John Menadue. The Commission of Audit and facing the wrong way.

May 1, 2014

Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have been leaking confusing stories in the lead-up to the budget. A consistent theme however is that they must take tough action because of all the problems left by the previous government. They also need to justify the exaggerated rhetoric they used during the election campaign. A lot of it is confected.

The Commission of Audit will add to the confusion in focussing on expenditure when the main problem is declining revenue. The neglected Henry review of taxation will be a better guide for the future than an ideological and partisan Commission of Audit

In all this media static, I think there are several key issues that we need to keep in mind.

  • We do have a long-term structural budget deficit of about $60 billion per annum in current prices. That needs fixing. A lot of this structural deficit can be attributed to the policies of the Howard and Costello governments. During their tenure, we frittered away the large government revenue gains from the mining boom. We had one tax reduction after another. We should have been repairing the budget rather than reducing taxes. The IMF is quite clear that the Howard Costello governments must bear the major responsibility for the structural deficit. The Rudd/Gillard governments took some action but clearly not enough to address this structural budget problem. During the global financial crisis, the Rudd government increased spending and was successful in helping steer our way through a threatening world recession. Unfortunately the Rudd/Gillard governments ignored the report of Ken Henry about the need to reform our taxation system.
  • The structural deficit is caused mainly by a shortfall in revenue rather than a surge in spending. Our tax as a percentage of GDP has fallen steadily since 2002 from 30% to 28%. This is well below the OECD average of 34%. We need to give priority to fixing our revenue base which was what the Henry Review was largely about. Reducing tax deductions for superannuation, which benefit mainly the wealthy would be a good way to start.
  • We do not have a growing public sector. Our budget outlays have been trending downwards since the mid-1980s. We do need to further means test our welfare spending but compared with other OECD countries we have a more efficient and equitable welfare system than most. The Commission of Audit will be focussing on spending when the real problem is we need to focus on revenue. The Commission  is likely to face us in the wrong direction
  • Our overseas debt is increasing but it is very low compared with most other countries. Our overseas debt as a proportion of GDP is one of the lowest in the OECD. Our government debt is around 20% of GDP. For Canada it is 89%,France 94%,Germany 78%,japan 227%,Norway 29%,Singapore 104%,ROK 34%,UK 91% and US 102% As the CEO of the National Bank, Cameron Clyne, put it several months ago “Australia does have a debt problem. We don’t have enough of it. We have a lazy balance sheet. We are a AAA economy. We are having a very immature debate about debt.”
  • We must avoid the drastic action taken in Europe to reduce budget deficits where the consequences were disastrous for many governments and a lot of people. The fetish and obsession with deficits tipped many European countries into recession. There was low growth and record unemployment particularly amongst the young. This drastic action in Europe on deficits helped spawn ultra-rightist and anti-immigration political parties. We must learn from the European experience and not over-react in getting our budget deficit back under control.
  • This month the IMF told us that we face a period of sustained and lower growth. The Australian economy is struggling to grow at a sufficient rate to avoid significant increases in unemployment. Youth unemployment is now over 20% and growing rapidly. Joe Hockey should not go too hard in his first budget to reduce spending, despite the exaggerated and windy rhetoric we have had from him for many months. It is damaging consumer and business confidence. Reform has to occur but calamity is not around the corner. The Australian economy is one of the best performing in the world. In the current confused debate which has been triggered by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey one would think that we faced dire problems. We don’t and we should be careful not to worsen the situation.

The most worrying prospect is that the government looks like believing its exaggerated political rhetoric about debt and deficits.

I have outlined in my blog of February 4 ’Do our governments spend too much or do they raise too little in taxation?’ further arguments to support the above case. This blog, which I have reposted below summarises the submission which Jennifer Doggett, Ian McAuley and I made to the Commission of Audit.


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