Wednesday, August 24, 2016
I got an email from a retired couple who said they'd be happy to pay more – a 15 per cent goods and services tax, medical co-payments or even a 10 per cent increase in income tax – if only it was guaranteed that the money was spent "to pay down debt, not rack up more with populist promises".
Unfortunately, there are no nice people in politics. Or, if a few start out that way, they soon get it beaten out of them.
Last week, in his first big speech since he was re-elected – the one so rudely interrupted by some woman who thought the mistreatment of asylum seekers on remote islands was something worth drawing to our attention – Malcolm Turnbull decided to tug on the heartstrings of nice people everywhere.
"We sing Advance Australia Fair," he said, "but there's nothing more unfair than saddling our children and our grandchildren with mountains of debt that we have created because our generation could not live within its means.
"If we aren't prepared to make the tough choices today – younger Australians, future generations, will be forced to pay back the debt through a combination of higher taxes and a lower quantity or diminished quality of government services. In short, through lower living standards than they would otherwise have enjoyed."
Sorry, but that's not true. It's roughly the opposite of the truth. And I don't believe someone as smart as Turnbull actually believes it.
But before we go on, how's this for one of the "tough choices" about fairness Turnbull wants our elected representatives to agree to in this year's budget: cutting the dole – which is a princely $38 a day – and other welfare payments by $4.40 a week, while agreeing to tax cuts of $6 a week for people earning more than $87,000 a year.
The justification for the cut in benefits is that it represents the belated removal of the "energy allowance" originally paid in compensation for the carbon tax. Since Tony Abbott abolished that tax, the allowance is no longer needed.
Now that is a tough choice. Is it fair to cut the benefits of low income-earners because we're "living beyond our means" while we cut the taxes of high income-earners?
But are we living beyond our means? What does that phrase mean, anyway?
Is any person or government that's borrowing money living beyond their means? That's what the politicians who keep repeating that line hope we'll assume.
A moment's reflection reveals its weakness. Say your offspring borrow a frighteningly large amount so they can live in a home of their own. Does that mean they're living beyond their means?
No, of course not. Not if they can afford the repayments. And not when you remember that the house they've bought will deliver them a flow of services for as long as they own it.
What service? It's providing them with somewhere to live – and thus relieving them of the expense of renting.
If I told you of a couple with a debt of $600,000, would you automatically assume they had nothing to show for that debt? No, you'd assume they must have bought a house and may well have made a sound investment.
But when politicians tell us the government owes many billions of dollars, many of us assume there's nothing to show for all that spending and borrowing. Which is just what game-playing politicians hope we'll assume.
But it's usually not true. What do governments have to show for all their borrowing? Public infrastructure – roads and motorways, bridges, railways and bus fleets, hospitals and schools, prisons and police stations and all manner of other facilities.
All those things contribute to our standard of living and to the efficiency of our economy. Do you think we'd be better off had the money not been borrowed and those things not been built?
Since we worry about our children and grandchildren, what kind of physical Australia do we want them to inherit? One with rundown and inadequate public facilities – one where it's really hard to get around, where roads and trains and hospitals and schools are grossly overcrowded?
If we continue letting our politicians demonise public debt, that's the world we'll be leaving for our descendants.
It's true we'll be leaving debt to our children. But we'll also be leaving them a better equipped, better educated and healthier Australia. Does this add up to something to worry about or feel guilty over?
According to the federal budget papers, almost all of the expected underlying cash deficit of $37 billion this financial year will be spent on infrastructure.
Most infrastructure spending is done by the state governments. Much of what they spend each year building facilities that will serve the community for 30 or 40 years or more is covered by that year's tax revenue (including federal grants), the rest is borrowed – to be serviced and repaid by the people who'll still be using those facilities.
It's the self-same bargain that was made with our generation. Sounds a fair and sensible way to keep building a better future.