JOHN MENADUE.- Economic and money mismanagement

The Liberals claim that they are better  economic and money managers. But there is scanty evidence to support that claim.

Michael Pascoe in The New Daily has listed $8.1 b of Morrison Government rorts. They range through the Regional Growth Fund,Building Better Regions,the Urban Congestion Fund and more and more like the Inland Rail Project. See https://thenewdaily.com.au/news/national/2020/03/03/michael-pascoe-liberal-grants-costs/

For Party political purposes the The Morrison Government has raided the public  purse on an unprecedented scale. Not quite good, let alone trustworthy managers of public money.And Scott Morrison’s earlier management in the tourism sector is not at all reassuring.

Then there is management of the economy. The record is even worse.

In the pre election budget Josh Frydenberg boasted that the budget was ‘back in the black’. But we know it wasn’t true then and even less true today. As Michael Keating has pointed out we have a very sluggish economy and the claimed budget surplus is fading rapidly.
See The Budget surplus: is it believable and at what cost?

Having been so foolishly critical of  Labor’s stimulatory GFC package Scott Morrison would now be embarrassed to embark on a similar stimulatory package.

Despite the Liberal Party propaganda and an uncritical media the evidence just does not support a commonly held view that the Liberals are better money and economic managers.

Our economy was in slow gear well before the fires and the coronavirus hit. The Reserve Bank’s consistent reduction of interest rates was a clear sign that the government’s budgetary policies were failing.

Only two Australian treasurers have been awarded the coveted Euromoney ‘Finance Minister of the Year’ award. Paul Keating won it in 1984 in recognition of the government’s role in structural reform. Wayne Swan won the award in 2011 in recognition of the government’s successful response to the Global Financial Crisis. It is unlikely that recent treasurers, Joe Hockey , Scott Morrison or Josh Frydenberg would make the shortlist for this award!

But what about Peter Costello who because of his performance as treasurer in the Howard government is now treated by the media as a financial guru.

With record revenues in boom times, Peter Costello introduced measures which have left a very serious and damaging legacy. Continuing chronic budget deficits are very much due to Peter Costello. The Howard and Costello government wasted the buoyant revenues of the mining boom.

The parliamentary budget office put this problem in the following terms.

Over two-thirds of the five percentage points of GDP decline in structural receipts over the period 2002/3 to 2011/12, was due to the cumulative effects of the successive personal income tax cuts granted between 2003/4 and 2008/9. A further quarter was the result of a decline in excise and customs duties as a proportion of GDP. Significant factors driving this trend included the abolition of petroleum fuels excise indexation in the 2001/2 Budget and the decline in the consumption of cigarettes and tobacco over the period.

The IMF came to much the same conclusion. It identified two periods of Australian ‘fiscal profligacy’ , both during the Howard turn in office – in 2003 at the start of the mining boom and during his final years in office between 2005 and 2007. (SMH Jan 11, 2013).

In short, our continuing structural budget deficit is due in substantial part to the Howard/Costello government’s laxity with government spending in it’s last years in office. We blew the benefits of the mining boom when we should have been doing more to improve the underlying budget position.

The Howard/Costello years locked in negative gearing concessions and generous treatment of capital gains which have been at great cost to the government in lost revenue and priced many young Australians out of the housing market.

There were also tax-free superannuation benefits, family trust concessions, franking credit rebates and a whole series of decisions on spending and tax that have caused continuing budget difficulties and the skewing of the tax system and the economy in favour of older generations. There really has been generational theft.

These tax concessions introduced by Howard/Costello cost the budget over $50 billion a year. We are paying a very heavy price for the budget damage that Peter Costello inflicted over a decade ago.

The other major cause of the structural deficit is that the Rudd government spent heavily to counter the global financial crisis. It was more successful than almost any other government in the world in avoiding a major recession and unemployment, but when the recovery took hold, the Rudd and Gillard governments did not focus on the structural deficit problem particularly as identified by the Henry tax review. Some improvements were made to reduce middle-class welfare like the subsidy to private health insurance and the over-generous concessions that Peter Costello had given to superannuants. But the improvements were nowhere near enough.

Outside the budget context, the Coalition government has shown mismanagement in critical areas.

  • It allowed the greed and abuse by our banks to continue year after year. It refused to intervene, partly because it didn’t want to offend its political friends and partly because of an ideological view that government intervention and regulation should be ‘light’.
  • Over $20 billion will have to be written off the dud NBN for it to have a viable and modern future. The Coalition’s performance in the NBN debacle must rank as the most wasteful infrastructure project in our history.
  • Barnaby Joyce’s inland rail will need a substantial capital write-down because its operations are unlikely to be economic.
  • The opening, closure and opening again of Christmas Island at a cost of $185 million does not suggest a government that is good at business management. It was all political posturing at the expense of the taxpayer.
  • There has been widespread waste and lack of due process in the provision of security and support services for asylum seekers marooned in Manus and Nauru.
  • The Coalition has committed $50 billion plus, for the twelve French submarines to be built in Adelaide. We could have bought modern submarines off the shelf that would be much cheaper and would be delivered much earlier. For a 300% effective rate of protection for the French submarines, we will have an increase of less than 2,000 employees. The motor vehicle industry, which the government forced to shut down had a rate of protection of less than 8% and employed 200,000 people. What a price we are paying for Christopher Pyne. One thing that is certain is that this submarine project will leave major budgetary headaches for Australia in the years ahead. None of this sounds like good business management.
  • The Coalition continues to make it virtually impossible to import second-hand cars on any worthwhile scale. The restrictions on imports of second hand vehicles were imposed to protect our motor vehicle industry. But the motor manufacturing industry has now been closed. Consumers are denied choice because the government has decided to side with the vested interests in the motor distribution sector.

To top off this poor record in money and economic and management we have an economy  which is promoting great inequality and even more  concerning is seriously degrading our planet. Our planet is in increasing peril, our rivers  have become unhealthy and we are unable to afford the level of public services that we once had.

One must then ask the question that despite the rhetoric, why does the Liberal Party has such a poor record in economic and business management.

The reason I suggest is that the Liberal Party has ideological blinkers about the role of government in the economy and particularly the need for appropriate regulation. Following the ideology of Reagan and Thatcher, the Coalition places far too much confidence in markets and lacks an appreciation of the appropriate role for government in our mixed economy. The Coalition is handicapped and hidebound by an out-dated ideology about markets and private enterprise. The tide has turned in the world that now sees the failures of the market system. The Coalition has failed to catch up. That is why we are seeing the failure of the Liberal Party in economic and business management. Its ideology has passed its use-by date.

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John Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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