Monday, June 15, 2015

Your charter of budget dishonesty

Thanks to abuses by both sides, it's hard to remember a time when standards of political behaviour have sunk to lower depths. The budget papers are no exception to that general decline.

Some of the tricks used to mislead us are so technically tricky it's hard to believe they could have been thought up by the politicians themselves or their youthful private advisers.

I suspect the econocrats are complicit in providing their masters with fancy tricks, though it's more likely to be the accountants in Finance than the economists in Treasury.

The worst example of that was the attempt in last year's budget to use a "medical research future fund" to allow the government to break its promise not to cut health spending while pretending it hadn't.

The Labor government's greatest offence was to conceal the pace at which its spending was growing - and its ever-growing inability to pay for its expensive new programs - by claiming it was sticking to its policy of limiting real spending growth to 2 per cent a year "on average over the forward estimates".

That proviso allowed it to claim spending was under control: every year the lack of restraint in the budget year would be made up for by super-human restraint in the later years. After Labor departed, the econocrats dubbed this the "magic asterisk" budgeting device.

The present government's greatest crime was to exaggerate the size of the budget deficit it inherited from Labor by claiming some of its own policy decisions were part of what Labor left it with. Its unrequested $8.8 billion transfer to the Reserve Bank - essentially a book entry - was only the worst of its fiddles.

In accordance with Peter Costello's charter of budget honesty act, the honest account of what Labor left for its successors was given in the pre-election fiscal outlook issued by the heads of Treasury and Finance.

But at the time of the Coalition's mid-year budget review months later, Joe Hockey claimed its figures to be the "line in the sand" separating Labor's legacy from his own efforts.

One small problem: the mid-year review incorporated the budgetary effects of all the Coalition's election promises, including its decisions to abolish the carbon and mining taxes.

Then we find this utterly dishonest claim formally incorporated into this year's intergenerational report, turning that document into grubby political propaganda.

One element of Costello's move to budget honesty - if you need an act of parliament imposing budget honesty, you clearly have an honesty problem - was to stop governments hiding the true extent of their deficits by including proceeds from the sale of assets, which he did by shifting the focus to the "underlying" cash budget balance.

Fine. But there was a loophole in the way the underlying deficit was defined, and successive governments have exploited that loophole so as to continue misleading us. Labor went for years refusing to disclose the items explaining the difference between the "headline" and underlying deficits.

But thanks to a deal the Greens did with this government, this information is now published each year in budget statement 3. Over the five years to 2018-19, the cumulative headline deficits are expected to exceed the underlying deficits by more than $68 billion, before allowing for future fund earnings of $18 billion.

The gap is explained mainly by the expected build-up in HECS debt of $49 billion, but also by $21 billion in further spending on the National Broadband Network, which is really infrastructure spending, but is excluded from the underlying deficit because it was set up as an equity investment in a business separate from the budget.

This trick - which, like all exploitation of loopholes, is technically in accordance with the rules - was initiated by Labor, as was the (reasonable) decision to switch future fund earnings back into the underlying budget balance from 2020. Just as well, since they're expected to make up such a high proportion the small surpluses projected from that time.

A final respect in which governments use the budget papers to mislead and conceal is the arbitrary exclusion of particular tables or graphs when they could prove embarrassing. Last year's unfair budget just happened to exclude the customary "cameos" showing how particular family types would be affected by the budget's welfare changes.

This year the graphs (and their underlying numbers) for revenue and spending were missing from the 10-year projection of the budget balance, which attempted to show that the budget's return to surplus hadn't been pushed back a year by all the backdowns in the budget.

All this dishonesty just adds to the political class' declining credibility in the eyes of voters.