MICHAEL KEATING.. What should we do with the $60 bn left over from JobKeeper?

The discovery of an error of $60 bn in the costing of JobKeeper raises the issue of what should be done with this money? However, as JobKeeper was always incomplete these deficiencies should be the first call on this extra money.

As is well known the cost of JobKeeper was over-estimated by as much as $60 bn. Understandably this has started a debate about what should be done with the money, with some arguing that the money should be returned to the budget, and others promoting other worthy ways of spending it.

I have argued in a previous post, (Pearls & Irritations, 21 May)MICHAEL KEATING. When should the budget deficit be unwound?, that a budget deficit which matches a shortfall between aggregate demand and the supply capacity of the economy can readily be financed out of the excess savings that are therefore available. In other words, we should not treat the budget deficit as an objective of economic policy, but rather as an instrument to balance demand and supply in the economy and thus help the achievement of full-employment and increasing living standards.

Against this background, it is useful to consider the dual purposes of JobKeeper. The first is to maintain demand by paying people who would otherwise be unemployed so that they can keep spending at their previous rate. The second is to maintain the supply capability of the economy, by ensuring that businesses that would otherwise close or substantially reduce their hours can instead maintain their ongoing relationships with their employees, suppliers and customers, and can readily re-expand when restrictions are lifted.

In that case, if it costs $60 bn less to meet these purposes, and thus maintain the balance between demand and supply, there is a prima facie case for returning that $60 bn to the budget.

However, JobKeeper, while being a very useful initiative, was always incomplete and inadequate and more assistance will be needed to fully achieve its purposes. Accordingly, there is a strong case against the return of all of the $60 bn for the following reasons.

First, as many have pointed out as many as two million employees are not eligible for JobKeeper payments. These employees include casuals who have been with their employer less than 12 months, temporary visa holders – many of whom have been here for years as they wait to become permanent Australian citizens – employees of universities, and employees of some foreign businesses.

Quite apart from the evident unfair discrimination against these people, they all contribute to the Australian economy in just the same ways as other employees who are eligible for JobKeeper: their wages are used to pay for Australian goods and services, and these employees’ contribution to the supply capacity is no different to any other employees. Indeed, there are some agricultural industries that are heavily dependent on these non-eligible employees.

So consistent with the original purpose of JobKeeper it would make sense to expand its coverage to include all these groups of employees.

Second, as the lockdown restrictions are being lifted progressively, the pace of economic recovery is likely to be most uneven across industries.

There are some industries and firms whose turnover may well have recovered sufficiently that they would no longer be eligible for the scheme before the end of September. Arguably the review of JobKeeper in June should adjust the eligibility conditions so that payments cease where firms’ turnover has recovered sufficiently.

However, there are other firms whose turnover is most unlikely to have fully recovered by the time when JobKeeper payments cease at the end of September, and it would be best if their assistance continued a while longer.

In addition, there is likely to be some long-term damage to the economy from the recession. In particular, the government is expecting net overseas migration to fall by 30 per cent this financial year and by 85 per cent next year. As migration accounts for a bit more than half of Australia’s population growth, this fall in immigration will have a significant detrimental impact on housing demand.

Already the housing industry is calling for assistance in the form of a government grant for new home purchases. Personally, I am sceptical about such grants – because of supply constraints, they have mostly disappeared in price increases in the past. This time, such supply constraints may not be so binding, but it would be more equitable to take advantage of the opportunity to build more social housing, for which there is a dire need.

Other industries that will clearly require more ongoing funding are education and training, especially universities which were being heavily cross-subsidised by foreign students, and the arts. In both cases, JobKeeper has not provided an effective lifeline, and their capability has been damaged so that they will not get back to their previous levels of employment quickly once the restrictions are lifted.

Finally, the increased debt incurred by both households and business will overhang the economy for some years. Spending will not resume at previous levels quickly as people try to repay their debts and restore their savings. In these circumstances governments should continue providing some support and that will slow the reduction in the budget deficit.

Whether these various additional demands on the budget add up to $64 bn is a matter of detailed arithmetic. But that is what the Treasury should be counting now, and that should guide what is done with the newly found $60 bn.

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Michael Keating is a former Secretary of the Departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Finance and Employment, and Industrial Relations.  He is presently a visiting fellow at the Australian National University. 

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5 Responses to MICHAEL KEATING.. What should we do with the $60 bn left over from JobKeeper?

  1. Avatar Keith Hugh McLachlan says:

    Jobkeeper is basically using employer’s wage and PAYG data to verify payments back to the employer at the rate of $1500 per fortnight to eligible employees. Eligible employees are those that confirm that they are permanent, are casual for 1 year+, and are not on Jobseeker or with another claimant employer.
    After June 30 End of Year change the payment to the lesser of $1500 per fortnight or the average gross earnings of the identified employees for the prior 12 months.
    Effects:
    This change should leave low-paid casuals who are eligible employees no worse off than they would have been pre Corona and with the option of Jobseeker if absolutely necessary.
    This change will provide fairness, and a pool of cash to extend funding to other groups who fall between the cracks and outside the employer’s reach – for the next 3 months.
    It will become evident in early August that Jobkeeper claims will reduce with declining eligibility as businesses return to work and this will provide a quantifiable pool of cash to extend funding to those in recent poverty.

  2. Avatar Chek Ling says:

    My passion would be to spend some of the $60bn “windfall” on pokies buy-back. Back in 2000 the total amount of taxes the Goss Queensland State Government got from pokies including the conscience- anaesthetising “Gambling Community Benefit” funds were a little less than the amount lost by problem gamblers. I heard recently that Goss regretted introducing pokies in his watch, later in life. Reminds me of opium in China. Only, the taxes were vital to keep its Republican government in life-support. Its treasury was in the hands of four foreign banks!
    Another passion of mine is social housing, say like in Vienna at Wohnpark Alt-Erlaa. This beautiful public housing includes seven rooftop swimming pools and saunas, two kindergartens, several tennis courts and two medical centres. Rents are capped at 25% of your income, and you have a lifelong right to your home.
    Ah, it’s an ill wind … But Scomo’s been to Damascus and back, a pilgrimage to reflect on the meaning of Covid-19.

  3. Avatar Malcolm Crout says:

    Considering that supply side economics is totally discredited, this argument about deficits and surpluses is as dead as the dodo. A sovereign Government who has a monopoly on currency issue is never revenue constrained. The only constraints are available real resources and Australia has abundant stocks including idle resources that could be brought into play. Spend the bloody stuff for pity’s sake! And stop bleating about inflation risk which is so unlikely in present world conditions as to be insignificant. Only one thing is certain. Unless this Government immediately primes the pump substantially more than it has already done so, then the economy is headed for the freezer.

  4. Avatar Ross says:

    Whether the $60 billion is somehow lost or saved is irrelevant. As John Kelly has pointed out the Reserve bank created the cash for the Jobkeeper scheme out of thin air.
    You may like to ask how did the government suddenly “find” $130 billion so quickly.
    The answer is the same place they will “find” the odd $550 billion for this year’s federal budget.
    But you never know the government may re-introduce robodebt to get most of $70 billion back so all will be well in the end. (Sarcasm alert)

  5. Avatar Michael Immerman says:

    It seems to me that one of the ways the money could be spent is by returning to those who withdrew money from their super the amount they withdrew. Next to things like expanding jobkeeper, building public housing and investing in education and training. Those people were very vulnerable and were left even worse off.

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