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Is this the end of small government?

The government is getting back into business.

In a move that has horrified the economic purists and overturned half a century of developed nation dogma, Australia has joined the United States and Europe in winding back the clock to an industrial future.

It hasn’t exactly come as a surprise. Like almost every other announcement in this year’s budget, the Future Made in Australia initiative was well flagged and debated via a series of pre-budget announcements.

It’s also a relative toe in the water in comparison to the ocean of cash splashed about by the United States via its Inflation Reduction Act and other investment incentive measures.

In total, the federal government has allocated $22.7 billion over the next decade, the bulk of which will be directed towards tax incentives for renewable hydrogen and critical minerals processing.

But it also plans to make direct investments. Exactly how much is uncertain as, like the NBN more than a decade ago, investments can be shifted off the books.

The NBN was one of the early major “off balance sheet” federal government “investments”.(Supplied: nbnco)

In March the government extended support, including grants, to two critical minerals operations, Gina Rinehart’s Arafura and lithium producer Liontown, and has recently talked up investments in quantum computing and solar panels.

“In certain circumstances, targeted public investment can strengthen the alignment of economic incentives with Australia’s national interests and incentivise private investment at scale to develop priority industries,” the budget papers reveal.

After decades of privatisation and shrinking government, the shift back to direct investment in industry, targeted though it may be at a renewable energy future, is a radical shift.

No matter how rigorous and robust the framework for allocating funds, new untested ventures carry an inordinate amount of risk, financial and reputational.

The three r’s

Just two months ago, Jim Chalmers looked to have it in the bag.

Inflation was dropping quicker than expected and, with a cooling economy and a savage drop in household spending, a big-spending budget would have been welcomed in the lead up to next year’s election.

Combine that with a potential rate cut — then pencilled in for the middle of this year — and the stage was set for a dramatic victory lap for vanquishing inflation, all while allowing for a relatively open chequebook.

That’s all changed. Inflation has caught a second wind even as the economy sluggishly shuffles towards the financial year end and as unemployment slowly begins to rise.

Already, the biggest drivers of growth have been government demand and business investment as households labour under the weight of 13 rate hikes and years of real wage declines.

Navigating out of this is tricky. Stomping on spending to keep inflation in check could tip the economy over into recession. Doling out support could ratchet up inflation at the worst possible time, thereby eliminating any chance of an interest rate cut later this year or potentially before the federal election, likely in the first half of next.

The end result is a budget that looks busy and covers a lot without very much behind it.

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