Monday, September 5, 2016
Morrison isn't alone in fearing that our completion of 25 years of continuous economic growth has left many of us complacent, unaware of the tough measures we needed to put up with to make this success possible and, equally, the further discomfort needed to keep it going.
There's truth to this, no doubt. But I doubt that scare tactics are the way to puncture that complacency and win wider acceptance that we all need to take some pain for the greater good.
Morrison's claim in his latest speech that, given a host of dire but unstated assumptions, federal gross debt could reach a trillion dollars in a decade, is an easy way to get a headline but is unlikely to make anyone more amenable to unpopular budget measures.
Does the man not realise that, after decades of dishonest dealing with voters by both sides of politics, no politician has the credibility to have such extreme claims believed – or even remembered?
More fundamentally, do Morrison and his Treasury advisers not realise that their practice of exaggerating the budget deficit by refusing to distinguish between capital and recurrent spending – by, in effect, claiming that failing to pay for long-lived public infrastructure fully in the year of construction is financially irresponsible – is wearing thin and robbing them of support from the more economically literate?
The truth, if the budget papers are to be believed, is that the recurrent budget is already close to balance – which is not to say we shouldn't now aim for a period of recurrent surpluses so as to liquidate the part of our accumulated debt arising from earlier recurrent deficits.
No, a better way to win public acceptance of unpleasant budget measures is to demonstrate that the burden of restraint is being spread fairly between the bottom, middle and top income-earners.
The biggest single reason the Coalition has, from the beginning, met such resistance to budget repair from the public – and, therefore, the Senate – is its blatant lack of concern for fairness.
Remembering our tightly means-tested welfare system, to start from the premise that the budget has a spending problem, but not a revenue problem, is to pre-ordain that your savings measures will focus on spending programs benefiting the bottom and middle, while ignoring the "tax expenditures" favouring the top.
The Coalition's first term is testament to the truth that making budget repair conditional on achieving smaller government – lower government spending without any increase in taxation – is a recipe for failure on both.
Ostensibly, Morrison's talk of "the taxed and taxed-not" and repetition of his mendacious claim that "you don't encourage growth by taxing it more" suggest he's learnt nothing about the compromises he himself must make if he's to succeed in repairing the budget.
But things have changed, as witness Morrison's weasel-word acceptance of the need for measures to "protect the integrity of our tax base".
This year's (still unpassed) budget was aimed not at budget repair but at tax reform. To this end it nicked Labor's plan for further huge increases in tobacco tax, introduced convincing measures to greatly increase taxes paid by multinationals and cut back and redistributed superannuation tax breaks for high-income earners.
Even its $6-a-week tax cut for the top quarter of taxpayers is insufficient to prevent income tax increasing through continuing bracket creep, let alone give back proceeds from the creep that occurred under the Coalition's previous two budgets.
These tax increases were made to help cover the initial costs of the 10-year phase-down in the rate of company tax, of course. Over its life, however, the tax package looked to be "budget negative".
But here's the trick: Morrison looks a lot more likely to get his various tax increases through the new Senate than his cut in company tax.
If so, he'll end up doing a lot to improve the budget balance, and doing it in a much fairer way than all the collected penny-pinching in his $6 billion "omnibus bill", as revealed by Jessica Irvine.
But the perception of greater fairness, as well as the saving to the budget – both initially and in subsequent build-up – will be hit hard should the revolt by a few government backbenchers over the super changes succeed in letting a handful of rich Liberal supporters off the hook.