John Menadue. Cutting back government spending – does it include middle-class and corporate welfare?

Tony Abbott told his listeners recently at Davos that small government was the best form of government.

The Minister for Health, Peter Dutton, has said that waste must be reduced in our health sector.

The Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews, has told us that our welfare system is unsustainable and has appointed Patrick McClure to review welfare in Australia.

And the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, has established a Commission of Audit to look at ways to reduce ‘big government’ with priority to reducing government outlays. He said that the age of entitlement had to end. But for whom! He said ‘it is .. essential that the Commonwealth government lives within its means and begins to pay down its debt’. We know of course that by any international measure we do not have a debt problem but let us pass on that for the moment.

Before we look at fair and efficient ways to improve our public finances, there are a few broad issues to be considered.

First, we do have a long term ‘structural deficit’ of about $60 billion p.a. The IMF has told us that the most recent culprits were the Howard/Costello governments that reduced tax rates year after year when we were flush with revenue from the mining boom. The Gillard and Rudd governments did face the GFC and sensibly increased government spending. They made some attempt to reduce middle class welfare, but they failed to grasp the major recommendations of the Henry Review to reform our tax system.

Second, Australia does not have a growing public sector. As Ian McAuley, Jennifer Doggett and I have set out in our submission to the Senate Select Committee on the Commission of Audit, there is no evidence of any sustained increase in government spending (see my website by clicking on at top left of this blog). In fact, outlays have been trending downwards since the mid-1980s. Andrew Podger, who is Professor of Public Policy at the ANU and former Secretary of the Department of Health and Ageing, said on January 22 in the AFR, ‘The claim that Australia’s welfare system is unsustainable would surprise observers in most other OECD nations which spend a much higher percentage of their GDP on social security payments. Our emphasis on flat rate, means-tested payments rather than earnings-related social insurance has limited the burden on Australian taxpayers.”

Third, our tax as a percentage of GDP has fallen steadily since 2002 from 30% to 28%, well below the OECD average of 34%.

Fourth, our health expenditure runs at about 9% to 10% of GDP which is much the same as the OECD average, mainly because of the efficiency of our public insurer, Medicare. We could save substantial amounts in the health sector however if the government would confront the vested interests in health that force up government spending – the AMA, the Private Health Insurance firms, Medicines Australia and the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.

The issue that stands out is that we need to improve our revenue base. This is where middle class and business welfare is a major problem – the tax-deductions or ‘tax expenditures’ that reduce the effective level of tax and provides disproportionate benefits to the well-off in the community. FlagPost, published by the Australian Parliamentary Library noted on January 29 2014 that Australia has the highest level of tax deductions in the OECD

  • Treasury estimate that the concessions for super contributions and tax-free payments of superannuation to persons over 60 years of age, like me, costs about $32 billion p.a. A phase-in of a 15% tax on superannuation draw-downs would quickly raise $5 billion p.a.
  • The Grattan Institute estimates that property investors get a benefit of about $7 billion p.a. through negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount. These concessions help inflate property prices and push home ownership out of the reach of young people.
  • The Grattan Institute also estimate that the government provides about $36 billion p.a. in benefits to home owners through exempting the principal house of residence from capital gains tax and aged pension entitlements. The aged pension is asset-tested, but that test excludes the principal residence. The Minister for Social Services is not prepared to address this issue. The aged pension is excluded from his review. Yet the aged pension costs $36 billion p.a. and accounts for roughly half of the welfare budget. If the government was serious about winding back welfare it would not exclude the aged pension from any review.
  • The government has also excluded from the McClure Review Tony Abbott’s $5.5 billion pa parental leave scheme in which the baby’s primary carer would receive six months leave on full pay up to a maximum of $75,000 p.a. This is middle class welfare in neon lights.

There are also large hand-outs to the corporate sector, particularly the finance sector

  • There is a subsidy of $6 billion to $7 billion p.a to the high cost Private Health Insurance companies who keep pushing up their premiums which are really private taxes.
  • If we had blinked just before Christmas, we would have missed the largesse that Assistant Treasurer Sinodinos handed out to the financial services industry. The previous government took action to stop superannuation advisers automatically collecting commissions year after year – trailing commissions. It was estimated by the Industry Super Network that this reform by the previous government in stopping these commissions would add $144 billion to private savings by 2027. But Arthur Sinodinos has announced that the Abbott Government will roll back this reform and give financial advisers a chance to plunder our superannuation savings again. The government has given the all clear to the financial advising industry to re impose a private tax on superannuation contributors. There is also no sign that the government is acting to stop the super funds owned by the big banks funnelling their cash exclusively into their parent banks for relatively low returns. It is a private tax on super contributors. That is surely abuse of power or worse but neither ACCC nor APRA seems concerned!
  • The Abbott Government has announced that it will retain the fringe benefits salary packaging for expensive, mainly foreign cars at a cost of almost $2 over four years.
  • The government shows no interest in saving $2 billion pa in drug costs by being as rigorous as New Zealand in negotiating drug prices with suppliers in Australia.
  • Large polluters will be subsidised by removing the market discipline of a price on the carbon that they emit.

There are also other ways that the Commonwealth Government could address the structural deficit. It should expand the GST to include food, education, health and financial products. Most countries do not have the exclusions that we have. The extension of the GST would raise about $16 billion this year and $70 billion by 2016-17.

In short, we need to lift taxation. Taxes in Australia are too low. It is the truth we refuse to name.

In global terms we don’t have a government expenditure problem, although a great deal of middle class and business welfare should be rolled back.

We also need to look urgently at areas of real need, particularly the disabled, those in need of special help in social housing, those who receive meagre benefits in Newstart (the dole) and refugees.

We should all share the pain in getting our budget into shape, even though the problem is nowhere as severe as we were told in the election. My concern is that so-called “dole-bludgers “of talk back fame will be the target and the wealthy and politically powerful will be largely exempt. The government has already cut aid to the poor in developing countries.

I live in hope but I am not expecting an end to the age of entitlement for the rich and powerful. Just think executive salaries, transfer pricing and tax havens! But maybe Joe Hockey has something up his sleeve!.

Given the present weakness in the Australian economy it is also  important that the reduction in our structural budget deficit is done carefully and not in the drastic way that brought so many problems in Europe.

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