Michael Keating. Budget Choices

Aug 28, 2014

Faced with the rejection of a significant part of its Budget, the Government is reportedly looking around at alternative compromises. Essentially the Government wants to ensure that the Budget is balanced by 2017-18. Consequently if some of the present savings are rejected the Government wants to insist that alternative expenditure cuts are adopted or there are more tax increases, or we finish up with some combination of alternative expenditure savings and tax increases.

Unfortunately, however, there is considerable public confusion about what the Budget delivered last May actually does and how it achieves its apparent return to balance in 2017-18. In order to properly debate Budget alternatives it is essential that we all have a clear understanding of the Government’s original Budget as it will be the starting point for any future negotiations.

First, there appears to be considerable agreement about the desirability of returning to a balanced budget. Certainly the Labor Party was equally committed to restoring fiscal balance, and the projected rate of fiscal consolidation over the next four years – an annual average of 0.6 per cent of GDP – seems about right given the present softness of the economy.

Second, of the actual policy decisions in the Budget, 77 per cent of the savings come from changes to expenditure programs, and only 23 per cent from decisions to increase revenues, such as the increase in petrol excise and the 2 per cent “temporary Budget repair levy”. In fact the level of public expenditure by all governments in Australia is lower than in any other developed country relative to GDP. Thus there is no compelling economic case for reducing public expenditure, and given the already tight targeting of the Australian welfare system, further reductions in public expenditure in Australia are difficult.

Nevertheless, when it took office, the Government was facing a large increase in expenditure, with real outlays projected to increase by as much as 5.9 per cent between 2016-17 and 2017-18, mainly because of the large increases in expenditure associated with the Gonski reforms of school funding and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.  In the circumstances it is not altogether surprising that the Government focussed so heavily on trying to reduce its expenditures. Instead my criticism is that the Government has focussed far too heavily on reducing people’s access to assistance and services, whereas it would have been better to achieve expenditure savings by improving the efficiency of services and the value for money, especially in relation to school education, health and infrastructure (see my posting on May 21).

Third, an often unremarked feature of this Budget is that despite the focus of decision-making on expenditure savings, total government expenditure is still projected to be 24.8 per cent of GDP in 2017-18, which is actually more than it was in 2012-13 when Australian Government outlays were only 24.1 per cent of GDP[1].  In effect without the Government’s expenditure savings decisions, the projected budget balance would have been $20.3 billion worse in 2017-18, which would have meant a projected Budget deficit in 2017-18 equivalent to 1 per cent of GDP.

Fourth, because the Government has in net terms only been able to stabilise the growth of expenditure and not actually reduce it relative to GDP, this has meant that much of the real heavy lifting to restore the Budget balance in this Budget is on the revenue side. Furthermore, this increase in revenues does not come from actual decisions to increase taxes, but rather from bracket creep as peoples’ incomes rise and they move into higher tax brackets. Thus Budget receipts are projected to rise from 23.1 per cent of GDP in 2012-13 to 24.9 per cent of GDP in 2017-18. That is over this period receipts are projected to rise by 1.8 per cent of GDP whereas expenditures are projected in the Budget to fall only marginally as a percent of GDP and arguably they will actually rise a little, depending on the base date chosen.

So what are we to make of these key facts describing the Government’s Budget? Perhaps the most important conclusion is that the Government does not really have a plan to restore the Budget to surplus even if it could get its Budget passed in its entirety. This is because as it stands the Budget is relying heavily on increasing taxes through bracket creep, rather than adjusting the tax scales for inflation, and it must be questioned whether this is really sustainable.

Indeed the Secretary of the Treasury, Martin Parkinson, has pointed out that the Government’s present budget projections, which keep the income tax scales fixed, will ‘pull someone on average full-time earnings into the 37 per cent tax bracket from 2015-16, and will increase the average tax rate faced by a taxpayer earning the projected average from 23 to 28 per cent by 2024-25 – an increase in their tax burden of almost a quarter’.  Furthermore, Deloitte Access Economics has calculated that fixing the Budget in this way will be highly regressive. For example, someone earning between $35000 and $40000 will be paying 25 per cent more tax by 2017-18, with their average tax rising from 13 per cent to 16.3 per cent, while high income earners with salaries of $200000 or more will face only a 1.8 per cent lift in their tax.

Realistically it must be expected that in the next few years the Government will feel compelled to introduce tax cuts at least sufficient to offset these effects of bracket creep. But that means that the Government’s projected budget balance by 2017-18 then disappears unless there are further expenditure cuts or there are other forms of tax increases.

In a previous comment on an ‘Alternative Budget Strategy’ (posted July 22/ 23) I showed how additional revenue totalling some $42 billion could be raised in 2017-18 by real tax reform that reduced various tax expenditures (ie concessions) and closed a number of tax loopholes that are presently used to avoid paying tax. This alternative approach would result in a much fairer budget and would still restore the budget balance. Furthermore this alternative would be much more credible than the Government’s budget which rests on increases in taxation that cannot be sustained. Instead for the moment the Government’s budget projections of a return to balance represent a sleight of hand, and really cannot be believed. Sooner or later the Government will have to introduce further measures, but after all the recent fuss and distrust, what chance will these have?

[1] The estimated Budget outlays for last year, 2013-14, was reported in the Budget to be equivalent to as much as 25.9 per cent of GDP, but this high figure reflects some deliberate bringing forward of expenditures by the new Abbott Government, and also the payment of $8.8 billion to increase the capital of the Reserve Bank, which has no direct economic impact. Without this payment Budget outlays in 2013-14 would have only been 25.3 per cent of GDP compared with the reported 25.9 per cent and only half a percentage point above the projected 24.8 per cent of GDP in 2017-18.

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