Wednesday, September 7, 2011

NSW: Not all that different but clearly better

This is the I-solemnly-promise-to-be-tough budget. Its nasties come as an IOU. When the whole state had its tongue hanging out for deliverance from the Carr-Iemma-Rees-Keneally government, some wondered just how different and better Barry O'Farrell would be.

Now we have our answer. Not all that different, but clearly better. We hope.

Incoming governments usually cut savagely in their first budget, knowing all the nastiness can be blamed on their hopeless predecessors. But O'Farrell is a man of moderate convictions and modest ambition.

He's done enough - on paper, at least - to steer the budget back to surplus in the financial year after this, but not nearly enough to produce the ever-growing surpluses necessary to permit the greatly increased spending on infrastructure he says we need.

Truth is, this budget is remarkably similar to the budgets we had from Labor: full of resolutions to be pure, but not yet. It promises annual growth in recurrent spending of less than 4 per cent in the three years of the forward estimates, but 7.1 per cent in the budget year.

It promises the most minuscule operating surpluses in the three "out years" but a collapse into deficit (to the tune of $718 million) in the budget year, after a surplus of $1264 million in Labor's last year.

To be fair, most of that deterioration isn't the fault of O'Farrell and his Treasurer, Mike Baird. Of the total worsening of almost $2 billion, about 45 per cent is explained by the withdrawal of federal government stimulus spending and the standard, but misleading, accounting treatment of it in the state budget.

Another 45 per cent is explained by the expected deterioration in state revenues after the very recent slowdown in the economy.

But that leaves a worsening of $226 million put in by O'Farrell's hand, the net cost of all his unfunded election promises.

Of the promised spending savings of $8 billion over four years, much had already been announced by the Labor government. That's particularly true of the $6 billion in savings from imposing "efficiency dividends" on government departments.

One genuinely new measure is $800 million in savings from cuts in particular spending programs. It's these that could impose pain on particular parts of the community.

But no measures were announced in the budget because none has yet been decided. Only when they are, and the public has reacted, will we know whether O'Farrell has the steel to bring the budget back to surplus.

One savings measure where O'Farrell has admitted copying Labor is his intention to limit state employees' pay rises to 2.5 per cent a year plus the proceeds from agreed cost savings.

The trouble with Labor's budgets was that they never delivered on promised future savings. The donkey never got to eat the carrot.

The only hope for O'Farrell and Baird is that they will deliver. O'Farrell's willingness to enshrine his wages policy in law is a hopeful sign. But at this stage hope is all we can do.