Saturday, February 2, 2013

Gillard talks tough in election year

THIS is shaping up as an unusual election year - and not because Julia Gillard has announced the election's date eight months in advance. With luck it won't be the trip to fantasyland the politicians on both sides usually take us on, in which they pretend to be able to solve all our problems without pain and we suspend disbelief.

Predictably, Gillard's unprecedented step in naming the date in her speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday almost totally diverted the media's attention from everything else she said. This is a pity because the rest is worthy of note. It was a lot more honest than you'd expect to hear from our politicians in an election year.

On our overblown whinges about the cost of living, Gillard was braver than this government has been before. Try this: ''The price we pay for electricity and gas has increased by 120 per cent in the last decade and 26 per cent in the last two years.

''Despite low inflation and low interest rates, we still feel these pressures on living standards.'' A subtle way of reminding people to put their one legitimate complaint (which it took Labor far too long to challenge) into the context of low price rises generally.

Here's something more sophisticated: ''Superannuation returns are only just beginning to recover from the hit delivered by the global financial crisis. Capital city housing prices have not grown at all in the past 12 to 18 months, compared to the average yearly gains of 8 to 10 per cent in the years before the GFC.

''These two impacts have us worried that our dreams of financial security are harder to achieve than ever before. Today, we save over 10 per cent of household income. In the years before the GFC, we used to save nothing as a nation.'' (She means Australian households as a whole saved nothing. Add in the public and corporate sectors and the nation saved a lot.)

But here's the stab of reality: ''It was a phase that could not last.''

Indeed it couldn't.

Next, some frank talk about the strong dollar. Our dollar has appreciated about 60 per cent in the past three years, she said. This presented a challenge to our economic diversity and international price competitiveness.

So what's the answer? ''Economic orthodoxy prescribes that falling terms of trade [the prices of exports relative to the prices of imports] and falling interest rates will result in a fall in the value of a currency.

''But even though our terms of trade peaked around 15 months ago and interest rates have been falling, our dollar is now actually higher.''

And ''over the coming year or two we expect to move beyond the peak of the investment phase of the mining boom''. (I expect it to come sooner than that.) ''Ordinarily, economists would tell you this change, bringing with it a lessening of demand for [foreign] capital, would be associated with a reduction in the Australian dollar that would assist export-exposed industries like manufacturing, tourism and [other] services that are exported, like education.

''However, just as the dollar's strength has persisted in this period of declining terms of trade and interest rates, we need to be prepared if it persists despite a lessening of demand for [inflows of financial] capital.''

It's all true. The sad fact is, economists do not have a good handle on what drives a country's exchange rate.

What's more, ''we cannot control a number of factors that have kept our dollar strong: like the weakness in the global economy, the close-to-zero interest rates of many nations and the increasing view that Australia is something of a safe haven''.

Good point. Remember, the exchange rate is a relative price. Our economic prospects may not be brilliant, but as long as they're better than for the other developed countries our currency may well stay stronger than theirs.

So Gillard isn't promising or predicting any marked decline in the dollar. She's warning our export and import-competing industries to adapt to a higher-than-comfortable exchange rate.

''Where we can make a difference is to other factors that matter for competitiveness and economic diversity. So we can and must focus on increasing skills, building a national culture of innovation, rolling out the national broadband network, investing in infrastructure, improving regulation and leveraging our proximity to, and knowledge of, a rising Asia into a competitive advantage.'' (I fear we're spending far more than we should on broadband.)

Next, a frank reminder of how skint the government is (and will be) because the recovery in the economy since the mild recession of 2009 hasn't led to the usual strength of recovery in tax collections.

''Revenue to government for every [dollar] of gross domestic product has been at its lowest since the recession of the early 1990s. In other words, for a given amount of economic income generated, less money is finishing in the public purse, to be used for the Australian people.''

Though the government has stuck to its medium-term fiscal strategy and spending is tightly constrained, she said, the amount collected from all sources - but particularly from company tax - is significantly lower than economists forecast.

This was part of a trend being felt worldwide and involves both domestic and global factors. ''The domestic factors include our nation being in the investment phase of the mining boom, not its peak production phase; the new saving and consumption approach of families; the slowdown in capital gains and the lack of profitability of many firms in trade-exposed areas due to the high dollar.''

Some of these factors were cyclical (temporary) and some would be longer lived.

Now for the election-year punch line: ''With pressure on revenue, it is the wrong time to be spending without outlining long-term savings strategies which show what will be forgone [not foregone, Julia] in order to fund the new expenditure.''

Gillard confirmed her intention to spend big on disability and school education. ''In the lead-up to and in the budget we will announce substantial new structural savings that will maintain the stability of the budget and make room for key Labor priorities.''

In a pre-election budget?

That will be new.