Showing posts with label government spending. Show all posts
Showing posts with label government spending. Show all posts

Friday, July 12, 2024

Forget smaller government, let's shoot for better government

We pay our taxes, then governments spend them. But where does all that money go? And how much of it is wasted? Well, where it goes is no secret, but how much of it does little to benefit us is something we don’t really know. Why not? Because we put so little effort into finding out.

In 2022-23, the federal and state governments spent almost $890 billion. Nearly 33 per cent of that went on social security payments; 21 per cent on healthcare (hospitals, doctors, medicines); 15 per cent on education (from pre-primary to university); 5 per cent each on defence and law and order; plus transport, the environment, housing, recreation and culture, and much else.

People who resent the taxes they pay like to think it goes to council workers leaning on shovels and public servants sitting around drinking tea, but really, they should be thinking of doctors, nurses and ambos; teachers and lecturers; soldiers, sailors and fliers, coppers, firies and garbos.

Those people are busy almost all the time doing what they’re paid to do. If some government departments once were overstaffed, years of cost-cutting should have fixed that.

No, the trouble isn’t that workers in the public sector aren’t working hard. It’s that they can be working away on programs that seem like they should be delivering for taxpayers, but aren’t.

Consider these four plausible propositions. First, parents are more likely to get their kids to school if threatened with the loss of government payments. Second, testing students’ literacy is an accurate way to assess their ability.

Third, early childhood staff have all the skills they need. Fourth, a health program designed by both educators and their students will be more likely to discourage risky behaviours.

Sorry, turns out none of those programs worked.

In 2016, researchers discovered that the Northern Territory’s efforts to improve school attendance by making welfare payments conditional on getting kids to show up had no effect on attendance.

In Dubbo, other researchers found that if you made a literacy test more culturally relevant by changing a story about lighthouses to one about the dish-shaped telescope in Parkes, you halved the gap between the scores of Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids.

In NSW, researchers found that giving early childhood staff a half-year professional development program boosted the achievement of their kids, especially their literacy.

Yet more researchers – in Brisbane, Perth and Sydney – found that, despite the students’ involvement in designing the Health4Life program, it had no effect on alcohol use, smoking, screen time, physical inactivity, poor diet or poor sleep.

What all these research efforts had in common was that they evaluated these programs using RCTs – randomised controlled trials. This involves using the toss of a coin to divide similar participants in the trial into two groups. One group gets the treatment and the other “control” group doesn’t. You then compare the two, confident that any differences between them have been caused by your intervention.

Point is, this is a far more rigorous way of judging whether government spending programs achieve the benefits you were hoping for, rather than just doing a pilot program and deciding whether it seems to have worked.

But these four careful trials are the exception, not the rule. A study by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia examined a sample of 20 federal government programs worth more than $200 billion. It found that 95 per cent of them hadn’t been properly evaluated. The committee’s examination of state and territory government evaluations reported similar results.

“The problems with evaluation start from the outset of program and policy design,” it said. Across the board, the committee estimated that fewer than 1.5 per cent of government evaluations use a randomised design.

Similarly, a Productivity Commission report in 2020 into the evaluation of Indigenous programs concluded that “both the quality and usefulness of evaluations of policies and programs … are lacking”.

This is in marked contrast to the medical profession, where controlled trials are standard in the evaluation of medical operations. These have demonstrated that the treatments preferred by experts were often worse for patients.

For instance, radical mastectomies for breast cancer disfigured 500,000 women while doing nothing to increase their odds of survival. Many treatments found to be harmful had been supported by expert opinion and low-quality before-and-after studies.

If you can feel a commercial message coming on, you’re right. Dr Andrew Leigh, former economics professor and now Assistant Minister for Treasury and many other bits and bobs, has been championing the use of randomised controlled trials in government program evaluation for years.

And last year the Albanese government set up within Treasury the Australian Centre for Evaluation, with Leigh responsible. It aims to expand the quality and quantity of program evaluation in co-operation with other government departments. Its leader, Eleanor Williams, has a modest budget and a staff of more than a dozen. A key principle is that high-quality evaluation of a program’s impact needs to be built into the design of the program from the get-go. The centre will also collaborate with evaluation researchers outside government.

And now the Paul Ramsay Foundation, Australia’s largest charitable foundation, is providing a $2.1 million round of grants for people to run randomised trials on important social problems. The centre, which has been given access to a wealth of “administrative data” – statistical information collected by government departments – will make this available to academics and others receiving grants.

I think this is all to the good. And about time. Econocrats went for decades supporting the push for smaller government, which led to the privatising of many government-owned businesses (including a national electricity market now dominated by three big companies) and much outsourcing of government services to private businesses – which, as should have been expected, have proved highly efficient at increasing their profits.

Great. What we could use now is a lot more attention to achieving better government.

Read more >>

Monday, July 8, 2024

Yes, we need tax reform, but it offers no easy answers

When we’re reminded that income tax cuts represent merely the partial return of the proceeds of earlier bracket creep, and that the process of clawing back the latest tax cut starts the same day it arrives, it’s easy to join the impassioned cry for tax reform. Sorry, it ain’t that simple.

Surely if we could end the crazy business of bracket creep, we’d pay less tax? Well, yes – but no.

Bracket creep occurs because our income tax scales ignore the reality of inflation. When our wages rise to take account of inflation, we’re no better off in real terms, but we’re often pushed into a higher tax bracket, which raises the average rate of tax we pay on the whole of our income. (If we’re not literally pushed into a higher bracket, our average tax rate still goes up because a higher proportion of our income is now taxed at a higher rate.)

So we’ve long known how to (largely) end bracket creep: do what the Americans do and increase all the bracket limits once a year, in line with the annual increase in the inflation rate. Then, it would only be rises in your real income that pushed up your average tax rate, which is fair enough.

Mission accomplished. Now we’ll all be paying less tax.

Except that the net profit the taxman makes after all the to-ing and fro-ing on bracket creep isn’t just kept in a jam jar somewhere. It’s used to help cover the ever-growing cost of all the services the government gives us, and thus to limit the size of budget deficits and government debt.

So, without the benefit of bracket creep, governments would be forced to keep making explicit increases in the rates of income tax, or to announce new taxes.

Wouldn’t that be an improvement? In principle, yes. In practice, our (politician-fed) aversion to paying higher taxes would just make politics an even bigger shoot-fight than it already is. The pollies would spend more time abusing each other and less time getting on with fixing our problems.

One thing we can be sure of is that it wouldn’t do much to slow the growth in government spending. Why not? Because our demand for more and better government services is insatiable. Because both sides of politics fight every election campaign promising more and better services – and by never showing us the tax price tag on whatever it is they are selling.

How can I be sure tax indexation would do little to slow the growth in government spending? Because that’s what happens in America. They keep running bigger budget deficits and amassing more government debt than the other rich countries (except Japan).

But they get away with it because their economy’s so big, and they’re the centre of the world financial system. A middle-level economy like ours could never pull it off.

So tax indexation isn’t high on my list of desired tax reforms. Bracket creep turns out to be just one of the dirty little tricks by which the politicians who’ve done so much to make our political system almost unworkable keep it staggering along.

It’s easy to agree on the need for tax reform, but its advocates want to reform differing things and have differing motives. “Reform” is a lovely, positive word, but you need to beware of people whose idea of reform is: I pay less, you pay more.

All the alleged reform advocated by the (big) Business Council, for instance, takes that form. They want a lower rate of company tax and a lower top rate of personal income tax – all paid for by a higher goods and services tax.

Spruikers for the highly paid make a big fuss about the government’s heavy reliance on income tax – which they exaggerate – and always claim discourages them from working and investing.

