Michael Keating. An alternative budget strategy – Part 1

In May this year I posted five articles by Dr Michael Keating on the economic and social consequences of the recent Hockey budget. Over the next three days I will be posting three follow-up articles by Michael Keating on an alternative budget strategy.  Dr Michael Keating was formerly Secretary of the Department of Finance and Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. John Menadue

Part 1. An Alternative Budget Strategy 

 Two months later and the Abbott Government’s Budget is the worst received in living memory. There is widespread community agreement that this Budget is basically unfair.

Readers will not need reminding of the various cuts to welfare, health and education, but in the absence of the usual Budget information from the Government, perhaps the best summary of the distributional impact of this Budget has been provided by NATSEM. In short, NATSEM modelling found that by 2017-18, “Low income families with children (bottom 20 per cent) are worse off by around 6.6 per cent while single parents are worse off by around 10.8 per cent”.  In contrast “High income families are marginally better off thanks to the carbon tax removal”. And this analysis does not include other measures such as the Medicare copayment, the cuts to education and training, and possibly the harshest measure of all, the denial of access to any income support for young unemployed people every other six months.

But is there an alternative to the Government’s budget strategy  –  contrary to the assertion by the Government and its supporters that in fact ‘there is no alternative’ (which is of course a familiar refuge for conservatives)?

First, the Government is right that we do need to restore the Budget to surplus; indeed the previous Labor Government was equally committed to that, and over much the same time-frame. Furthermore, the projected rate of fiscal consolidation over the next four years – 0.6 per cent of GDP – is not draconian and seems to get the balance about right in terms of its impact on a still soft economy.

Second, Australia also faces longer term fiscal pressures, partly because of our aging population, but more importantly because of rising expectations for increasing public services as incomes rise, combined with new technological enhancements impacting particularly on health services. In short, the Treasury estimated in its most recent 2010 Intergenerational Report that these structural budget pressures were likely to add as much as a net 4½ percentage points of GDP to total outlays by 2049-50 if the (then) present policies were maintained. And since then spending pressures under the previous Labor Government probably further increased, notwithstanding some savings initiatives, because of big new spending programs associated with the Gonski reforms of schools funding and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Three years out from now, in 2017-18, these fiscal pressures start biting significantly, and given the long lead-times in effecting budget reform, prudent budgeting would start making preparations for financing these demands now by some combination of greater revenue and/or greater efficiencies.

Where the Government and its cheer squad are wrong, however, is their assumption that their proposals represent the only tenable strategy to achieve the goal of a budget surplus. In effect the Government asks us to believe that the Government’s ‘tough’ budget decisions were absolutely necessary because no alternative course was possible. For example, the retiring Secretary of the Treasury, Martin Parkinson, in an almost unprecedented intervention into the political debate, has seemed to suggest that ‘vague notions of fairness’ should not be invoked to oppose the government’s program of fiscal consolidation.  Equally Paul Kelly has pontificated in the Australian that our budgetary problems are such that the ’harsh medicine’ being handed out is necessary, and that opposition ‘reveals an immaturity in political debate that the nation was meant to have left behind decades ago’.

In fact, quite to the contrary, it is a sign of the maturity of our democratic system if there is a proper debate about the best policies for the future.  We should not be silenced by claims that any opposition to the Government’s particular strategy for restoring a budget surplus is irresponsible. Equally, however, that proper debate does require some appreciation of what are the alternatives to the Government’s proposed fiscal strategy.

Clearly the country needs something better than the present approach by the Senate. The necessary budget surplus cannot be restored while the Senate rejects so many of the Government’s savings measures, while passing most of the tax reductions. Indeed at the time of writing it is reported that the Senate’s votes have led to a situation where so far the Budget will be $7 billion worse off over the next four years than if the Budget had contained no policy changes at all.

In the following comment I therefore sketch the outlines of an alternative approach to restoring the Budget to surplus over the next four years and sustaining that surplus in the long run. Fundamentally this comment attempts to sketch how a fairer outcome could be achieved by relying more on measures to increase the revenue, and less on cuts to welfare.  By comparison, of the decisions taken in the Government’s Budget, 77 per cent of the projected improvement reflected decisions to reduce spending.

It is contended that this proposed rebalancing in favour of higher taxation can be done without damaging economic growth. In fact there is no correlation between levels of taxation and the rate of growth in GDP per capita among the developed OECD countries. Of course, there is likely to be a point where a particular tax is so high that it could affect economic growth and/or employment, but the ratio of government revenue to GDP is lower in Australia than in almost all other Western democracies, and our starting point fiscal position is also much better (see Table below). Indeed, spending some of the proceeds from higher taxation, so as to avoid the cuts to tertiary education and training and research and development, would even help to improve the rate of future economic growth.

Country*

Total Tax Revenue as a proportion of GDP 2011

(%)

General Government Net Lending as proportion of GDP 2013 (%)

General Government Net Financial Liabilities as proportion of GDP 2013 (%)

Australia

26.5

-1.4

11.8

Canada

30.4

-3.0

40.4

Japan

28.6

-9.3

137.5

United Kingdom

35.7

-5.9

65.4

United States

24.0

-6.4

81.2

OECD

34.1

-4.6

69.1

*The figures for each country refer to all levels of government, and the net lending by general government is equivalent to the Budget deficits of all governments

Source: OECD Statistics, http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/government, accessed 13 July 2014.

Note that Australia is the lowest on each of the three indicators except for tax revenue, but if borrowing is added tax revenue then Australia is the lowest at about 28% of GDP compared to more than 30% in the US.

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