Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Pick on the weak and friendless to pretend to fix the budget

Did you know our social security system is so open to rorting that it's possible for some people to get more from benefits than they'd earn if they took a job? And we wonder why we have problem with debt and deficit.

This scandalous state of affairs was leaked to an  Australian newspaper by sources close to the minister for Social Services, Christian Porter.

Specifically, single parents with four children can get welfare payments of more than $52,000 a year if they don't work, but less than $50,000 after tax if they work and receive the median full-time wage.

Small problem with this appalling news. It's a cock and bull story.

The welfare experts took no time to demolish it.

For a start, it's a contrived example. How many people do you know with four dependent children? There must be some single parents with four kids, but they'd a small fraction of all welfare-dependent single parents and an infinitesimal fraction of the 5.2 million recipients of federal "income support".

Worse, it's a false comparison. If the sole parent took the job they'd still be eligible for the $32,000-odd in family tax benefits per year. By supposedly preferring to accept the "parenting payment single" of less than $20,000, they'd be passing up the median full-time wage of almost $50,000 after tax.

What Porter doesn't seem to know is that family payments are specifically designed to be the same whether parents are working or not, precisely to ensure they don't discourage parents on benefits from taking a job.

So the Minister for Social Services has grossly misrepresented the workings of his own system.

Relative to people like Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison, Porter seems smart and well-spoken, eminently capable explaining a tricky concept in simple words. He's next most likely to be treasurer.

So why did he risk his reputation by putting out a line that was so quickly and easily debunked?

Perhaps because he thinks it's his job to convince us that the allegedly unsustainable growth in welfare spending is the main reason for our debt and deficit.

And because it's the job of he and his ministerial offsider, Alan Tudge, to counter the Senate's reluctance to agree to a range of cuts in the dole and other welfare benefits by creating the impression in voters' minds that welfare spending is rife with rorts and rip-offs by the undeserving poor.

Also because the Liberal heartland is desperate to believe they won't have to pay higher taxes if the welfare bill can be chopped back to size. Worse, I suspect Porter and Morrison actually believe it.

In a speech a few weeks' ago Porter worked hard to demonise his own portfolio, grossly exaggerating the size of the problem.

Today's "welfare spend" is about $160 billion a year. This makes it the largest category of (federal) government spending, representing 80 per of all individual income tax collections, he says. (Except that personal income tax represents only about half of all the federal tax we pay. Oops.)

He wants us to assume most of this $160 billion goes on people who could work, but won't: dole bludgers, sole parent bludgers and people on disability pensions pretending to have bad backs.

Except that half the money goes to bludgers who don't want to work because they're over 65. Another quarter goes to bludgers with children (the family tax benefit) or young mothers wanting subsidised childcare so they can do their bludging at work.

Most of the alleged projected "unrestrained growth" in the welfare spend will come from the continuing retirement of the baby-boomer bulge and the success of investment advisers in helping people get the age pension despite their big super payouts.

Have you noticed how many political fights in recent times arise from the government's efforts to get penny-pinching spending cuts and tax changes through the Parliament?

There's the tax on backpackers, the removal of the "energy supplement" worth $4.40 a week or so to pensioners and people on the dole, the cuts in family payments that would hit sole parents hardest, the cuts to make people wait four weeks before they get the dole and raise the eligibility age for the adult dole to 25, and even the move to stop evil maternal double-dippers using employer-provided paid parental leave to prolong the period they have at home with the baby.

Porter says we can't continue to borrow money to fund today's welfare system growth because this would burden young Australians.

He avoids admitting that apparently we can continue to borrow money to cover a tax cut for people earning more than $80,000 a year, hugely expensive cuts in company tax, a much-delayed crackdown on multinational tax avoidance and a massive increase in spending on defence.

Heard of priorities, Christian?

These penny-pinching cost cuts aimed mainly at the socially disadvantaged and politically defenceless – if roughing up asylum seekers and their kids goes down so well with voters, why not extend the attack to bottom-of-the-pile Aussies? – are far from sufficient to make much impact on the budget deficit.

They show the government is near the bottom of the barrel in the quality of budget savings it's prepared to make.

It wants us to believe the federal budget is close to bankruptcy but, in truth, it's this government that's nearer to being morally, politically and economically bankrupt.