Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Baird's budget is the model of conservatism, not reform

If, in these strange times, you have ever wondered what a genuinely conservative government would look like, consider the Baird government as revealed by its budget.

Premier Mike Baird and his Treasurer, Gladys Berejiklian, are cautious and responsible to a fault, putting retention of the government's AAA credit rating above all other objectives.

But, almost by definition, this makes them complacent, unimaginative and lacking in initiative. They are also claiming far too much of credit for the NSW economy's strong performance in recent years, especially relative to the other states.

It's true the state economy has been performing much better. But though the Coalition government has done more to help than to hinder, most of what happens in the economy is outside its puny control.

It's swings and roundabouts. Sometimes other states are growing more strongly than we are; at others - like now - it's our turn to lead the pack. In this our tendency to recurring property booms is a great help (though not to first home buyers).

Berejiklian tells us that "since coming to office in 2011, the NSW government has created 338,600 jobs". Really? Private enterprise played no part in it, eh?

Over the past year, we're told, NSW has created more jobs than any other state and now has the nation's lowest unemployment rate.

True. But what's equally true is that NSW has the lowest proportion of its population in employment - 60.7 per cent, against a national average of 61.1 per cent.

The economy's strong, property-fuelled growth, combined with the effects of privatising various government businesses, has led to rapidly rising budget revenue.

By maintaining fairly tight controls on government spending - particularly on the wages of government employees - Berejiklian has achieve ever-growing budget surpluses.

These surpluses have allowed a big increase in spending on infrastructure without much increase in government debt, thereby preserving our top credit rating.

With so much expansion and renewal of infrastructure needed, a government so well-placed financially and politically could afford to defy the strictures of the discredited American ratings agencies, but that's not the conservative way.

A truly conservative government is largely content with the world as it is and leaves "reform" to the radicals on the other side.

That's certainly been this government's approach. This budget only now honours an eight-year-old commitment to abolish three minor taxes on business transactions.

The government has done so because it has belatedly realised it could make up most of the lost revenue by imposing extra conveyancing duty and land tax on foreign purchasers of real estate.

Is this economically efficient? Does it fit with all the Coalition's talk about the need to encourage foreign investment?

Who cares? The government knows the impost on foreigners will be popular with voters, and is (rightly) confident it will do little to discourage investment - meaning, however, it will do little to make homes more affordable to locals.

Where did this bright idea come from? Although Berejiklian claims NSW is "leading the way in innovation" it came - as did other tax reforms adopted - from those hopeless Victorians. And Queenslanders.

This budget will keep us well away from financial bother. But it could have been much better.