Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lower taxes both a delusion and an illusion

I wish I'd been the first to say that last week's was the Don't Worry, Be Happy budget. Last year it was unrelieved cuts in government spending and earnest talk about facing up to the "budget emergency" and "debt crisis".

This year it's all good news for families and small businesspeople, with hardly a mention of deficits and debt – even though the outlook for both has worsened in the intervening period.

But if you always felt that Don't Worry, Be Happy was a slightly unreal attitude to take towards life, the same applies to the government's budgeting.

I fear the voters' much warmer response to this year's budget means we'll never see another tough budget from the Abbott government, no matter how long it survives. Which probably means the man who told us he could return the budget to surplus no sweat and vowed to "repay the debt" will never get it out of deficit.

Think of it from Tony Abbott's perspective: you try to do the right thing by making painful cuts and you get kicked in the teeth by the voters and almost lose your job. But throw the punters a few lollies at the expense of your spending restraint and avoid any noticeable nasties and suddenly you're back to being a good guy.

What conclusion would you draw? (As with all pollies, this reasoning is just a little self-serving, though we'll let it pass.)

But if that's bad, there's worse. This budget and last year's are built on a delusion. And if, between us – between the voters and the two sides that take turns to govern us – we really do end up with an uncontrollable budget and ever-growing public debt, it will be this delusion that's at the heart of the problem.

It's that an increase in taxes is unthinkable, because the Coalition stands for lower taxes, not higher. What makes this delusion so destructive is the way it strikes fear into the heart of Labor, the party that doesn't believe in lower taxes, but lacks the courage to say so.

There is an obvious and sensible conclusion to be drawn from our radically different reactions to Joe Hockey's two budgets. It's that voters' willingness to tolerate cuts in government spending is strictly limited.

That spending goes on plenty of particular programs, from which particular voters (and sometimes, powerful business interest groups) benefit. The really expensive programs benefit literally millions of voters: the Medicare subsidy on visits to doctors, the subsidies on prescription drugs, the provision of public hospitals and schools (including heavy subsidies to private schools), the pensions for the aged and invalids, and the pittances going to hundreds of thousands of unemployed and sole parents.

Seen in this light, it's hardly surprising the voters' tolerance of spending cuts is limited. And get this: there's no good reason it shouldn't be.

What is objectionable and ought to be condemned from every political pulpit in the country is the voter attitude that says don't stop government spending from growing, but don't ask us to pay more tax.

(Remember that when the media talk of spending "cuts" they rarely mean this year's spending will be less than last year's, just that spending will grow more slowly than it would have, being driven by inflation, population growth and promises to make programs more generous.)

If our politicians were honest, that's what they'd keep telling us: if you want it, sure, you can have it – but you'll have to pay for it. But our politics – particularly our election campaigns – have long been utterly dishonest, with pollies on both sides pretending to be able do the arithmetically impossible.

The main reason Abbott's efforts last year to get the budget heading back to surplus were so unfair was his insistence that all savings come from reduced spending, not increased tax collections (with the exception of the return to indexing the excise on petrol).

This is because most low and middle income-earners get their benefit from the government via the budget's spending side, whereas most high income-earners get their benefit via tax breaks on such things as superannuation, capital gains, negative gearing and family trusts.

Before last week, it seemed the government was learning the hard way what every expert had tried to tell it: that successful efforts to restore the budget in the past have always involved both spending cuts and tax increases.

In the context of the nation's "conversation" about tax reform, Hockey appealed for a bipartisan approach to the reform of super tax concessions, saying he had measures under active consideration. Labor responded by putting some modest reforms on the table.

But last week Abbott rejected any possibility of adverse super changes, preparing the way for an election fought on the claim that Labor stood for higher taxes while the Coalition stood for lower taxes. Caught with his guard down, Bill Shorten hit back by claiming Labor would cut the company tax rate for small businesses by 5 percentage points, not the government's 1.5 points.

Great. Tax as a political football. That will fix the deficit.

But for Abbott, lower taxes aren't just a delusion, they're an illusion. This budget and its claim to be heading back towards surplus are based on a huge unannounced increase in income tax caused by unabated bracket creep between now and 2020.