A nerds-eye view of the federal budget

I recently discovered a community of nerds who love to make massive piles of data readable and useful to people who aren’t nerds. A sub-group of nerds are into creative data visualization, meaning they make the best graphs and pie-charts ever. A sub-sub nerd group are people who use fabulous data visualisation to make government data – like the federal budget – transparent. 

This is all pretty new, though Scott Ludlam twittered “i love that work. have referenced it in my blog post :)” nearly three years ago. But then, the Greens senator from WA may be channeling his inner Justin Trudeau.

Two super nerds, Rob d'Apice, a financial analyst, and Robbie Wain, a coder and web developer (both Aussies), presented the first version of their super-visuals, called TheOpenBudget, at a hackathon in 2012, after which they were engaged by the Gillard government to produce the dataset on their behalf. The nerds are not cooperating with government to make Scott Morrison a better communicator  – their goal is far more modest: to free our nation’s budget data from its 19th century framing so we can clearly see what’s going on. 

Rob and Robbie’s magical data imaging has captivated nerds and economists worldwide and they are discussing doing a version for the US Treasury. You could stop reading this now and go to theopenbudget.org, rove the dart-board like chart with your cursor and see it reveal every sector of our national budget, and once you’ve figured that out, you could see how sectors have had their budgets increased or decreased over the years -- like ASIO for example, or residential care subsidies, or the “science based” study of the effects of coal seam gas on water. Then again, you could wait till next week when the 2016-17 budget gets dumped in our laps by the snarling Treasurer Morrison and his floundering boss M Turnbull, because theopenbudget blokes are due to update their chart on budget night.

In preparation for the excitement of budget day, I’ve done my own data extraction from the nerds’ data construction, to tell you just how much of our (federal) tax payments are spent on what, under the current budget.

Here it is – where our tax dollars go if we were all the same average people. (The nerds promise to add a feature allowing you to enter your own income to show you how much you, rather than Ms/Mr Average Australian, are spending for what.) 

All up, the amount outlaid by the federal guv is about $450 billion a year, which equates to $19,602 “per Australian person” – let’s call that PP, since PAP is ... distracting.

The largest category of federal spending is Social Services, costing $6,300 PP a year. Most of this goes to pensions or equivalent support payments to seniors, the disabled, children and families with children, carers (a couple of hundred bucks), and paid parental leave. The national disability insurance program comes inside this mega portfolio, costing us $47 each a year; so does Newstart which costs $25 PP.

Next biggest spender is the Federal treasury, which collects our taxes, including sales tax (GST), and doles them back out to the states for health, education, and more, to the tune of $5,590 PP a year. Turnbull tried (feebly) to shove this job into the Premiers’ laps, because that would make it easier for various privateers to suck a chunk out of the process, but the states prefer leaving the Commonwealth in charge of this huge collection and distribution of cash. Treasury also manages a range of national health and education projects that show up as small change on the big chart, such as “remote Aboriginal investment in children and schooling”, at $1.86 for each of us.  

(Cartoon courtesy of Mark David | @mdavidcartoons)

(Cartoon courtesy of Mark David | @mdavidcartoons)

Health spending just squeaks in at number 3 at $2,159 PP, with Defence breathing down its neck at $2,129, though all those submarines and Navy boats the Coalition government is promising in order to win seats in South Australia, and all the cuts Morrison will make in healthcare, should shove Defence up to #3 by next Wednesday. I see that Veterans (who used to be called “returned soldiers” when I grew up so they were never confused with animal doctors) cost about $525 PP, while the War Memorial costs $2.91. Defence “Intelligence capabilities” are listed at $28.39 PP, but more spy payouts are listed in the Foreign Affairs portfolio below.

Number 5 is education at $1,324 PP, of which $434 PP goes to non-government schools. The Australian Research Council, home, I assume, of those innovations much touted by Turnbull, gets $35.55 PP.  The Higher Education Loan Programme gets $105 PP, which is less than 1% of the total budget.

Finance rates 6th place, at $424 PP, most of which is spent on public sector superannuation.

Foreign Affairs and Trade is #7 at $291 PP, including $13.76 PP for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, while another section called “Secret Intelligence” gets $10.32 PP. Foreign aid, or “Official Development Assistance”, gets $143 PP much of which goes to Australian corporations building infrastructure overseas.

Now you know how much fun this is, give theopenbudget.org a try. Or like I said, you could wait for the update after budget day next Tuesday, May 3rd.