Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Despite apparent contradictions, Swan shows courage

Julia Gillard and her government may be suckers, but they deserve an even break. Every budget contains things to criticise but, overall, this one is good. We were warned it would be tough and it is - especially on the better-off.

It could have been more excruciating - economists are hard to please when it comes to inflicting pain - but it's tougher and more courageous than all but the first of the 12 budgets the now-sainted Peter Costello delivered.

Wayne Swan plans to tighten up on people with company cars, private health insurance and family trusts. He will get at those who pay their university fees up-front, mothers who stay at home and wealthier couples with dependent children and older workers using salary sacrifice to supplement their super.

Not only is this the first budget in nine years not to include a tax cut, it imposes the temporary flood tax levy. Tony Abbott will be righteous in his condemnation - but the man's so relentlessly negative he would have ripped into the budget whichever way Gillard jumped, adjusting his criticism to fit.

So why is a government that is travelling so badly in the polls, and without a majority in either house, proposing so many unpopular measures? Because there's nothing like having your back to the wall to focus the mind.

This government, in both its incarnations, got nowhere trying to be popular and to avoid offending anyone who matters. What it desperately needs is respect. The way to win it is to be seen as willing to make the hard decisions needed to secure our future.

Whatever the voters' immediate reaction, I suspect in time there will be a grudging recognition that Gillard has guts.

But what exactly is the problem? Why the obsession with the returning the budget to surplus? And what's the tearing hurry - why must it happen in 2012-13 without fail?

It's true Gillard's motive for hastening the return to surplus is heavily political. She upgraded a forecast to a promise in the election campaign and is afraid of what the opposition would say if it wasn't kept, whatever the reason.

Even so, the justification for a quick return is soundly economic - especially if you don't like paying higher interest rates.

The trouble for Gillard is it's a complicated and confusing story. Swan says the deep cuts in spending are necessary to return the budget to surplus because the economy isn't as strong as expected and tax revenue is weaker than expected, which seems contradictory. If the economy's not travelling strongly, what's the hurry? It's that the causes of the present patchiness - the lingering effects of the financial crisis, the recent natural disasters and maybe even the weakness of retail sales - are temporary.

Come next year, the economy's likely to be roaring ahead, fuelled by sky-high commodity prices and a huge mining construction boom that surely will run and run.

So the faster Swan can get the budget back to surplus and keep it growing (paying off the public debt in the process), the more the budget acts as a counterweight to the booming private economy, thus easing inflation pressure as the economy starts running out of production capacity.

This will reduce the need for the Reserve Bank to apply its own brakes: higher interest rates. But here's another apparent contradiction: economists are predicting the Reserve will raise rates again within a month or two. Will this prove Swan was lying or that his budget has failed?

No. Improvements in the budget balance aren't a perfect substitute for higher rates in the struggle to stop the economy's demand growing faster than its ability to supply. But the greater the improvement in the budget balance, the fewer rate rises will be needed.

To ensure this commodity boom doesn't end in tears and and that it ends with something to show for it, we need to, first, keep demand and supply growing in tandem and thus avoid inflation pressure and, second, increase our savings from the proceeds of the boom and, third, ensure the extra jobs go to our own people rather than immigrants.

The early return to surplus helps with the first two objectives; the budget's new programs to improve vocational training and increase the workforce participation of disadvantaged workers helps with the third.

Not a bad effort.