Monday, June 2, 2014

Hockey crafts our first decadal budget

This is the 40th budget I've studied, and it's unique. The only decadal budget we've ever had, a budget only an incoming, Coalition government would deliver, a budget with big political costs up front, but a big pay-off way into the future.

It's obviously the budget of a new government, one confident it can blame its predecessors for its harsh cuts and broken promises. But it's such a slow-burn, delayed-reward budget that only the party that knows it's born to rule - that's confident it will stay in office for at least a decade - would have the front to introduce it.

The legendary Labor finance minister Peter Walsh was proud of persuading the Hawke-Keating government to introduce budgets showing the "forward estimates" for the three years following the budget year. At last governments would be obliged to reveal the longer-term consequences of their decisions.

That was fine until the Gillard government, struggling to reconcile its big-spending proclivities with its foolhardy promise to return the budget to surplus in 2012-13, came up with the "fiscal bulldozer" it used to push its ever-mounting spending commitments off to the years beyond the forward estimates, where they couldn't be seen.

By last year's budget this trick was wearing thin, so we saw the emergence of the antidote, the latest attempt to keep governments honest, the 10-year "medium-term budget projection". We've seen that projection in every budget-cycle document since, so we must hope it's permanent.

This is the first budget we've had built around that 10-year projection. In concept, this budget is simple: it doesn't reform spending programs or drop many programs. Rather, it shifts some of the cost of programs off onto others, including the states.

It does this partly by introducing or increasing user charges, but mainly by changing indexation arrangements.

As one of the budget's glossy spin documents reveals, the changes to university funding are "part of a government-wide decision to streamline and simplify indexation for programs". That's one way to put it; I call it changing the indexation in any way that favours the government.

A remarkably high proportion of the measures in the budget involve fiddling with indexation: suspending it for a few years, introducing it where to do so would favour the budget, changing its basis where that's what would favour the budget. You don't get this budget unless you get its preoccupation with indexation.

Why indexation? I can imagine why. The new treasurer arrives and the Treasury boffins sit him down to explain the budgetary facts of life. They start by showing him the medium-term projection, which shows that, on unchanged policies, we won't be back to surplus even after 10 years.

There's worse. You must understand, minister, that returning to a healthy rate of economic growth won't reduce the deficit. Your plan to increase productivity would be great for the economy, minister, but will do little to help the budget balance.

Really? Why? Because higher productivity soon translates into higher real wages. That's great for tax collections, particularly income tax. Trouble is, it also pushes up the spending side of the budget.
Directly or indirectly, almost all spending programs are linked to wages.

Wages are by far the greatest component of operating costs throughout the public sector - federal and state, education, health, even non-government welfare organisations.

To top it off, we index pensions to wages.

Suddenly, someone gets a bright idea. I know, we'll cut the Gordian knot by shifting from indexing to wages to indexing to prices. With one bound, Joe broke free. Even the huge cuts in overseas aid can be seen as a switch from indexing to gross domestic income to indexing to prices.

The thing about the indexation solution is that the initial savings are small, but they compound with each year that passes. So provided you're still in power, you clean up down the track.

Take the resumed indexing of fuel excise: a huge political stink over a tiny tax rise, but once that's past the revenue grows inexorably without anyone noticing.

As well, this budget creates scope for big future savings, such as discretionary increases in user charges. With universities' fees off the leash, there's huge scope for further cuts in federal funding, including pushing research costs on to students.

And anyone who thinks the maturation of the new Medical Research Future Fund won't prompt the feds to cut other grants for medical research is terribly trusting. (Whoever came up with that ruse deserves the Public Service Medal.)

One small weakness in the 10-year projection approach (about which the Treasury secretary has warned): it's just a mechanical projection, and assumes we'll go for 33 years without a severe recession.