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Happenings on the Hill – Where there is a will (to spend money) there is a way

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Welcome to Happenings on the Hill – Happenings on the Hill is a fortnightly column specifically for the Third Sector by government engagement expert Neil Pharaoh, Director & Co-Founder of Tanck. 

While State budgets are bleeding red (except WA), the Commonwealth had a surprising surplus, potentially around $19b (and that was after sending $2b to the State & Territories for housing).  Likewise, while we are all being told to tighten our belts and not expect much from the government, a whopping $368 billion approximately will be spent on submarines over the coming decades. So, what makes a project a “must spend”, and how do they create the will? 

If you look back over the past few decades, there is quite a few examples of grants, programs and projects by State, Territory and Federal governments which make you ask the question “What the?”.   Sometimes they may be election-motivated for political reasons – the suburban rail loop in Victoria is one example in that category – announced as part of an election campaign.  Sometimes they will be pre-election, often when the tide is outgoing on the government of the day, to projects or activities which may not be supported should the government change.  Other times you just feel the momentum means that nobody will stand up and ask whether we can spend that on something better.  

There is however a way to build that same momentum and pressure for your projects, and to build a sense of inevitability that the project needs to be supported, or funded, or announced. You do need to play a slightly longer-term game, however – as scary as it sounds, the budget for May 2024 is already starting to be prepared now Federally (and in the States and Territories).  Putting it another way, given we need to have an election before May 2025, the budget from July 2024 – June 2025, which is handed down in May 2024, is being developed now – that means now is the time to build up election asks.  

Building pressure for an announcement or a new policy initiative takes time, the work you do across budget and mid-year economic submissions, committees and policy opportunities, in working with local MPs and Senators (or MLCs/MLAs), as well as through departments and the pollical parties themselves is often a multi-year program.   

Even in political party land, you need to consider that in August this year, the Labor Party will have its National Conference in Brisbane.  For those not too familiar, Labor holds a National Conference every three years, and this will be the first time in person for five years, and the first time in government since 2011.  The Labor Party is also a binding party, which means if something is in the platform, it is binding on all members. So if you have missed the boat to build up, campaign, advocate and work with party members for this year’s National Conference, a little over a month away, you will need to wait three years until the next one.  The national conference in August this year, will in effect, set some of the policy direction for the next Federal Election – which then helps set the announcements and funding that flows with it.  

Likewise, if you consider government departments and their cycles, these critical gatekeepers definitely fulfil the ‘slow and steady wins the race’ philosophy. In speaking to friends of mine in the public service, they are already starting to consider political policies to present to their political masters over the coming months ahead, even though most won’t be for announcements until 2025.   

Cumulatively all of these are the locations to apply pressure, build momentum and create a “burning plank” for your specific project area to which government can respond.  In thinking back to the submarines, I doubt that if China wasn’t being so physically hostile to Taiwan, or verbally hostile towards Australia (and others), or asserting outlandish claims in the South China Sea against the Philippines (and beyond) we would not be spending near half a trillion dollars on Submarines. This is the clearest example of how pressure, from Departments and other stakeholders can impact and adjust funding.   

When there is political will, there is a political way – think about how you can build the will, map stakeholders, and think on a longer-term horizon. 

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Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy, and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research, and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. Neil is co-founder and director of Tanck, which focuses on better engagement with government, and regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems.


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