Budget time is upon us. Not the date when the state budget will be delivered, expected in June, but the period of its preparation.
From about November, Treasury cobbles together requests from parliamentarians, government departments and lobby groups then presents them to Cabinet ministers for sifting, ready to unveil on budget day.
There are endless dilemmas in choosing which projects and services will best satisfy the electorate and also give value for money.
What advice might Queensland’s scientists offer to the accountants in Treasury as they draft the 2019/2020 state budget, with the triple objective of enhancing the economy, society and the environment of rural Queensland?
Most political leaders claim that economic development is the pre-eminent objective of public budgeting.
It is not surprising that construction projects like road building or solar farms attract funds, as they are tangible, lend themselves to photogenic events and can be implemented quickly by tried and true engineering procedures.
Most natural scientists, however, would argue that the environment is more fundamental.
A healthy environment – natural capital yielding a steady flow of raw materials – lies at the foundation of all economic activity.
Throughout Queensland, the state’s natural assets are running down, suffering from exotic pests, rising temperature, soil erosion, roadside clearing, herbicide overspray and a range of other assaults.
Conventional budgeting regards them as free gifts of nature, but it costs money to repair past damage and protect them from future damage.
Remedial programs such as Landcare have been chronically underfunded for more than two decades.
Yet there is an even more fundamental function that has also been neglected to the grave detriment of rural Queensland: an adequately nourished public service and network of natural resource management groups.
Without knowledgeable backroom advisers, a government cannot make wise decisions, let alone develop strategies to cope with trends on the horizon.
Without scientists and planners competent to translate the latest international research into terms applicable to each rural district and property, large bodies of scientific knowledge can lie unpublicised in the technical journals.
Without enough diesel to put in their tractors, national park rangers cannot be good neighbours and cannot even maintain firebreaks.
Graziers and farmers may take some convincing that the sector needs more bureaucrats, but without district offices staffed with career officers on secure tenure, there is no reliable communication channel to feed intelligence from rural people back to William Street and so to influence policy.
Politicians frequently argue that lower taxes will boost the economy.
Don’t believe a word of it. Lower taxes lead to budget cuts that lay waste to the capacity of the public service to design and deliver programs upon which a healthy environment, harmonious society and prosperous economy ultimately depend.
– Dr Geoff Edwards, president, Royal Society of Queensland
- This article does not necessarily represent the views of all members.