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A Budget that keeps the lights on, but there is darkness all around

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It didn’t come today, but at some point in this four-year term Labor will have to make some tough decisions, writes Sean Parnell

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It is ironic that Annastacia Palaszczuk and Cameron Dick arrived 14 minutes late for their budget press conference and then complained about the lights. The year’s most important economic update was itself delayed, by eight months, and even in the cold fluorescent function room did not reveal much about Queensland’s future.

The headlines are predictable: a state plunging deeper in debt, yet still able to deliver Labor’s election promises, as the local economy proves to be more resilient than expected. But all this comes amid the darkness of an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, patchy employment, the China trade dispute only now heating up, and Queensland continuing to grow as some of the underlying budgetary principles are seemingly abandoned. The budget is temporary at best.

Borrowing more is the easy way out, even if Dick argues it is prudent and happening elsewhere. Ratings agencies will take a dim view of a government living beyond its means, and even Dick reluctantly agrees there will be a need for budget repair in future. This is a debate that should have been had during the election campaign.

While Palaszczuk and Dick were taking questions from journalists, ahead of the budget speech at 2pm, stakeholders were watching a recorded message from the Treasurer detailing key points from the budget. There is a sense of making do for now, and of the government being afforded some more time. This is a third-term government, put on a different trajectory over the last 12 months.

Today’s budget simply delivers Labor’s election promise to keep the lights on. No forced redundancies in the public service, a steady-as-she-goes approach to capital works, and ongoing support for the private sector (who should also be thankful for no tax hikes).

But it sets the scene for an interesting four-year term. Work will begin on the 2021-22 budget in February, by which time the new Cabinet will be ready to have the discussions that are needed about Queensland’s future.

In doing so, the Palaszczuk government must decide where it stands on key Labor values of equity, equality and fairness, and what legacy it should leave the next generation. If the darkness closes in, Palaszczuk and Dick will have to decide winners and losers – and it’s clear they don’t know how to do that yet.

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