But economic theory doesn’t support these claims, and the empirical evidence – which would be more persuasive – doesn’t either. The people whose behaviour is influenced by the rate of tax on additional earnings are “secondary earners”, who have more ability to increase or decrease the hours they work because they have part-time jobs. But the nation’s executives don’t worry much about them.

No, the tax reform I think we need is higher tax on capital gains, less concessional tax on the superannuation of people such as me, a decent tax on highly profitable mining companies and, probably, a tax on big inheritances.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Read more >>

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Despite what we're led to believe, tax cuts are no free lunch

Isn’t it wonderful that the Albanese government – like all its predecessors – has been willing to spend so many of our taxpayers’ dollars on advertising intended to ensure no adult in the land hasn’t been reminded, repeatedly, about the income tax cuts that took effect on Monday, first day of the new financial year?

But believe me, if you rely only on advertising to tell you what the government’s up to with the taxes you pay – or anything else, for that matter – you won’t be terribly well-informed. The sad truth is there’s a lot of illusion in the impressions the pollies want to leave us with when it comes to tax and tax cuts.

For instance, none of those ads mentioned the eternal truth that, when we have income tax scales that aren’t indexed annually to take account of inflation, the taxman gradually claws back any and every tax cut the pollies deign to give us. And this slow clawback process – known somewhat misleadingly as “bracket creep” – begins on the same day the tax cuts begin.

So readers of this august organ are indebted to my eagle-eyed colleague Shane Wright, who asked economists at the Australian National University to estimate how long it would take these tax cuts to be fully clawed back, using plausible assumptions about future increases in prices and wages.

A tax cut reduces the average rate of income tax we pay on the whole of our taxable income. A middle-income earner’s average tax rate will fall from 16.9 cents in every dollar to 15.5¢. The economists calculate it will take only two or three years for inflation to have lifted most taxpayers’ average tax rate back up to where it was last Sunday.

So that’s the terrible truth the pollies rarely mention. But don’t let that make you too cynical about the tax-cut game. Just because this week’s tax cut will have evaporated in a few years’ time doesn’t mean it’s worthless today. Actually, as tax cuts go, this is quite a big one. Someone earning $50,000 a year is getting a cut worth almost $18 a week. At $100,000 a year, it’s worth almost $42 a week. And on $190,000 and above, it’s worth $72 a week.

Is that enough to completely fix your cost-of-living problem? No, of course not. But if you think it’s hardly worth having, please feel free to send your saving my way. I’m not too proud to take another $18 no one wants.

Remember, too, that had Anthony Albanese not broken his promise in January and fiddled with the stage 3 tax cuts he inherited from Scott Morrison, most people’s saving would have been a lot smaller, even non-existent.

Everyone earning less than $150,000 a year got more, while those of us struggling to make ends meet on incomes above that got a lot less. In my case, about half what I’d been led to expect.

But the politicians’ illusions are built on our self-delusions. Our biggest delusion is that government works quite differently to normal commercial life. We know that when you walk into a shop you have to pay for anything you want. If you want the better model, you pay more.

Somehow, however, we delude ourselves that governments work completely differently. That the cost of the services we demand from the government need to bear no relationship to the tax we have to pay.

The politicians actively encourage this delusion in every election campaign by promising us this or that new or better service without any mention that we might have to pay more tax to cover the cost of the improvement.

Any party foolish enough to mention higher taxes gets monstered – first by the other side and then by the voters. No one wants to admit that what we get can never be too far away from what we pay.

For the near-decade of the Liberals’ time in government, they drew many votes by branding Labor as “the party of tax and spend” while claiming they could deliver us the services we want while keeping taxes low.

This was always a delusion. So they squared the circle by using various tricks they hoped we wouldn’t notice, such as underspending on aged care, allowing waiting lists to build up and secretly ending the low- and middle-income tax offset, thus giving many people an invisible tax increase of up to $1500 a year.

But the main trick they relied on was the pollies’ old favourite: bracket creep.

Get it? When we delude ourselves that we can have the free lunch of new and better services without having to pay more tax, they resort to the illusion that income tax isn’t increasing by letting inflation imperceptibly increase our average tax rate.

This is the tax-cut game. As an economist would say, our “revealed preference” is for no explicit tax increases, but for tax to be increased in ways we don’t really notice and for tax cuts to be only temporary.

Read more >>

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Budget will make us better off now, but worse off later

It’s said you can tell a government’s true priorities from what it does in its budget. If so, the top priority of Anthony Albanese’s government is not to have any priorities.

Rather than focusing on fixing the most pressing of our many problems, his preference is to be seen doing a little to alleviate all of them. In this budget, (almost) every voter wins a prize.

Certainly, every powerful interest group gets something to placate it. Of course, when you’re handing out so many prizes, most of them aren’t all that big.

Unfortunately, it’s a strategy that works better politically – where every vote counts – than economically, where sticking to what you’re good at brings better returns.

Fortunately, however, this budget has been “back-end loaded”. Most of what’s likely to be wasteful spending will come sometime in the next 10 years. Most of the budgetary cost of the sensible decisions starts from the first day of the new financial year, in just seven weeks’ time.

So let’s start with the good half of the budget, and leave the bad stuff for later.

By far the greatest political pressure on the government is to ease the intense cost-of-living pressure that so many people are feeling. Since most of the pressure has been caused by rapidly rising prices, this is also the government’s most immediate economic problem.

The trouble for Treasurer Jim Chalmers is that the standard remedy for rapid inflation involves making the pressure worse to make it better. You use higher interest rates and a bigger tax bite out of people’s pay rises to make it harder for households to keep spending, which stops businesses from raising their prices as much.

This explains Chalmers’ repeated but contradictory statement that he wants to ease the cost of living without weakening the efforts – by the Reserve Bank and his own budget surpluses – to get inflation down.

But this is where Albanese’s predilection for the each-way bet actually makes sense. Chalmers has found a way to do the seemingly impossible: ease living pressures a bit, while weakening the inflation fight only a bit.

He’s done this, first, by introducing a $300 power-bill rebate for all households, increasing the rent allowance paid to people receiving welfare benefits, and freezing the cost of prescriptions for two years.

This not only helps those people; it also reduces the rise in the consumer price index somewhat. And this, in turn, brings closer the day when the Reserve Bank starts cutting interest rates.

But second, by his rejig of the stage 3 tax cuts. This may be old news, but it’s by far the biggest measure in the budget. Most wage earners will realise how big it is – and how much it helps – when it increases their take-home pay at the start of July.

Albanese and Chalmers took a tax cut the previous government had intended to be of real benefit only to those on incomes well above the average, and changed it to ensure all taxpayers got something.

See? Everyone gets a prize. Everyone on incomes below about $150,000 a year gets more; everyone above that gets less than first intended. As a measure to ease living costs, it’s now far more effective.

Why won’t this $23 billion-a-year tax cut weaken the inflation fight? Because it has been government policy since 2018. It’s likely effect on households’ spending has been built into the Reserve Bank’s decisions to raise interest rates 13 times. Good stuff.

But it’s when we turn to the longer-term Future Made in Australia plans that you see the folly of Albanese’s efforts to stay friends with every interest group on every side.

By far the most important task Albanese must accomplish to secure our economic future is to achieve a smooth transition from fossil fuels to renewables – most of it done by 2030 – without blackouts and avoidable jumps in the cost of electricity.

But, more than that, he must ensure our continuing income from exports by establishing new green, further-processing industries exploiting our new-found strength of being among the world’s cheapest producers of renewable energy. This can be what will keep us prosperous when the world stops buying our fossil fuels.

The government spending needed to get these green industries started is included in the Future Made in Australia project. Trouble is, so is money for a lot of crazy ideas, such as setting up in competition with China as a producer of solar panels.

