This is no horror budget, but Labor still had three dirty jobs to do

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This is no horror budget, although it’s unlikely to be popular – except perhaps with the state’s public sector workers. For the rest of us, there are various minor cuts to be annoyed by.

Actually, it’s unrealistic to expect the first budget of a new government to be anything but sombre and penny-pinching. That’s the way the political cycle turns.

NSW Treasurer Daniel Mookhey delivers his first budget.Credit: Nine

Indeed, had this budget been full of goodies, it would have been a worrying sign – that the Minns government didn’t know its business and was off to a start likely to help shorten its life.

It will be easy for critics to attack the big pay rises already delivered and planned for public sector workers.

Labor looking after its union mates. If they’re just public servants, why feed them? And how can such big pay rises possibly be afforded?

But the notion that we could go for year after year holding down the wages of nurses, teachers, ambos, firies and all the rest, simply because they weren’t working for the private sector, was always delusional.

When you look at it, almost everyone working for the state government is providing an essential service bar a few pen-pushers in offices near Macquarie Street.

And the inevitable has happened: the state can’t attract and keep workers when they can find better-paid jobs somewhere in business.

Where will the money come from? How about asking the people who benefit from those essential services – which is all of us – to pay slightly higher taxes?

But the states have little scope for raising taxes, so the $2.7 billion over four years to be raised from the (probably too small) increase in coal royalties is a good start.

Treasurer Daniel Mookhey had three dirty jobs to do in this budget. First, continue the slow return to the usual small operating surplus – used to help fund part of the state’s massive spending on infrastructure and other capital works – after the huge spending and borrowing necessitated by the pandemic.

Second, “repurpose” some of the government’s spending from his predecessors’ priorities to the Labor government’s priorities.

Third, reverse or correct some of the wrong-headed and damaging policies pursued by the previous government.

Mookhey is dismantling the designed-to-mislead Transport Asset Holding Entity (even the name tells you it’s some kind of fiddle), as well as the gimmicky NSW Generations Fund, as well as easing the costs of outer-suburb motorists hit hard by the ever-increasing tolls used to pay for the motorways now ringing Sydney.

You license Transurban and other developers to overcharge motorists then, when it starts really hurting, you transfer part of the cost back to state taxpayers more generally.

This makes sense? Fortunately, Mookhey says this arrangement is just until they get time to fix the problem properly.

Meanwhile, as the budget papers admit, the tricksy acronyms – TAHE and NGF – are “masking an ongoing underlying budget result deficit”.

Huh? Officially, this financial year’s expected operating deficit of $7.8 billion (well down on last year’s deficit of $10.1 billion) should turn into a surplus of more than $800 million next financial year.

Allow for the previous government’s fiddles, however, and this year’s expected deficit is actually $8.6 billion, and next year’s surplus becomes just a balanced budget.

It’s wonderful how honest pollies can be about their opponents’ misdemeanours.

On housing, the budget trumpets its help for first-home buyers and renters (renters have problems? Who knew?) with the “faster planning program” and the “essential housing package”.

Sounds good. But experience suggests we save the applause until we see results actually delivered.

On early childhood education and care, the budget continues the big improvements initiated by the Perrottet government, moving to universal preschool access and increasing the number of childcare places.

The budget does a little to remember what it is so often forgotten when savings are needed: the state’s duty to look after kids without parental care.

With budgets, there’s always books to balance and money to worry about. But behind all those dollars are people, whose needs are real.

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