Michael Keating. The Turnbull Government’s Fiscal Strategy

Dec 16, 2015

This second article, in response to the release of the Government’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) on Tuesday 15 December, focuses on the Government’s fiscal strategy. It is a companion piece to another article that focussed on the Government’s economic strategy and what the Government expects that economic strategy to achieve.

As had been well telegraphed in advance, total budget receipts are now expected to be $33.8 bn lower over the next four years of the forward estimates than expected last May in the 2015-16 Budget. This reduction in receipts mainly reflects lower than forecast commodity prices impacting on company profits and a weaker outlook for wage growth. On the other hand, and consistent with the Government’s tight fiscal strategy, spending decisions have been more than offset by other decisions to reduce expenditure elsewhere in the Budget.

In sum, the budget deficit (technically known as the “underlying cash deficit”) as projected in MYEFO shows a small deterioration of about $2 bn., or ¼ per cent of GDP for the current financial year, resulting in a projected budget deficit for 2015-16 of $37.4 bn., equivalent to 2.3 per cent of GDP. In the following three years, however, the projected deterioration in the budget deficit increases to around ½ per cent of GDP.

Notwithstanding this projected deterioration in the budget deficit, the MYEFO continues to project an eventual return to a small budget surplus, equivalent to 0.2 per cent of GDP in 2021-22, a year later than previously projected in the May Budget. For a few more years after 2021-22, small budget surpluses are projected, but by 2025-26 this latest projection shows that surplus is back down to 0.2 per cent of GDP, after which the Budget is likely to slip back into permanent deficit if present policies are maintained. In other words, even if one accepts the authenticity of these latest projections, the extent of the planned fiscal repair would appear to be inadequate.

Furthermore, given the recent history of these projections for the Budget deficit, a first question is how credible is this latest one? The Treasurer tells us that fiscal repair is a long journey and we must be patient, but equally this journey could be characterised as the pursuit of a mirage that is forever on the horizon.

More seriously, the credibility of this projected fiscal repair strategy depends upon the underlying economic assumptions and the commitments under-pinning that fiscal strategy.

The economic projections have been revised downwards, as described in the companion article to this one. These revised economic projections probably do now present a more realistic view of the future economic outlook, given the Government’s economic strategy and noting the risks involved in any such projections.

As regards the credibility of the Government’s fiscal strategy, the key commitment reported in the MYEFO is to maintain strong fiscal discipline with

  1. The expenditure to GDP ratio falling, with spending measures having to be more than offset by reductions in spending elsewhere in the Budget
  2. A ceiling on taxation revenue equivalent to 23.9 per cent of GDP
  3. A target of achieving budget surpluses building to at least a 1 per cent of GDP as soon as possible.

In principle, commitments of this kind can greatly help in maintaining the necessary fiscal discipline. They only work, however, if they are carefully calibrated so that they represent what can realistically be achieved, given the range of the Government’s other priorities and policy commitments. Equally if the fiscal commitments cannot realistically be met, nothing is achieved by them – instead the Government only ends up with broken promises and a loss of its economic credibility.

Judging by the nature and quality of the expenditure savings announced in the MYEFO, the Government may well find that it will continue to have difficulty in finding savings of sufficient quality to achieve its first commitment to a falling ratio of expenditure to GDP. Indeed, this mid-year review has already included some $20 bn. of savings which have so far been rejected by the Parliament. Now the Government is promising more of the same, with controversial measures which will reduce bulk billing for example. While administrative savings to improve compliance for welfare recipients and tinkering with the funding standards for aged care, even if acceptable, have a long history of under-delivering in practice.

The root of the problem is that the Government’s approach to achieving expenditure savings seems to be to remove funding from a lot of relatively small programs. This typically results in a loss of services, including from non-government agencies; a reduction in the quality of public functions such as the arts and culture, the environment, and numerous humanitarian causes; and various categories of people missing out, and often perceived as unfairly missing out. Instead a better approach to public expenditure control would be to focus on long-term improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of programs, especially major programs such as health and education that involve very large expenditures.

In my article, “Fixing the Budget – Part Two” published in Fairness, Opportunity and Security, I outlined how this alternative approach to expenditure control might actually work. I used evidence from a number of sources, including other contributors to this blog, and showed that net expenditure savings ‘reaching around $20 bn. annually should be possible in the budget over the next four to five years, mainly from health and infrastructure, if genuine reforms were introduced’. These savings would not be front loaded and would require some time to be realised, but frankly that would be a good thing, given the present economic outlook.

Even these quite large savings, however, would not be sufficient to achieve a return to a sustained fiscal surplus. Realistically an increase in taxation revenue is unavoidable if we want to retain the government responsibilities and quality of services that the vast majority of us expect. Indeed, when we compare ourselves with other like-minded countries, such as New Zealand, we find that we expect the same of government but are only paying 15 per cent less in total taxation as a share of GDP. It is time that our politicians recognised this basic fact and shaped the future public debate about budgets accordingly, otherwise I fear that we are doomed to endless fiscal failure.

That brings us to the Government’s second fiscal commitment, that taxation revenue will be held to no more than 23.9 per cent of GDP. The MYEFO projections indicate that adherence to that commitment would allow taxation revenue to rise by about half a percentage point of GDP in 2028-19. It is very unlikely that additional revenue limited to half a per cent of GDP will be sufficient to repair the Budget on a sustained basis. Furthermore, it is likely that the States will demand some of that additional revenue and/or be responsible for raising it.

Accordingly the value of presently limiting taxation revenue to 23.9 per cent of GDP must be doubted. In addition, any such limit privileges those programs that are funded by way of taxation concessions, which are then often able to escape proper scrutiny. Whereas in reality there is no real difference between programs funded on the expenditure side of the budget and those which are funded by way of reduced taxation. In short, this limit on the share of taxation is therefore an imperfect constraint.

Instead the Government needs to approach the task of fiscal repair and tax reform starting from a consideration of its overall fiscal requirements. As argued above, this review should lead to a recognition that some increase in the overall revenue will be required. This increase could in turn then come from some change in the overall mix of taxation and/or a review of the various tax concessions, while still allowing some scope for moderate income tax cuts sufficient to offset the impact of bracket creep over the last few years.

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