Albanese’s problem is he wants to say yes to everyone and everything, not just stick to the main chance. He’s saying he can turn us into a renewable energy superpower with one hand while, with the other, he lets the gas industry steam on to 2050 and beyond.

This does not fill me with confidence in the Albanese government’s capability. Quite the reverse.

Read more >>

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

When politicians talk of 'security', be on your guard

I doubt if you’re waiting with bated breath for next Tuesday night’s federal budget but, since it’s the big set-piece event of my year, I’ve started limbering up. I’ve set my bulldust detector to ping every time I see or hear the word “security”. May I suggest you do the same?

We’ve been hearing a lot of that word lately, particularly from Anthony Albanese and his treasurer, Jim Chalmers. It comes with many adjectives – energy security, food security and, of course, national security – and with many spooky euphemisms: risk, strategic, sensitive, critical and sovereign, not to mention the spookiest of them all, terrorism.

In Albanese’s landmark speech on A Future Made in Australia, he assured us that “strategic competition is a fact of life”. “Nations are drawing an explicit link between economic security and national security,” he told us.

“We must recognise there is a new and widespread willingness to make economic interventions on the basis of national interest and national sovereignty,” he said. His government would be guided by three principles, the second of which was that “we need to be more assertive in capitalising on our comparative advantages and building on sovereign capability in areas of national interest”.

His government would be “securing greater sovereignty over our resources and critical minerals”.

Indeed so. When Chalmers announced the government’s new foreign investment rules last week, they seemed to be all about security.

“By providing more clarity around sensitive sectors and assets,” Chalmers said, “our reforms will give businesses and investors greater certainty while safeguarding our national security.

“National security threats are increasing due to intensifying geopolitical competition and risks to Australia’s national interests from foreign investment have evolved at the same time as competition for global capital is becoming more intense.”

The reforms to our foreign investment rules would “boost economic prosperity and productivity, while strengthening our ability to protect the national interest in an increasingly complex economic and geostrategic environment.

“We are dedicating more resources to screening foreign investment in critical infrastructure, critical minerals, critical technology, those that involve sensitive data sets, and investment in close proximity to defence sites, to ensure that all risks are identified, understood and can be managed – balancing economic benefits and security risks,” Chalmers said.

And a bolstered foreign investment compliance team will use the minister’s “call-in power” to review investments that come to pose a national security concern.

My goodness. If you were the excitable type (which I’m not), you could wonder whether the economy’s being put on a war footing. Or maybe it’s that Treasury’s been taken over by Defence and Foreign Affairs. Or ASIO.

Of course, it may be that the government and its spooks know something terrible they’re not telling us. Perhaps some foreign enemy is, as we speak, preparing to do us in.

But if you’ve spent years studying the behaviour of politicians (which I have), you wonder if it’s something less life-threatening and more self-serving. Is there an election coming up, for instance? Do voters have complaints about the economy that you’d like to draw attention away from?

The independent economist Saul Eslake says that, as the government seeks to use “national security” and “economic security” as a rationale for a major shift in economic policy, two things concern him deeply.

First, the tendency to use “security” as a justification for a policy initiative opens the door to interventions that are, in the infamous phrase of former Treasury secretary Dr Ken Henry, “frankly, bad”. Decisions that, without the “security” label, wouldn’t pass muster.

Second, grounding a policy decision in “security” gives politicians an excuse to shut down any questioning of the justification for that decision.

“When governments say something is a matter of ‘national security’, they usually refuse to say why it is; that it would be wrong to allow grubby considerations of ‘cost and benefit’ to interfere with their judgments about ‘security’, or even that it is borderline unpatriotic to question a decision made on ‘security’ grounds,” Eslake says.

It’s not the first time Eslake has expressed such concerns. Here’s a quote from an article he wrote in this august organ in late 2011.

“If you want a government to do something that entitles you to some form of protection from competition (especially overseas competition), some kind of subsidy or tax break, or some other privilege not enjoyed by ordinary folk, but you know that your proposal wouldn’t pass any kind of rigorous, independent, arms-length scrutiny ... then your best chance of getting what you want is to succeed in portraying it as being somehow essential in order to enhance some form of ‘security’,” he wrote.

Sometimes I even wonder how AUKUS – the wisdom of which many defence experts quietly doubt – came about. How much of it was the Americans’ idea, and how much was ours?

What we do know is that, without any prior debate, Scott Morrison suddenly unveiled it as a fait accompli and great coup. Had Labor opposed it, we’d have been straight into a khaki election.

But Labor accepted it without demur and the costs or benefits we’ll discover over the next decade or two.

Read more >>

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

It's not perfect, but our health system is one of the best

When it comes to self-belief, Australians are funny. We have no doubt that Australia punches well above its weight in almost every sport. And our Diggers are braver and more dependable than the rest. In other departments, however, we don’t rate ourselves highly.

Australians pay among the lowest taxes of all developed nations, but the belief that we’re among the highest taxed is so widely believed it’s impervious to facts.

Take the latest headline that we’ve been “flattened by the biggest tax increase in the world”. “There, I knew it,” I hear you mutter. Well, not quite.

It’s true, as the story said, that in 2023 working Australians suffered the biggest increase in their average tax rates in the developed world, according to figures issued by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The increase was caused by bracket creep and the Morrison government’s sneaky decision to end the “low- and middle-income tax offset” (a move that never made it to a press release, meaning most of the media didn’t notice and didn’t tell their audience about).

But that doesn’t in any way confirm our belief that we’re highly taxed. It may have been true last year, but it will be far from true this year as the huge stage 3 tax cuts take effect in July.

Nor is it confirmed by the repeated assertion that we are more dependent on income tax than any of the other OECD countries. This is literally true, but only because, unlike almost all the others, we don’t impose separate social security contribution taxes on the incomes of workers and employers.

The more important point, however, is that so far we’ve been talking only about the biggest and most noticeable of our taxes, personal income tax. Surely you don’t think that’s the only tax we pay?

What about a little thing called the goods and services tax? (Or, to other rich countries bar the United States, value-added tax.) Our tax rate of 10 per cent is way lower than even the Kiwis’, let alone all the Europeans’. They’re up in the 20s.

No, all told, we pay less tax than almost all the others. But how would you rate us on, say, healthcare? My guess is most people’s answer would be, at best, nothing to write home about.

Wrong. We keep hearing about problems with Medicare, but every country’s healthcare system has its shortcomings. New research by the Productivity Commission – hardly known for its boosterism – has found that our health system “delivers some of the best value for money of any in the world”.

The commission has been measuring the productivity of our healthcare system – roughly, what we get for what we pay – and, for the first time, taking account of changes in the quality of that care.

In principle, the system covers all our spending on healthcare: public and private; hospitals, GPs and specialists, whether paid for by taxpayers, health insurance or directly out of our pockets.

Over this century, our total spending on healthcare has risen from 8 per cent of national income to about 10 per cent – meaning it’s grown much faster than the economy has, including the growth in our population.

The continued rise in the average age of our population, the growing burden of chronic diseases and our expectations that governments will keep spending more to improve our health means our spending on healthcare will continue to grow faster than on most other things.

This being so, it’s important to check that the increased spending is leading to better health. The researchers were able to check the performance of only part of the system: the treatment of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, blood and metabolic disorders, endocrine (organs and glands) disorders, and kidney and urinary diseases.

These account for about a third of healthcare spending. The study found that, after allowing for changes in quality, the “multifactor” (that is, combining labour and physical capital) productivity of this care improved by about 3 per cent a year over the six years to 2017-18.

If that doesn’t impress you, it should. It compares with productivity improvement of just 0.8 per cent a year in the whole market sector of the economy.

