Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Jobs matter more than balancing the budget

With the budget due next Tuesday, the media are about to revert to another period of obsession with government spending, taxation, deficits and debt. I'll probably be more obsessed than most. But before the circus starts, let me offer a little pre-match pep talk.

Don't take it all too literally. Try to put it in a wider context. The budget is worthy of the attention the media give it, but not for the reason many people imagine.

The budget matters most because its changes in taxes and spending programs have so much effect on our lives. How would those changes work? Are they sensible? Who benefits from them and who loses? Are they fair or unfair?

But the budget is not the economy. It's just the federal government's incomings and outgoings. The economy, by contrast, covers the federal and state government budgets, plus the whole of business, plus the market activities of Australia's 8.2 million households, making the economy just a bit bigger and more important.

Our problems with the budget don't necessarily mean we have a problem with the economy. And fixing the budget problem would go only a small way towards fixing any problems with the economy.

It's true the budget has an effect on the economy, making it grow faster or slower, but that effect isn't as important as the effect the Reserve Bank has with its manipulation of interest rates.

What's more, though we mustn't let the budget stay in deficit forever, racking up more debt, the debt isn't huge at present and it's best to wait until the economy's returned to an adequate rate of growth before any plans to get the deficit down start having big effects.

Something the sacked former secretary of the Treasury, Dr Martin Parkinson, said last week put the budget deficit into its right context.

"Australia has fantastic opportunities in front of it. The shift of economic weight toward our region, the technological changes. If we grasp it, it's an incredibly exciting time for us," he said.

"How do we go about grasping it? Well, first we've got to get our house in order. That means we've got to get our fiscal [budgetary] situation sorted out. Once you start to do that, you can focus on the real issues."

One of the real issues is jobs. We need the number of jobs to be growing in line with the number of people wanting to work. Everyone knows that, which is why Tony Abbott is already claiming the budget will be about creating more of them.

But the jobs question isn't that simple. We tend to think it's a terrible thing when someone loses their job, and that any politician or businessperson claiming to be able to create jobs must be a good guy.

I've never been sacked or made redundant, but I'm sure it's a terrible experience. However, I also know this: we didn't get to be among the richest countries in the world without a lot of people losing their jobs.

The point is, to stay prosperous we've had to keep changing, responding to the changes occurring in the rest of the world and, even more so, to advances in technology. There's nothing like new technology to destroy jobs in some industries while creating them in others.

That's what's happening with the "disruptive change" being unleashed on us by the digital revolution. The disruption is already well advanced in my industry, but it seems clear it will be just among the first of many industries to be turned upside down.

And though this will be unprecedented in one sense, in another it's nothing new. As a big report on Australian industry reminded us last year, "Australia's short economic history has been a story of constant change".

In the 19th century, agriculture contributed more than 30 per cent of gross domestic product; today it's just 3 per cent. In the 1960s, one in four jobs was in manufacturing; today the ratio is about one in 12.

"Like other developed countries, the majority of Australia's economic activity today occurs in services industries. These industries account for more than two-thirds of GDP and about 10 million jobs," the report says.

Far more change occurs than we realise. Every year, around a million Australian workers change jobs and a quarter of a million businesses enter and exit the market.

Over the decade to 2013-14, total employment grew by 2 million. This involved 52,000 jobs lost in agriculture and 92,000 jobs lost in manufacturing, but 462,000 jobs gained in healthcare alone. Apart from mining, all the other jobs gained were in the services sector. And note this: on the whole, the additional jobs were better paid than those lost.

"Employment growth has been stronger in higher skilled occupations, and for individuals with higher levels of education. As the transition towards a knowledge-based service economy continues, it is reasonable to expect that these trends will continue," the report says.

Government spending on healthcare and education in all its forms will be a big part of all the fuss about the budget. But both areas are far too important to our future for them to be viewed purely in terms of their costs to the budget.

Stuff up education, for instance, and our transition to a knowledge-based economy and continued prosperity will be off the rails.