Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Welcome to the job, Treasurer. Rather you than me

Very occasionally, some poor misguided letter-writer suggests to my boss that I’d make a better treasurer than the incumbent. I’m flattered, of course, but it’s never been a job I’ve lusted after. Nor do I delude myself I’d be much good at it. And that goes double for the present incumbent, Jim Chalmers.

I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes (especially not with people like that grumpy old bugger Gittins offering a critique of my every move).

When, within days of taking up the job, Chalmers declared the budget situation was “dire”, people thought he was just softening us up. But I suspect it had finally dawned on him (with a little help from his new treasury advisers) just what an unhygienic sandwich he’d promised to eat: the more so because he’d played his own part in making such a meal of it.

Chalmers’ problem comes in two parts. First, he inherited an almighty mess from Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg. They hadn’t exactly tidied the place up before leaving.

Justifiably, they’d racked up huge additional government debt to tide us through the worst of the pandemic, and now the economy was growing strongly. But they were still looking at a decade or more of budget deficits continuing to increase the debt.

It was a problem they’d think about when and if they were re-elected. Meanwhile, nothing mattered more that avoiding doing anything that could cost them votes.

All this we knew before the election. What was less obvious were the many stopgap measures they’d used to hold back the growth in government spending, building up a dam that would inevitably burst.

The stopgaps included making oldies wait many months for a homecare package, making people wait months for a visa, keeping the unemployed below the poverty line and thinking of excuses to suspend their payments.

And that’s before you get to the various, hugely expensive problems with the National Disability Insurance Scheme – problems that can’t be solved by telling the disabled to like it or lump it.

The Morrison government’s projections of continuing budget deficits assume those dams will never overflow. Much of the deficit is explained by the continuing cost of the Morrison government’s already legislated stage-three tax cut in July 2024, which the Parliamentary Budget Office now estimates will have added almost a quarter of a trillion dollars to our deficit and debt by 2032-33.

The second element of Chalmers’ budget problem is that, as part of its small-target strategy for finally winning an election, Labor promised never to do anything anyone anywhere would ever dislike.

When it came to the budget, while banging on about our trillion-dollar debt, they painted themselves into a corner by promising not to do what they’d need to do to stop adding to it. Not to rescind the stage-three tax cut, nor do anything else to increase taxes apart from a tax on multinational companies. (Talk about pie in the sky: make the wicked foreigners pay their fair whack and all our problems are solved without any pain.)

In theory, eliminating the budget deficit is easy. Just slash government spending to fit. All you’d have to do is, say, suspend indexation of the age pension, or cut grants to the states’ public hospitals and schools (while taking care not to touch private hospitals and schools).

In practice, making cuts sufficient to fill the gap is politically impossible. It’s true the government is busy reviewing all their predecessor’s spending, looking for waste and extravagance. But all that’s likely to achieve is to make room for their own new spending promises.

As several former top econocrats have told me, what’s needed to eliminate the deficit is to increase tax collections by about 4 per cent of gross domestic product – about $90 billion a year. See what I mean about Labor boxing itself in?

One thing that wasn’t clear before the election was the full extent of our problem with inflation, even though the Reserve Bank did increase interest rates a fraction during the campaign.

It’s made the need to reduce the budget deficit more pressing because the more the government reduces its own stimulus of the economy, the less the Reserve has to increase interest rates to get inflation down.

And the less rates rise, the less the risk that – as has happened so often in the past – the Reserve’s efforts to reduce inflation send us into recession. One of the side-effects of recession would be to increase deficit and debt greatly.

After his “dire” remark, I expected to see Chalmers edging quietly towards a door marked Sorry About That, and preparing a Keynes-like speech about how “when the facts change, I change my promises”.

But so far, he seems still to be painting himself into the corner. Apparently, keeping promises, no matter how ill-judged and overtaken by events, is more important to Labor than managing the economy well or even avoiding becoming a one-term government.

I’d never seen Chalmers and his boss as martyrs to the cause of Unbroken Promises.