Importantly, all the healthcare improvement came from improved quality in the treatment of ailments. This arose from technological advances in how they are treated, rather than from simply doing more with less. And the gain was in lives saved rather than the reduced illness of people living with those diseases.

But here’s the kicker. When the commission compared the level of our productivity with that of 27 other rich countries (after allowing for differences in risk factors, such as obesity – the big one – smoking, diet, alcohol and age) it found we came third, beaten only by Iceland and Spain.

Coming a distant last was the United States. The Yanks win two prizes: one for the most expensive system, the other for coming last on value for money. Why? Because their system is designed to maximise medicos’ incomes. At which they take away another prize.

Read more >>

Monday, April 29, 2024

How Albanese can make Australia's future the smart way

Thank goodness we’ve finally got someone saying something sensible about Anthony Albanese’s Future Made in Australia. So far, it’s been a phoney war between the old fogeys from the Productivity Commission – all government subsidies are rent-seeking – and the Bring Back Manufacturing Brigade, pushing the notion that making goods is more economically virtuous than providing services and quoting bulldust measures of “economic complexity” to prove it.

The man talking sense – adroitly picking his way through the blind ideology, partisanship and rent-seeking to find the sound economics – is Rod Sims, former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and now chair of Professor Ross Garnaut’s brainchild, the Superpower Institute. Sims spoke to the Melbourne Economic Forum last week.

For reasons I’ll explain another day, the Productivity Commission old-timers are right to insist that the basic principles of economics haven’t changed. We must resist the false promise of self-sufficiency and stick to doing the things we’re particularly good at – our “comparative advantage” – which, throughout our history, has included exploiting our “natural endowment” of some of the most valuable deposits of minerals and fossil fuels in the world.

On the other hand, though the basic economic principles haven’t changed, the Back to Manufacturing Brigade is right – or half right – in saying that the circumstances in which the world economy now finds itself have changed radically.

This is not because, in its present period of craziness, the United States has turned protectionist, staging a trade war with China and subsidising various local industries. Others acting contrary to their own best interests – their comparative advantage – is not a sign that we should go crazy too.

No, the big change is the world’s grudging realisation that if we want to stop global warming, we must cease burning fossil fuels and switch to renewables. The move to net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 will surely be the biggest and fastest structural change the industrialised world has ever experienced.

The implications of this euphemistically named “transition” are huge for every economy, but for ours, they are monumental. Why? Because, as Sims points out, Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and gas, combined.

What everyone knows but doesn’t seem to get is that, within a decade or two, our economy will have been hit by a meteor. The world will have stopped buying our fossil fuels. It will have taken a huge chunk of our natural endowment and declared it worthless.

So, our greatest comparative advantage is in the process of ceasing to exist. This is what Albanese lacked the courage to say in his happy-clappy speech about a Future Made in Australia.

This is what the generals busy fighting the last war don’t get. This is why their implication that the government should sit back and see how the market reacts to this sudden drop in our standard of living is bad economics.

What we must do is something we’ve never needed to do before: hunt around in our natural endowment to find something else offering us a new comparative advantage. This is why we’re so heavily indebted to Garnaut for being the first to realise and trumpet the news that, in a decarbonised world, all our sun and wind have suddenly gone from being of little value to hugely valuable.

Australia has much more sunlight than most other countries and as much wind as the best of them. What makes this so valuable is that it’s so expensive to turn renewable energy into a form that can be exported.

Sims demonstrates the value of our new comparative advantage with the example of iron metal. At present, we export iron ore, the metallurgical coal used to reduce the iron ore to iron metal, and both the thermal coal and gas, which can provide the heat to make the iron metal.

We export the ingredients and let others bake the cake because that’s what makes economic sense. In the coming zero-carbon world, however, it will make economic sense to produce green iron in Australia.

Green iron is likely to need green hydrogen in place of the coking coal that turns the ore into metal. However, making green hydrogen requires a massive amount of renewable energy to power the electrolysers that split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

So green iron should be made in Australia because the economics has been turned on its head. If it costs, say, $100 to mine a tonne of metallurgical coal in Australia, you can send it to China for just an extra $5 or $10. But if hydrogen costs $100 to make here in Oz, it will cost at least another $100 to ship it to China.

With hydrogen, you need to turn it into ammonia, at great expense, to be able to ship it, and then you need to turn it back into hydrogen at the other end. This is complex and will involve much leakage.

So renewable energy should be used close to where it’s produced. Sims says all overseas studies he’s seen suggest that Australia is likely to be the cheapest place in the world to make green iron. Those trying to make green iron by importing hydrogen will be uncompetitive.

It should be the same story for green aluminium, green fertiliser, green silicon and green aviation fuel. We will be able to export our masses of surplus renewable energy embedded within those many products.

So, yes, we can have a lot more manufacturing in our future. And the best place for this further processing will be close to the regional sources of sun and wind-produced electricity.

But while green iron-making technology is proven, it’s not yet been done at scale, Sims says. Those who go first will inevitably make mistakes, from which others will learn. Those mistakes will be costly for the first mover but hugely beneficial to those who come after.

In other words, this learning by doing is a “positive externality” – a benefit to other businesses and the community generally for which the first business isn’t rewarded.

This is the hard-headed economic justification for temporary government grants to firms starting out in industries directly related to the exploitation of our new-found comparative advantage.

(The key “negative externality” relevant to the transition to renewable energy is the cost to the environment from the use of fossil fuels to make steel and many other things that the relevant businesses aren’t required to pay for, thus putting renewable energy producers at a price disadvantage – something the former Productivity Commission bosses keep forgetting to mention.)

But, Sims rightly warns, if all the Made in Australia talk means subsiding businesses making solar panels, wind farm components, batteries and electrolysers – in none of which we have a comparative advantage – then there’s no way we’ll become a superpower, and the extra manufacturing jobs will come at the expense of jobs in all other industries. Labor voters and the ACTU take note.

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Friday, April 26, 2024

Sorry, it's not gallantry that wins wars, it's economic might

Welcome to the Anzac long weekend (sort of). This column is brought to you by your friendly economists, who want to get one thing straight: whatever their causes, wars are usually won by the side with the most economic resources.

This is just one of the many fascinating things you learn from a new book, The Shortest History of Economics, written by Dr Andrew Leigh, former economics professor turned minister in the Albanese government. (The book’s name is misleading. It’s really the shortest account of the part the economy has played in the world’s history. Well worth a read.)

Leigh says the first industrial-scale war following the Industrial Revolution was America’s Civil War during the first half of the 1860s.

“With the use of mass-produced weapons, railroads, steamships and telegraphs, the Civil War was industrial in its scale, and in its carnage,” he says. More than 600,000 combatants – one in five soldiers – lost their lives.

A striking thing about that war was the imbalance of resources between the two sides, strong support for the saying that God is usually on the side with the bigger battalions.

At the outset, the North had a population of 21 million – more than twice the South’s. The South was primarily an agricultural economy, with the North producing 90 per cent of the country’s manufactured goods, including 97 per cent of its firearms.

What’s surprising is that the South held out as long as it did. The war was prolonged by the North’s poor military tactics.

From an economic perspective, wars are often financed by printing money, with ultimate inflationary consequences. The South used this to fund 60 per cent of its costs, whereas the North needed only 13 per cent.

To economists, a significant effect of World War I was that it brought a hasty end to the world’s first experience of globalisation, with greatly increased trade and migration between Europe and the “new world”, fostered by the advent of steel-hulled steamships and the telegraph, and the absence of boring things like passports and visas.

Not until after the Great Depression and World War II did the barriers keeping countries apart begin falling back, thanks to advances in air travel, shipping, containerisation and telecommunications, plus reductions in import protection and banking regulations.

