June 15, 2004 | Graham

“Can Do” Campbell’s canny home maintenance budget – is it enough?

Last week Brisbane’s new Liberal Lord Mayor Campbell Newman delivered his first budget. It delivered on his campaign promises and continued on his theme of being the “Can Do” Mayor, but will this be enough?
This budget is more interesting than most because while Newman is the Lord Mayor his Opponents control the council. I was disconcerted to see Newman delivering the budget flanked by his principal opponent – Deputy Mayor David Hinchliffe – and the other Labor councillors. The theatrics and body language are completely different when you face your friends front on and your enemies are all around you.
The centerpiece of Newman’s campaign – 5 new tunnels circling the CBD – won’t be a significant budget item until much later in his term, so his speech was a list of undramatic adjustments to last year’s spending which keep faith with his election promises. They put the spotlight back on good management and looking after the small things that need fixing – maintenance rather than renovation; Home Handyman rather than Backyard Blitz.
He has kept rate increases below the rate of inflation, at the same time as significantly increasing the amount of money spent on some maintenance areas. Capital works is up 15% for example and resealing roads 40%, while $30 M is to be spent on upgrading the Sandgate Wastewater Treatment Plant.
This suggests that Newman’s budget partly relies on the development surge in Brisbane to provide revenue growth in excess of inflation, while rates are held down. The budget also eats up this year’s $60 M surplus. If income increases more slowly than revenue, then the money has to come from somewhere. There was also some rearrangement of priorities from Labor’s previous budgets, but not such as to cause any significant public outcries.
Much was made of the transparency of the budget, which is where Newman was really canny. He has laid out where and on what the maintenance monies are to be spent, as well as leaving only a tiny $296,000 surplus. This effectively locked Labor into either supporting his maintenance programme, or telling some residents they can’t have that park or road upgrade because the money is going somewhere else.
The budget also paid attention to public transport and the environment – more “environmentally friendly” buses and some park developments; and more rubbish vouchers to reduce the amount of illegal dumping. As well, there is a pilot project to trial Sunday opening of Council Libraries – surely mandatory rather than experimental.
While the incrementalism was in line with Campbell’s campaign promises, it may well produce problems for him in the longer-term. Brisbane people are largely happy with the direction in which the city is heading, and the election campaign was fought on that understanding. Newman won by stressing his youth and energy against Quinn’s perceived lethargy. So he doesn’t have a mandate for radical change, but if Newman can’t establish a sufficiently different direction to Labor in government, then he will have difficulty wresting control of the council chamber from Labor at the next election, which must surely be his goal.
Newman has a number of promising themes. This budget is a return to the era of “roads, rates and rubbish” and he has the opportunity to contrast his administration, looking after the basics and ordinary ratepayers, with the Labor Party, running events for inner city elites. By laying out the costings of individual neighbourhood projects he can lay stake to the claim that he is more democratic and transparent than the previous administration.
While those themes were there, they were not heavily promoted. The compare and contrast, sound and fury that characterizes most government’s first budgets was missing. Perhaps this is a function of not having control of the council – you have to be careful what issues you take a stand on, and massage the rest away.
I also have a suspicion that while voters will elect a politician on the basis of being down to earth, they really do want some pizzazz with their government. One of the things that Brisbane residents like about their city is that it is no longer the big country town it was a mere 20 years ago (prior to the Atkinson administration). The Liberals need to quickly develop a rhetoric that casts their policies in terms of Brisbane as a world class livable city, with room to breathe. For that Newman is going to need to develop some policies for government which are innovative, broad scale, distinctive, and which puts the Labor Party on the back foot. Maybe next budget.

Posted by Graham at 12:01 pm | Comments Off on “Can Do” Campbell’s canny home maintenance budget – is it enough? |
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