This week, the Morrison government revealed its 2021 budget to a broadly positive reception. The government’s decision to embrace necessary debt to lift Australia out of the COVID-19 pandemic conforms with generally agreed upon economic advice and seems to be an about-face from the Liberal party’s former parsimony (remember, before 2020, treasurer Josh Frydenberg was determined to get the Federal budget “back in black”). But while the budget has some good news for aged care, mental health and women, there are two losers in this budget that point to a major failing in the Morrison government’s plan for Australia’s economic recovery.

Australia’s 2021 budget neglects spending on renewables and tertiary education, missing a chance to strengthen our economy. Image credit: Mee Ko Dong/ Shutterstock

A little over a year ago, Australia suffered through the worst bushfire season in history, and for many people the damage done by those fires still hasn’t been alleviated. Homes and entire communities are yet to be rebuilt. As for the environmental impact, billions of native animals are now gone, placing additional pressure on endemic species already struggling with shrinking populations and habitat loss. The severity of the bushfires epitomised the climate crisis facing Australia and the world, capturing public attention and driving a conversation about Australia’s current approach to climate change. Real pressure was being placed on the government to rethink its stance on the environment and on fossil fuels. But then the coronavirus pandemic began, distracting the public from the issue of climate change. What was initially seen as a health crisis quickly became an economic one as trade disruptions and coronavirus lockdowns forced the government to abandon its obsession with debt to keep Australia afloat. Hopes were initially high that this reversal of policy on one issue might indicate a potential reversal on another one. Many people have pointed to the opportunity to use COVID-19 crisis spending to fund a green transformation of our economy. Unfortunately, the 2021 budget misses that opportunity.

The budget outlines practically no new funding allocated for renewable energy development and comparatively little ($643.4 million) for low-emissions technologies which experts say will have little impact on curbing our overall carbon output. Instead, of creating opportunities for new renewable energy industries, increased government spending will be used to prop up carbon-intensive industries that have no long-term future.

Renewables are not the only loser in this budget. Since the pandemic began, Australia’s universities have been forced to reckon with the loss of a major source of their income as international students have been shut out of the country. Public universities were also excluded in many cases from accessing the government’s Jobkeeper relief packages, which combined with the loss of revenue from student fees led to a reported 17,000 job losses across Australia. And yet there has been no specific new funding for universities in the 2021 budget. The message to universities is that they need to hold out until borders reopen in 2022 and international students can return, but this is fraught with risk. For starters, the 2022 opening date is considered by many an optimistic estimate that relies on most Australians being vaccinated by the end of this year, a goal that is questionably achievable at best. Even if the borders do reopen in 2022, it’s not clear if international students will be waiting to come in as opportunities open earlier in other countries. This highlights an issue that has been affecting Australian universities for years now: Universities have come to rely on fees from international students as a crucial part of their income ($10 billion out of a total $36.5 billion in revenue across Australian universities in 2019). This is a dangerous level of dependence that the government now has an opportunity to overcome. Education is a major contributor to Australia’s economy under any circumstances and the underpinning of our high productivity as a nation. When it comes to developing a new, green economy, investment in Australian universities as centres of research is critical.

For over a year now, the government has been selling the idea of a gas-powered economic recovery from the pandemic. Natural gas, along with coal, has certainly contributed to the recent mining boom but fossil fuels are far from the only natural resources Australia has available and they are at risk of becoming a dead end. Coal is becoming increasingly expensive and inefficient compared to renewable energy options for power generation. Gas has been touted by the Morrison government as a clean energy source, but it has many of the same issues as coal. It’s carbon-intensive, increasingly expensive and there are issues with our supply infrastructure that will be expensive to remedy. If the government were prepared to dedicate more funding towards developing an Australian renewable energy industry, it would safeguard our mining industry against these dangers.

Fossil fuels are also falling behind in job creation, another important foundation of a strong economy. The mining industry as a whole is employing fewer people each year as increased automation makes workers unnecessary. Creating new employment and education opportunities for miners is another reason to invest in a robust tertiary education sector. Providing retraining for miners and other workers could help to insulate the Australian workforce against unemployment, stimulating economic growth.

Australia is the world’s largest producer of lithium, a core component in many environmentally-friendly technologies due to its use in batteries. The presence of such large quantities of lithium in Australia could stimulate the development of domestic renewables that take advantage of our natural resources, but currently most of our lithium is exported, meaning we are fuelling other countries’ renewable technologies at the expense of our own. This might be good for mining companies that produce lithium, certainly, but it is a lost opportunity for industrial development within Australia.

The renewable energy boom is coming sooner or later. Worldwide, solar, wind and hydroelectric power are already beginning to outstrip fossil fuels in terms of cost and efficiency. But to further develop these technologies, the world needs chemists, physicists, engineers. Our government should be investing in universities to encourage research and development of renewable energy technologies. This investment would spur domestic and international students to take up STEM studies at Australian educational institutions, in preparation for the growing demand from businesses for qualified professionals in those fields. Combine this investment in education with a mining industry producing vital resources for renewable energy infrastructure, and Australia would be well-positioned to become a world leader in renewables at a time when global action on climate change is in dire need of direction. Instead, current policy seems dedicated to achieving the opposite of what we might hope for.

The 2021 budget wants to paint a picture of a government committed to a strong economic recovery. Neglecting renewables and universities at a time when investment in both is more important than ever seems disturbingly short-sighted. The climate crisis hasn’t gone away because of the pandemic. The government’s refusal to build a green economy is yet another missed opportunity at a time when we are running out of opportunities to miss.