Today, many people believe that greater trade, tourism and other economic contact between countries reduce the likelihood of war. I think there’s truth to this, but the strong commercial ties between the combatants in World War I didn’t stop it happening.

Did you know that, at the outbreak of war in 1914, most of Germany’s shipping trade was insured by Lloyd’s of London?

The Allied powers (Britain, France, Russia and their allies) had far more resources than the Central powers (the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and their allies). The Allied powers had five times the population, 11 times the territory and three times the income, according to Leigh.

That the conflict took four years and claimed about 20 million lives reflects the ineptitude of the generals and the intransigence of the political leaders, he says. But the side with the larger economic base won.

Moving on to World War II, which started in 1939 and ran for six years, its outcome, too, could have been predicted from the economic fundamentals.

Compared with the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan and their allies), the Allied powers (Britain, France and their allies) had more than twice as many people, more than seven times as much territory, and a combined income that was 40 per cent higher, Leigh tells us.

Germany did well at first, thanks to the skill of its generals, such as Erwin Rommel, but the war proved primarily a contest of industrial production, Leigh says, and the Allied powers had more resources at their disposal.

This was true even midway through the war because, although Germany had annexed much of Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union had joined the conflict on the side of the Allies. In 1942, the Allied powers still retained a decisive advantage in people, territory and income, he says.

Consider aircraft carriers. Although Japan fully understood their great strategic value, the Allies built nine-tenths of the carriers produced during the war.

The combatant nations differed in how much of their economies they devoted to the war effort. Italy never devoted more than a quarter of its gross domestic product to the war, whereas, at its peak, Japan was devoting more than three-quarters. Britain and Russia managed to deliver more than half their national output to the war, while the US devoted two-fifths.

Together, this gave the Allies a substantial advantage. They produced at least twice as many rifles, tanks, aircraft, mortars and warships. According to Leigh, the Axis powers were literally outgunned.

The overall damage to economies done by World War II was more devastating than in World War I, largely because the technology of killing had advanced so much in the intervening years.

In the air, the first war’s biplanes and zeppelins played a relatively minor role, whereas the second war saw squadrons of bombers devastating cities with incendiary – and ultimately atomic – bombs.

All up, World War II claimed three times as many lives as World War I had done.

But let’s finish on a more positive note. Leigh says the peace that followed World War II was more enduring, partly because countries learnt the lessons of the previous conflict. Through the Marshall Plan, the US provided $US13 billion to Western Europe, equivalent to about 3 per cent of the region’s annual economic output.

In Germany and Japan, the occupying powers put great emphasis on restoration, with the result that both became major industrial powers within a generation.

And economists, including Keynes, played a central role in building international economic institutions – including the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the forerunner to the World Trade Organisation – that would sustain peace.

Read more >>

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

What a way to start Easter - a plan to smash the nest-egg

Most of us are too young to see it, but a big way the federal government affects our lives is through its system of compulsory superannuation. As you get older and retirement becomes a lot less distant, you begin to realise that the rules of super – and successive governments’ tinkering with those rules – will have a significant impact on the up to 30 years of your life after you stop working.

When the age pension was introduced more than a century ago, many men didn’t live long enough to reach the age of eligibility, 65. But our greater prosperity, improvements in public health and advances in medical science have changed all that.

Although the age of pension eligibility – for women as well as men – has been raised to 67, and no doubt will reach 70 one day, our longevity has increased by more, making it possible, particularly for women, to live up to 30 years in retirement.

But the introduction of compulsory super in the early 1990s now means that people retiring after about 2030 will do so with so much super that their eligibility for the age pension will be between limited and non-existent.

Since the introduction of that new system, almost every government has changed it. Why? Because the new compulsory system was bolted onto an old voluntary system of tax concessions that proved to be far too generous to high-income earners and too mean to lower-income earners.

Everyone knows the age pension costs the government a lot of money. What many don’t realise is that the tax concessions attached to super contributions and to the subsequent earnings on those contributions also cost the government a lot in the form of income tax collections forgone.

So, all the super changes since those made by the Howard government in 2007 (which gave well-off Baby Boomers like me a huge free kick) have aimed to reduce super’s cost to the budget by reducing the tax breaks going to high earners.

Take my word, there’ll be many similarly motivated changes to come. Those made last year by Treasurer Jim Chalmers won’t be the last.

One way to limit the budgetary cost of super is to stress that its sole purpose is to provide people with enough money to live comfortably in retirement. What it’s not meant to be used for is letting people maximise their children’s inheritance (thus widening the gap between rich and poor).

Trouble is, the compulsory super system is designed to deliver people a lump sum of money upon their retirement for them to use as they choose. It’s easy to see this lump sum as your nest-egg, the amount you’ve saved over a lifetime of working.

If so, surely it’s up to me and my spouse to decide how much of that sum we choose to spend on living expenses and how much we choose to leave for our kids? I’m sure many people think the right thing to do is to live as much as possible on the interest and other earnings from the lump sum so the principal can be passed on largely intact.

This is where a proposal of two economists from the Australian National University, professors Andrew Podger and Robert Breunig, comes in.

But first, one insight of “behavioural” economics, borrowed from psychology, is that people can react very differently to the same circumstances, depending on how they’re packaged or, as the psychologists say, “framed”. It’s been shown that surgeons much prefer a 90 per cent success rate to a 10 per cent failure rate.

This, of course, is spin doctoring 101. Reminds me of the story about the bloke who invented death insurance. Didn’t sell many policies until he changed the name to life insurance.

Podger and Breunig remembered that, in the days before compulsory super, it was limited mainly to public servants who ended up with a lifetime pension, most of which could be passed on to a surviving spouse. It never occurred to them that super had anything to do with inheritance.

So, if you want to stop people with super payouts using them (and all the tax concessions that contribute so much to their size) as a vehicle for enriching their kids, why not move to a system where people are encouraged to use their lump sum to buy a lifetime pension.

The amount of the pension would be determined by the size of the lump sum. Some people scrimp and save in retirement because they can’t know when they’ll die, and they’re not sure their money will last the distance.

One great attraction of a lifetime pension is that it shifts this “longevity risk” onto the provider of the pension.

In the jargon of high finance, such a pension is called an “annuity”. You can buy annuities today, but most are for fixed periods, and they’re not popular. To make them more attractive, they’d have to be for life, and this would require them to be backed by the government.

Don’t shake your head. It could happen.

Read more >>

Monday, March 18, 2024

The budget is rent-seekers central

Last week we got a reminder that, among its many functions, the federal budget is the repository of all the successful rent-seeking by the nation’s many business and other special interest groups. Unfortunately, it added to the evidence that the Albanese government knows what it should do to manage the economy better, but lacks the courage to do more than a little.

Rent-seeking involves industries and others lobbying the government for special treatment in the form of grants, tax breaks or regulatory arrangements that make it hard for new businesses to enter their market or protect them from competition in other ways.

Whenever that rent-seeking involves grants or tax concessions it weighs on the budget. Decades of continuous rent-seeking weigh hugely on every year’s budget, limiting the government’s ability to ensure every dollar of taxpayers’ money is spent to great effect in benefiting all Australians.

For example, a big lump of the feds’ spending on education is devoted to achieving the Howard government’s goal of enhancing parents’ choice of which school to send their kids to. When the callithumpians decide to build their own schools, so their children can be educated without contamination by people of other religions, the federal taxpayer coughs up.

That all this spending on choice leaves the great majority of kids attending public schools that aren’t adequately funded is just an unfortunate occurrence, which we may get around to fixing if we ever have any spare dollars looking for a home.

What you certainly couldn’t do is cut back the money you’re giving the callithumpians. They’d kick up the devil of a fuss and start telling their followers not to vote for you.

