Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Why a little more redistribution is justified

So, has the budget led to an outbreak of class warfare? Only if Julia Gillard's a lot luckier than she's been so far. That is, I doubt it. What I don't doubt is that her disparaging remark about the north shore was a calculated attempt to get a bit of class consciousness going to accompany her give-and-take budget.

But loyalty to parties on the basis of class is long gone. These days people's vote is as likely to be guided by the party divide on social issues as economic ones. Then there's the rise of the "aspirational" voter - people who don't mind seeing the better-off favoured by the government because they hope to be better off themselves one day.

If the public's reaction to this budget is any guide, we've either all become aspirationals or, more likely, a lot of people don't know which side their bread's buttered on. Wayne Swan brings down a Robin Hood budget and, according to last week's Herald poll, 43 per cent of respondents think it will leave them personally worse off and only 27 per cent expect to be better off. Talk about living in a fog.

Be in no doubt: this budget is the most highly redistributive in years. Whether out of desire to awaken class loyalties, to soften the blow of the carbon tax, or to buy votes, this budget gives quite a bit of money to low- and middle-income families.

The discretionary increase in the means-tested family benefit, to take effect from July next year, is well targeted to families in greater need.

The schoolchildren's bonus, the first payment of which will be made within a few weeks, goes only to parents eligible for the family benefit. It's a big improvement on the education tax refund, which mainly benefited those parents able to spend big on eligible equipment and savvy enough to keep receipts and make the claim.

The new income-support supplement, to take effect next March, will give people on the dole a princely 57? a week extra, reducing by a sliver the extent to which we require them to subsist below the poverty line. It is, nevertheless, the first real increase to the dole for more than 20 years. The budget plans for increased spending on dental health for the needy and a start to the national disability insurance scheme in July next year.

But though these measures are welcome, they hardly represent the big increase in welfare their critics claim. According to the calculations of Professor Peter Whiteford, of the University of NSW, their cost of $8 billion over four years represents an increase of less than 1 per cent of total budget spending on health and social security.

Helping to pay for these increases are cuts aimed squarely at the better-off. The top 1 per cent of taxpayers, earning more than $300,000 a year, will have the tax break on their superannuation contributions cut from 31.5? in the dollar to 16.5?, putting them on a par with most workers.

The provision allowing workers over 50 to make low-taxed super contributions up to $50,000 a year - that is, to exploit the salary sacrifice rort (as I've been doing) - will be cut to $25,000 from July. Those with super balances under $500,000 were to have been given an exemption from the cut, but this has been deferred for two years, thus largely closing the salary sacrifice loophole.

Despite the hard-luck stories, workers not on high incomes can't afford to sacrifice salary in this way.

The capped 50 per cent discount on the tax on interest income, which now won't happen, would have benefited the better off, as does the tax offset on net medical expenses, which is to be virtually eliminated.

Almost everyone - whether on the right or the left - automatically assumes company tax is a tax on the rich. So those excitable souls claiming the budget was a plan to "smash the rich" list as Exhibit A the decision not to cut the rate of company tax by 1 percentage point, as had been promised.

But Australian shareholders - including Australian super funds - get tax credits for the company tax paid on their behalf. And tax economists argue that, in the end, the burden of company tax is borne mainly by wage-earners.

So it's not at all clear to me that company tax is a tax on business or on the rich. Business was never terribly enthusiastic about the 1 per cent cut; I'm unimpressed by the bitter tears it's shedding now.

When you combine this Robin Hood budget with the way the tax cuts linked to the carbon tax are limited to individuals earning less than $80,000, with the way the temporary flood levy was aimed at the better off, with the various previous measures to reduce upper-middle class welfare and with the 2009 discretionary increase in the age pension (the largest real increase in the pension ever), you do have to conclude this Labor government, particularly under Julia Gillard, is very redistributive - though its record isn't unblemished.

And unless you're happy to see the gap between rich and poor widening - as it has been - that redistribution is not unwarranted.

According to figures from the Bureau of Statistics, between 2003-04 and 2009-10, average household disposable income rose by 26 per cent in real terms.

But the income of the bottom fifth of households rose by 17 per cent, whereas the income of the top fifth rose by 32 per cent.

Remember that next time you hear highly paid business people banging on about the budget being "more about how we carve the pie, rather than how we grow the pie". It was about time.