Thursday, May 14, 2015

Budget has reverse weaknesses, strengths to last year's

This is the budget of a badly rattled government that has put self-preservation ahead of economic responsibility. It will do much to restore Tony Abbott's political fortunes, but next to nothing to return the budget to surplus or hasten the economy's return to strong growth.

What it's not is "dull". Turns out, when Abbott promised a dull budget what he meant was one that was the opposite of last year's.

This budget will be incessantly compared with Joe Hockey's first attempt because that is its almost sole objective: to have the reverse effect of last year's.

Last year, the budget's overriding goal was to chart a path back to eventual budget surplus. By delaying the cuts in the deficit until after the economy was expected to have recovered, it won high marks for its management of the economy.

It was a budget designed to please the (big) Business Council.

Its big problem was that most of the measures taken to effect that objective were judged by voters to be blatantly unfair, hitting low and middle income-earners but not the well-off. And it broke a host of election promises.

This was why so much of it failed to get through the Senate.

Another problem was the crudeness of its measures. They did little to make government spending more efficient, but simply shifted a lot of the cost off onto pensioners, the unemployed, patients, university students and state governments.

Last year's budget had no giveaways. Its only "winners" were people who weren't hit. This budget will leave many low and middle-income families better off - although most of its key measures won't take effect until 2017.

Its big measures are reworkings of cuts proposed last year. The planned GP co-payment has been replaced by savings to be imposed on drug companies and chemists, with reform of overgenerous fees to doctors to follow.

The planned move to less-generous indexing of the age pension has been replaced by a tighter assets test, which will leave some pensioners better off, but prevent others from receiving a part-pension.

The promised more generous paid parental leave scheme has been abandoned, with the savings used to pay part of the cost of a reform of childcare subsidies, which leaves low and middle-income families better off. Some high-income parents will get less.

Despite some serious flaws in the parental leave and childcare arrangements, the various reworked measures are not only fairer, but of much higher quality and careful design. This is a big improvement on last year.

But the reworked measures will do a lot less to reduce the budget deficit over time. Overall, the budget's measures actually slow the return to surplus by more than $9 billion over four years..

More seriously, this budget does far too little to bolster spending on infrastructure while tightening up on recurrent spending.

Last year's timid "asset recycling initiative" has not been supplemented adequately at a time when the Reserve Bank's ever-more ineffective efforts to use cuts in interest rates to resuscitate the economy need all the help they can get.

The increased money for infrastructure in Western Australia and Northern Australia and other bits and pieces won't make a big enough difference.

The announced crackdown on profit-shifting by foreign multinational companies sounds impressive, but how much tax it actually raises remains to be seen.

If last year's budget was intended to please big business, this one purports to do wonders for small business. But its various new concessions are likely to do more to please small businesses than to transform their investment spending.

Don't be misled by all the happy talk of an improving economy and all the jobs to be created. We can always hope, but there is little reason to believe the budget will do much to improve business confidence.

From the perspective of economic management, this budget represents dereliction of duty.

And there's one respect in which nothing has changed: the tax perks of the well-off - superannuation concessions, negative gearing, discounted tax on capital gains, family trusts - remain untouched.