When rent-seeking leads governments to make grants to special interest groups, the details of this spending are there to be found in the bowels of the budget papers. Where it leads to some activities getting special tax breaks, Treasury attempts to keep track of these “tax expenditures” in an annual statement.

When it comes to extracting rents from governments, few industries or occupations are better at it than the medical specialists. (That’s not true of the GPs, however. Their Medicare rebates were frozen for years, as part of the former Coalition government’s pretence that it could cut taxes while in no way harming the provision of essential public services.)

Some years ago, a Labor government decided to cut back the Medicare rebate for cataract surgery because advances in technology now meant a surgeon could perform far more operations in a day.

The rest of the medical profession knew what a rort it had become but, under the ethical principle of dog doesn’t eat dog – or maybe, honour among thieves – they stood silent while their eye-surgeon brethren fought dirty to protect their swollen incomes.

They pretended the sky was falling, telling their elderly patients the wicked government had left them no alternative to charging them thousands more in out-of-pocket payments. If their elderly patient didn’t think this was fair, perhaps they might like to have a word with their local federal member, saying how terrible it was to have their lovely doctor treated so badly.

Predictably, the government backed off and the rorting continued.

Last week it was the turn of the chemists. Few industries are so heavily regulated by state and federal governments, all with a view to protecting pharmacists’ incomes. There are limits on how many chemists may set up within an area and, in particular, prohibitions on supermarkets having pharmaceutical sections.

Anthony Albanese and his government have made much of the way their introduction of 60-day medicine prescriptions – as recommended by an expert committee – has saved patients money and helped ease the cost-of-living crisis.

But hang on. Surely, that means chemists receiving fewer dispensing fees from the government? This evil must be opposed. Enter a union more powerful than any workers’ union, the Pharmacy Guild. This iniquity will see shortages of medicine and hundreds of chemists closing down across the land, it assured us.

The government fought back, refuting the talk of shortages and revealing figures showing a surge in applications for new pharmacies in the months following the announcement of the prescription change.

It had already promised to plough back into pharmacies the $1.2 billion it expected to save on dispensing fees. But the guild claimed pharmacies’ losses would be $4.5 billion, and last week the guild negotiated a new deal, which would see the government pouring a further $3 billion into pharmacies over five years.

Also last week, we saw the government releasing the report of the aged care taskforce, chaired by Aged Care Minister Anika Wells, calling for the well-off elderly to contribute more to the cost of their own care.

What was the problem? Wells spelled it out in a speech last June: “We must act now. The Baby Boomers are coming … We are going to need a fair and equitable system to meet the needs of Baby Boomers who, with their numbers and determination to solve problems, have shaken every single system they’ve come across.”

The report argued for the present mechanism used to get more from the better-off, the refundable accommodation deposit, to be replaced by a rental-only system.

But it called for the deposit system to be phased out over five years, and postponed the proposed start of the phase-out to 2030. With all its talk of “grandfathering” – applying the changes only to new entrants to the system – it remains to be seen how keen Albo & co are to take on the entitled Baby Boomers.

Finally last week, the Commonwealth Grants Commission’s carve-up of the proceeds from the goods and services tax for the next financial year was announced, bringing a bad shock for NSW and Queensland, and good news for Victoria and the other states and territories.

It was an unwelcome reminder of the separate, but related, special deal then-treasurer Scott Morrison awarded the West Australians in 2018. So great was the uproar from the other states that they were promised more money to ensure the sandgropers’ special deal left the others “no worse off”.

Meaning? That the West Australians’ successful rent-seeking is costing federal taxpayers from other states a bundle in forgone federal spending.

As the independent economist (and proud Tasmanian) Saul Eslake never tires of demonstrating, the Westies had less than zero grounds for arguing that they were getting a bad deal from the carve-up formula.

The grants commission was set up in the 1930s in response to their congenital paranoia that the rest of Australia was having a lend of them. For as long as they were classed as a “mendicant” state cross-subsidised by Victoria and NSW, they were happy.

But from the moment the growth of their mining industry was so great that they were required to join Victoria and NSW in helping maintain the quality of government services in the other states, it suddenly became yet another plot by those “over east” to do them down.

So, here’s the moral of the story for our weak-kneed federal politicians on both sides. Once you give in to rent-seekers, you’re gone. They won’t give up their ill-gotten gains without a massive, vote-losing fight.

Meanwhile, everyone else wonders why, despite the huge sums you’re raising in taxes, the quantity and quality of the services you’re providing is so poor.

Read more >>

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Well-off baby boomers should pay more for their aged care

The report of the aged care taskforce, released on Tuesday, makes eminently sensible proposals for changes to cover the ever-growing cost of aged care. But since its solution is to require the well-off elderly to bear more of the cost, I doubt if Aged Care Minister Anika Wells will be able to implement the changes without much pushback from those well-off elderly – otherwise known as the “wealthy Boomers”.

The cost of aged care – both residential care and, increasingly, at-home care – is expected to grow hugely in the coming decade for three reasons. First, because federal governments have been underspending on care, as repeated Four Corners exposes have kept reminding us.

There’s been a lot of catch-up spending since the shocking report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in 2021, but there’s more catching up to do.

Second, there’s the continuing retirement of the Baby Boomer bulge, plus the increased care that later, longer-living generations will require.

Third, as living standards rise, so do the expectations of the aged for something a lot better than their parents settled for.

The federal government’s spending on aged care last financial year totalled $27 billion. It’s expected to have reached $42 billion by 2026-27. And there’s a lot more to go after that.

The royal commission suggested that the increased spending could be covered by a Medicare-like levy of 1 per cent of everyone’s taxable income. But the taskforce rightly rejected that idea as too unfair to younger taxpayers.

Don’t forget that few of the elderly pay much income tax, even those earning so much that, were they younger, they’d be paying a lot.

So the taskforce has come up with a solution that previous governments have, for decades, not been game to propose: ask the well-off elderly to pay a higher proportion of the daily living expenses – meals, laundry and cleaning – and accommodation costs.

At present, those in residential care who can afford it are required to pay a “refundable accommodation deposit” of many thousands, which is refunded when they leave or die. Effectively, it’s an interest-free loan to the provider of the residential care facility. On the strength of this, those who provide a deposit aren’t asked to pay much of their accommodation costs.

It’s never been a popular arrangement, so the taskforce proposes to phase it out between 2030 and 2035. Those on the old arrangement would be “grandfathered” – allowed to stay on the old deal.

But newcomers would go onto the new, rental-only scheme and be asked to pay a lot more for the accommodation cost than people of lower means.

Unlike me, many Baby Boomers vociferously object to being held responsible for the unfair way the younger generations are treated by the tax system, the superannuation system, the university fees system and the gig-economy system.

But though it’s wrong for youngsters to assume all Baby Boomers are rolling in it – some are still renting and others are locked in long-term unemployment – the truth is that, as a generation, most Baby Boomers have had a rails-run.

Those who went to university got scholarships rather than debt. Most males had little trouble finding a good, permanent, full-time job. They were able to buy a first home without much trouble, have stayed in the property market and today own a house worth an unbelievable sum – through no great effort of their own.

Baby Boomers are the first generation to gain much from the introduction of compulsory superannuation in 1992. These days, almost everyone retires with some significant superannuation sum, and those of us who’ve taken advantage of the various concessions have reached retirement age with super sums in the millions.

The super system is wildly biased in favour of the well-off. And the people who try to tell you that having super and other savings sufficient to eliminate (or even just reduce) their eligibility for the age pension makes them a “self-funded retiree” are deluded.

They have no idea what a high proportion of their payout has come from accumulated tax concessions rather than contributions.

So how would the well-off elderly afford to pay for a much greater share of their aged care costs? By dipping into their super.

