Monday, November 25, 2013

Budget will test Abbott's mettle

Will the Abbott government ultimately be judged a great reforming government or the worst money manager since Whitlam? In a delicious irony considering all the phoney outrage Abbott & Co expressed on the subject in opposition, this judgment will turn on how they respond to the budget's deep structural problems.

That conclusion leaps out from John Daley's latest budget report for the Grattan Institute. Normally, governments muddle through, taking some tough measures but not enough. In this case, however, Tony Abbott will need to take a lot of tough decisions or be judged a failure who ran a permanent budget deficit and incurred ever-mounting public debt because he lacked the guts to make us pay our way.

Daley finds that, on existing policies, federal and state governments face a decade of structural (operating) budget deficits, which by 2023 could reach 4 per cent of gross domestic product, or $60 billion a year in today's dollars.

About a quarter of this $60 billion arises from the Coalition's election promises. Some of these - the disability scheme and increased education spending - were common with Labor, but not the replacement of the carbon tax with "direct action" (which adds $5 billion a year), nor the more generous paid parental leave scheme.

Three-eighths of the $60 billion arises from the projected increase in spending on healthcare. This comes not so much from ageing as from the unceasing increase in both the supply of and the demand for ever-more-effective, but ever-more-expensive health technology.

One-eighth of the $60 billion arises from "welfare" - mainly, the sad fact that we won't be able to keep widening the income gap between sole parents and people on the dole, and the rest of us, including even people on the pension.

That leaves about a quarter of the $60 billion explained by the likelihood that our return to normal cyclical conditions will involve significantly lower prices for mineral exports and thus lower tax collections.

We can't grow our way out of this deficit. Being "structural", it already assumes the economy is back to growing normally. And above-average growth has much the same effect on both sides of the budget.

With one exception, the only way a structural deficit can be reduced is to make explicit decisions to cut spending or increase taxes. Worse, you have to resist the temptation to make any further unfunded spending or tax-cut decisions just to stop the structural deficit getting bigger.

The exception is bracket creep, which Daley estimates could contribute about $16 billion a year to closing the $60 billion gap. No doubt we'll get a lot of creep, though you can't avoid income-tax cuts for a decade.

Daley's report explodes some budget myths. One dear to the Coalition's heart is that the problem can largely be fixed by eliminating "waste and extravagance", including a bloated public service and (narrowly defined) middle-class welfare.

Sorry, there just aren't enough savings in anything you could do that is remotely feasible. You're talking chickenfeed.

Then there's business' dream that the solution is simple, if a little difficult politically: just cut government spending to fit (and cut company tax while you're at it). When last week's report card from the International Monetary Fund appeared to advocate "sizeable cuts in projected spending", the usual suspects raised a rousing cheer.

Sorry, leaving aside changes to the age pension, the best Daley can come up with on the spending side would produce savings of just $25 billion a year.

These would require reducing spending on infrastructure by a third, halving federal and state industry support, increasing university HECS fees, greatly increasing school class sizes and getting rid of the industry subsidies hidden in the pharmaceutical benefits scheme and defence spending (think subs).

The truth no one wants to know is that we won't get the budget back to structural balance without explicit tax increases. Daley shows, however, we could go a long way by getting rid of some inefficient and unfair tax expenditures, such as the capital gains tax exemption for the family home, the 50 per cent gains-tax discount and negative gearing (worth $22 billion a year in total).

But Daley's big one is retirement income support. Phase up eligibility for the pension or access to super to 70 and save $12 billion a year. Include the family home in the age pension assets test and save $7 billion. Make the super contributions tax fairer and save $6 billion a year.

What's that? You don't see Abbott and Joe Hockey doing anything much on that list? Well, stand by for endless budget deficits and ever-mounting government debt. No guts, no avoiding disgrace.