battles but as the budget furore dies down, there is a huge task for community, citizen and local journalists to follow what is happening on the ground because no one else will be doing it. If people are not to be isolated in their communities, we need stories not just of pain and cut backs but also stories of fight back and survival.

Remember how Tony Abbott was going to be PM for Indigenous Australians? One story I’ll be following through Budget Aus, No Fibs and New Matilda is the fate of 38 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child and Family Centres. I chose this issue because there is a huge amount of evidence that early childhood education is a crucial factor in providing opportunity and because these centres are successfully building community involvement and resilience. Watch the video here. The partnership under which they were funded by Labor in 2009 was scrapped last night. When hundreds of Aboriginal parents and workers turned up at their childcare centres this morning they have been greeted with the grim news that despite all the work they have done to reach their goals and complete successful evaluations it has not been enough to win the support of this government. Operational costs for each centre are less than $1 million a year. Some states will pick up the centres at least until October when the results of three evaluations into 270 other Aboriginal child care centres is completed.

It’s called Widening the Gap. Our job as journalists at Budget_Aus FBi’s Back Chat, No Fibs and New Matilda is to make information publicly available and assist the community to use it and tell stories to help Close the Gap.


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