The justification for superannuation and all the money it costs the taxpayer is to allow the retired to live comfortably in their final years when they’re too old to work. So the notion of many that they must live only on the annual earnings and never dip in to the principal is wrong-headed.

No, you were granted such generous tax breaks only to support you in retirement. For the well-off elderly to want to pass what’s left of their super on to their offspring is to make the world even more unfair than it already is.

Let’s hope Minister Wells and her boss have the conviction to stick to their guns when the Boomers start crying poor in defence of their privileged existence.

Read more >>

Monday, March 4, 2024

Contrary to appearances, the stage 3 tax cuts will leave us worse off

It’s time we stopped kidding ourselves about the looming tax cuts. They’re what you get when neither of the two big parties is game to make real tax reforms, and the best they can do is lumber us with yet another failed attempt to wedge the other side.

If you want real reform, vote for the minor parties, which may be able to use their bargaining power in the Senate to get something sensible put through.

The stage 3 tax cuts always were irresponsible, and still are. They’ve caused interest rates to be raised by more than they needed to be, and they’ll leave us with substandard government services, as well as plunging us back into deficit and debt.

Only an irresponsible (Coalition) government would commit themselves to making a huge tax cut of a specified shape more than six years ahead of an unknowable future, hoping they could trick Labor into making itself an easy political target by opposing them.

Back then, the Libs thought the budget was returning to continuing surpluses. Wrong. They didn’t think there’d be a pandemic. Wrong. They had no idea it would be followed by an inflation surge and a cost-of-living crisis.

Only an irresponsible (Labor) opposition would go along with legislating the tax cuts five years ahead of time, then promise not to change them should it win the 2022 election.

Let’s be clear. Just because Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s changes made the tax cuts less unfair, that doesn’t make them good policy. And just because many families, hard-pressed by the cost-of-living crisis, will be pleased to have the relief the tax cuts bring, that doesn’t mean the tax cuts are now good policy.

Don’t be misled by the Reserve Bank’s acceptance of Albanese’s claim that his changes would not add to inflation. Any $20 billion-a-year tax cut is a huge stimulus to demand, imparting further upward pressure on prices.

All the Reserve was saying was that diverting a lump of the tax cut from high-income earners to middle and low earners wouldn’t make much difference to the degree of stimulus. Why wasn’t it worried about a $20 billion inflationary stimulus? Because it had known it was coming for years, and had already taken account of it, increasing interest rates sufficiently to counter its future inflationary effect.

Get it? Had there been no huge tax cut in the offing, interest rates would now be lower than they are, and causing less cost-of-living pain.

As the Grattan Institute’s Brendan Coates and Kate Griffiths have reminded us, the big loser from the stage 3 tax cuts – whether the original or the revised version – is the budget.

The budget has done surprisingly well from the return to full employment, the effect of continuing high commodity prices on miners’ payments of company tax and from wage inflation’s effect on bracket creep. So much so that it returned to a healthy surplus last financial year. It may well stay in surplus this financial year.

Great. But next year it’s likely to return to deficit and stay there for the foreseeable future. Why? Because we can’t afford to give ourselves a $20 billion annual tax cut at this time. As if we didn’t have enough debt already, we’ll be borrowing to pay for our tax cut.

In theory, of course, we could pay for it with a $20 billion-a-year cut in government spending. But, as the Coalition was supposed to have learnt in 2014 – when voters reacted badly to its plans for big spending cuts, and it had to drop them post-haste – this is a pipe dream.

No, in truth, what voters are demanding is more spending, not less. The previous government went for years using fair means or foul – robo-debt, finding excuses to suspend people’s dole payments, neglecting aged care, allowing waiting lists to build up – to hold back government spending as part of its delusional claim to be able to reduce taxes.

As Dr Mike Keating, a former top econocrat, has said, we keep forgetting that the purpose of taxation is to pay for the services that our society demands, and which are best financed collectively.

So when we award ourselves a tax cut we can’t afford, the first thing we do is condemn ourselves to continuing unsatisfactory existing services, and few of the additional services we need.

Those additional services include education – from early education to university – healthcare, childcare, aged care, disability care and defence. (Another thing the Libs didn’t foresee in 2018: our desperate need to acquire nuclear subs.)

But don’t hold your breath waiting for any politician from either major party to explain that home truth to the punters. No, much better to keep playing the crazy game where the Libs unceasingly claim to be the party of “lower, simpler and fairer taxes” and Labor says “I’ll see you and raise you”.

Anyone who knows the first thing about tax reform knows that achieving that trifecta is impossible. But if the Liberal lightweights realise how stupid repeating that nonsense makes them seem to the economically literate, they don’t care.

All they know is that the punters lap up that kind of self-delusion. Which, of course, is why Labor never calls them out on their nonsense.

The other thing we do by pressing on with tax cuts we can’t afford is sign up for more deficits and debt. Coates and Griffiths remind us that the high commodity prices the budget is benefitting from surely can’t last forever.

If you exclude this temporary benefit, Grattan estimates that we’re running a “structural” budget deficit of close to 2 per cent of gross domestic product, or about $50 billion a year in today’s dollars.

We’re ignoring it now, but one day we’ll have to at least start covering the extra interest we’ll be paying. How? By increasing taxes. How else? Ideally, we’d introduce new taxes that improved our economic efficiency or the system’s fairness. Far more likely, we’ll just be given back less bracket creep.

It’s the pollies’ bipartite policy of not stopping bracket creep by indexing the income tax scales each year that makes their unceasing talk of lower tax so dishonest and hypocritical. They’ve demonised all new taxes or overt increases in existing taxes, while keeping bracket creep hidden in their back pocket.

Which is not to argue we must eradicate it. Most of the tax reform we’ve had – notably, the introduction of the goods and services tax – has come with the political sweetener of a big, bracket-creep-funded cut in income tax. (Would-be reformers, please note.)

Another name for bracket creep is “automatic stabiliser”. When spending is growing strongly and inflation pressure is building, bracket creep is one of the budget’s main instruments working automatically to help restrain demand by causing people’s after-tax income to rise by a lower percentage than their pre-tax income.

The pollies can’t just let bracket creep roll on for forever. You have to use the occasional tax cut to return some of the proceeds. But July 2024 turned out to be quite the wrong time to do it.

So even if the Reserve starts to cut interest rates towards the end of this year, the tax cuts mean rates will stay higher for longer than they needed to.

Read more >>

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Paying for the cowpat sandwich Morrison handed Albo

It never pays to be too sorry for politicians. They’re all volunteers, they’re well paid for what they do, and even the nicest of them have thrust themselves ahead of many others to get as far as they have.

But I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Anthony Albanese. He got himself elected by promising not to change much, but I doubt he expected to be handed quite such a cowpat sandwich from the smirking Scott Morrison.

As part of his efforts to prove he could keep taxes lower than Labor, Morrison avoided fixing anything much and allowed waiting lists to build up. Now everywhere Albo and his ministers look, they find problems.

These problems will be expensive to fix. This week it’s Education Minister Jason Clare’s turn in the spotlight. The final report on the Universities Accord, which was released on Sunday, reveals plenty that needs fixing.

For openers, the previous government’s job-ready graduates scheme has been a disaster. Under the guise of encouraging students to pick courses that left them job-ready, it cut fees for teaching and nursing, while more than doubling the fees for such courses as arts and humanities, including economics and law.

As the experts predicted, this had little effect on the courses chosen. But it did have its intended effect: saving the government money. One expert suggests that returning tuition fees to something more reasonable could cost the government about $1 billion a year.

The report recommends that the fees for particular courses be set according to the expected lifetime earnings of someone with that degree. Good idea.

