Just eight months ago, ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr proudly announced that the territory was recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic with $ 300 million better than expected.
“Real-life experience would suggest that with a successful roll-out of immunization programs the worst is behind us,” Barr said cautiously but optimistically.
The Chief Minister and Treasurer painted a rosy picture of the latter part of 2021 – a rapid vaccination schedule, international travel resuming in July and an Australia where state and territory borders were open and long lockdowns were a thing of the past .
But the latest wave of COVID from the Delta variant was on the verge of collapsing ACT’s sunny economic position.
Yesterday Barr presented a budget that resulted from this worst-case scenario – in mid-lockdown and having just recorded another COVID-related death, he confirmed ACT’s economy had hit nearly $ 1 billion to its bottom line.
The Delta strain, along with a lockdown expected to last for nine weeks, had created “one of the toughest times in our city’s history.”
“After a year without COVID in the ACT, without significant public health restrictions and a relatively normal social and economic life, the lockdown – although absolutely necessary – has been extraordinarily difficult for everyone,” Barr said.
Handing in his 10th budget – his second in the coronavirus era – Barr insisted the challenge was not over yet.
“[COVID-19] is something that is part of our lives now, and probably will be for a long time to come, “he said.
Still, he said, he would make the decision to keep the Canberrans healthy and able to put food on the table above any “economic scar” caused on the budget, time and time again.
This budget is about survival
Since the start of the August lockdown, nearly a third of ACT companies have applied for a government support grant and 63,000 Canberrans have received Commonwealth aid.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that in the two weeks after the lockdown began, many Canberrans lost their jobs, with employee jobs shrinking by 7.1%.
Treasury officials estimate the territory has distributed $ 475 million in economic aid since the start of the pandemic – a unique event they described as causing “the greatest disruption to economic activity and the movement of people.” across Australia and the world in the postwar period “.
“This [budget] is an emergency level of government spending, there really wasn’t any other policy alternatives, ”Barr said.
“We are not here by choice, but by circumstance.”
And the government is clear that, just like in times of war, economic rations are needed to protect the most vulnerable among us.
As such, this budget isn’t filled with shiny toys or bigger savings for those who kept their jobs during the lockdown – it’s designed to keep some Canberrans alive, and others fed and healthy. health.
The detailed spending of ACT’s COVID-19 stimulus measures spans eight pages in the latest budget, excluding government plans to spend on major infrastructure, which they designed to create jobs and stimulate the economy.
“This will keep Canberra’s construction industry very busy for four or five years,” Barr said.
The majority of the remaining new budget spending is on health care – bolstering the territory’s health services and facilities in the face of an expected increase in cases and hospitalizations once ACT emerges from lockdown.
All other new money is mostly the result of election promises or parliamentary deals, that is, non-negotiable items designed to satisfy people in a budget that offers little light on the fiscal horizon.
This budget clearly indicates that in planning the recovery of the territory after the last COVID epidemic, the treasurer and his officials are more cautious than before.
Plan hinges on COVID recovery
While there is hope in the territory’s economic projections, a number of key assumptions could still derail it.
Vaccinations carry the most weight – not only in ACT, where the population is expected to exceed 95%, but also between states.
Australia must meet an 80% vaccination target, according to the budget documents, and it must also be effective in minimizing the health impacts of COVID, to put ACT’s financial situation all but in the red.
There must also no longer be large-scale outbreaks in or around the country, and state and territory borders must begin to open from next year at the latest.
Even more difficult are the demands beyond ACT’s control, such as the reopening of international borders and the resumption of migration abroad.
Barr, who was at one point criticized for failing to offer the Canberrans more certainty in the form of a detailed roadmap, still faces the same uncertainty as the territory leader.
But the chief minister seems confident that the territory will eventually be able to spend, borrow and vaccinate to get out of an economic hole.
“The Canberrans have rolled up their sleeves and been vaccinated. We are doing this to protect our older loved ones, the vulnerable and valued members of our community, and the otherwise active and healthy people whose immune systems are fighting this disease.” , did he declare.
“And the role of the ACT government, through the budget and over the coming year, will be to support a return to the life we want for ourselves, our families and our community.”
Pray for calmer waters
As the Canberrans count down the days (eight) until the scheduled end of the lockdown, there is hope that the territory has really weathered the worst of the storm.
Surely Barr, who has barely had a day off for almost two months, is also holding on to that same dream – a dream where the Canberrans can “get back to the life we want, where we can visit our friends. and to our family, to go to the theater or to the footy, or to organize a party “.
While these may be little luxuries the Canberrans have deprived themselves of since the start of the last lockdown, the Canberrans have also been shown to be resilient and broadly compliant with health guidelines – able to withstand a lot. , if there is hope.
“In COVID anything can happen, but at the end of the day we need a set of assumptions on which to base our budgeting and forecasting,” he said yesterday.
“The Canberrans can be confident this city will emerge from the pandemic stronger than before.”
And so, with this new budget, the chief minister has set his sights on a future in the hope that another wave of cases – or worse yet, a new strain of COVID-19 – won’t sidetrack the territory.