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Light bulbs and set top boxes

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 13 May 2011

We have all heard many versions of the famous light bulb joke. Like this one: Q: How many economists does it take to change a light bulb? A: Two. One to assume the ladder and the other one to change the bulb.

Since traditional light bulbs have long been banned in Australia, it’s time to adjust the joke and move on to other household items. Such as TV sets. But here the government provides us with a real life joke.

So how much money does it cost to install a digital TV set top box, worth about $30? Up to $400, never mind that you can buy a brand new flat screen digital TV for less than $400. Anyway, this is the amount the government has set aside to help eligible households under its Digital TV Switchover – Household Assistance Scheme. The scheme applies to pensioners and veterans who haven’t yet upgraded from analog to digital TV reception.

The $400 per household not only pays for the set top box but also for the services of ‘a qualified government contractor’ – perhaps the same people who were made redundant after the infamous pink batts debacle. The contractors will install the boxes, maybe even without burning down any houses.

But then again, what’s so difficult about connecting the box to a power socket, an aerial and the TV? Unless they’re deaf and blind, most pensioners should well be able to set up their new set top box – especially if they get it free of charge from Centrelink. And if they’re deaf and blind, well, they probably don’t watch much TV anyway.

It’s hard to understand the reasoning behind the scheme. Since when did government start paying for household items? What about the pensioners who had already switched to digital and paid for it themselves? And how can you justify a scheme costing taxpayers $309 million at a time of a $50 billion budget deficit?

The government’s set top box scheme is a modern version of the old light bulb joke. Unfortunately, it is very costly. And not very funny.

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