I’ve always been happy to defend the HECS-HELP debt scheme as a way of getting people to contribute towards the cost of their education. With repayments geared to the size of their income, and an interest rate far below commercial levels, it should not deter youngsters from poor families from attempting to better themselves.

But unsympathetic governments have fiddled with the scheme incessantly, and with the (hopefully brief) return to high inflation, it’s not surprising Gen Z is so dissatisfied. But Clare seems disposed towards the tweaks the report proposes.

Annual indexation of the debt would occur after deducting the year’s repayments, rather than before. The debt would be indexed to the lower of the rise in consumer prices or the wage index. And the rates at which repayments were required would be applied to successive slices of your income, just as income tax is applied.

There are shortages of workers with various tertiary qualifications at the moment, and the report sees the demand continuing to grow. At present, about 60 per cent of workers have trade or degree qualifications, and we need to reach at least 80 per cent by 2050, the report says. This would involve more than doubling the number of Commonwealth-supported students each year to 1.8 million.

Clare worries that not enough disadvantaged young people are making it to – and through – uni. (Let me tell you, people have been worrying about this at least since Gough Whitlam’s day. And even making university free didn’t help much.)

At present, people from poor families – those of “low socio-economic status” in academic-speak – account for about 17 per cent of enrolments, compared with 25 per cent of the population. Other target groups are First Nations peoples, people with a disability and people living in regional and remote areas.

The report proposes that uni students’ places be funded on a needs basis, similar to Gonski’s scheme for schools. Unis would receive a base amount per student, plus further loadings according to the particular students’ disadvantage.

This would mean regional and outer-suburban unis got a lot more funding per student than the sandstone central-city Group of Eight. But the extra money would be used to reduce the chances of disadvantaged students failing to complete their course for monetary or other reasons.

There would be fee-free courses to prepare chosen students for the rigours of university learning, and financial support for students required to undertake presently unpaid work placements.

It all sounds a big improvement. Quite apart from fairness, it’s clear that the higher the proportion of young people the government wants with a uni degree, the more it will need to include people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But note this: none of these good ideas has been costed, let alone accepted by the Albanese government. We don’t know whether those that are accepted will start in this year’s budget or in 10 years’ time.

As for Gonski-like arrangements, the real Gonski needs-based funding for schools has still not been fully implemented more than 12 years later.

Let me quote Clare back at himself: “We’re not going to tackle this problem if we think that we can solve all the problems at the door of the university when someone turns 18.”

Just so. With education, it’s best to start at the bottom and work up. But we won’t solve many of our multitude of problems until some pollie has the courage to say maybe we need taxes to be higher, not lower.

Read more >>

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Want better productivity? Start by ensuring our kids can read

The trouble with our economy is that there are so many things needing to be fixed, it’s hard to know where to start. And so many of them are urgent we don’t have time to fix things one at a time. But since the economy consists simply of all the workers and all the consumers – that is, all the people – one of my guiding principles is that governments should manage the economy for the many, not the few.

This may seem obvious but, during the decades of “neoliberalism” from which we’re still emerging, it became far from obvious. Neoliberalism is the doctrine that what’s good for BHP is good for Australia. We got used to listening with rapt attention when the top 100 or so chief executives told us what needed to be done to improve productivity.

It took us too long to realise that their idea of a well-functioning economy was one where their incomes grew considerably faster than ours. They’re still at it, not having realised that we’ve stopped listening.

They’re arguing again that the most important thing we need is major tax reform – which, when you inquire, turns out to mean they’d pay less tax while we paid more.

No. I’m far more persuaded by this week’s report from Dr Jordana Hunter and Anika Stobart of the Grattan Institute, arguing we should start at the bottom, not the top, and make sure all our kids become confident readers as early as possible in their time at school.

If you’re building a house, you start by laying a firm foundation, and education should work the same way. Hunter says that in no area of education is improvement more urgent than reading. “Reading proficiency is a foundational skill that unlocks the broader curriculum and empowers young people to grasp opportunities for themselves,” she says.

Stobart says, “When children do not read fluently and efficiently in early primary school, it can undermine their future learning across all subject areas, harm their self-esteem, and limit their life chances.”

Students who struggle with reading are more likely to fall behind their classmates, become disruptive, and drop out of school. They are more likely to end up unemployed, or in poorly paid jobs, we’re told.

Why are they telling us this? Because last year’s NAPLAN testing results show that one in three Australian primary and secondary students cannot read proficiently. For Victorians, the news is better, sort of: a mere one in four.

But for Indigenous students, students from disadvantaged families, and students in regional and rural areas, it’s more than half. (Which makes you wonder why Barnaby Joyce and his National Party mates don’t have a lot more to say on public school funding.)

This appalling deficiency hasn’t just happened, it’s been going on for years without anyone making a fuss about it. Why is it happening? Hunter says the reason most of those students can’t read well enough is that we aren’t teaching them well enough.

“A key cause,” the report says, “is decades of disagreement about how to teach reading. But the evidence is now clear. The ‘whole-language’ approach, which became popular in the 1970s, doesn’t work for all students [including someone in my family years ago]. Its remnants should be banished from Australia’s schools.

“Instead, all schools should use the ‘structured literacy’ approach right through school, which includes a focus on phonics in the early years. Students should learn to sound out the letters of each word.”

Now, let’s be clear. I like teachers – especially those who tell students they must read my columns. So this is no attack on our hard-pressed teachers.

“The real issue here,” Hunter says, “is, are governments doing enough to set teachers up for success? The challenge is making sure best practice is common practice in every single classroom.”

But a key improvement is regular classroom testing, to ensure kids who are struggling get identified early and given extra help to catch up.

That, of course, takes extra money. But federal Education Minister Jason Clare is renegotiating the school funding agreement with the premiers. “The reading wars are over. We know what works,” he’s said. “The new agreement we strike this year needs to properly fund schools and tie that funding to the sort of things that work. The sort of things that will help children keep up, catch up and finish school.”

Economists often worry that the things you could do to make the economy fairer come at the expense of the economic efficiency that improves productivity. But ensuring our kids get off to a good start in life – including through early education, two years of pre-school and good literacy and numeracy – ticks both boxes.

It gives our kids better lives, it makes our workforce better skilled and more valuable, and it saves the budget a bundle in having fewer people who need special help.

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Friday, December 15, 2023

Chalmers finds a better way to get inflation down: fix the budget

There’s an important point to learn from this week’s mid-(financial)-year’s budget update: in the economy, as in life, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

The big news is that, after turning last year’s previously expected budget deficit into a surplus of $22 billion – our first surplus in 15 years – Treasurer Jim Chalmers is now expecting this financial year’s budget deficit to be $1.1 billion, not the $13.9 billion he was expecting at budget time seven months’ ago.

Now, though $1.1 billion is an unimaginably huge sum to you and me, in an economy of our size it’s a drop in the ocean. Compared with gross domestic product – the nominal value of all the goods and services we expect to produce in 2023-24 – it rounds to 0.0 per cent.

So, for practical purposes, it would be a balanced budget. And as Chalmers says, it’s “within striking distance” of another budget surplus.

This means that, compared with the prospects for the budget we were told about before the federal election in May last year, Chalmers and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher have made huge strides in reducing the government’s “debt and deficit”. Yay!

But here’s the point. We live in the age of “central bankism”, where we’ve convinced ourselves that pretty much the only way to steer the economy between the Scylla of high inflation and the Charybdis of high unemployment is to whack interest rates up or down, AKA monetary policy.

It ain’t true. Which means Chalmers may be right to avoid including in the budget update any further measures to relieve cost-of-living pressures and, rather, give top priority to improving the budget balance, thereby increasing the downward pressure on inflation.

The fact is, we’ve always had two tools or instruments the managers of the economy can use to smooth its path through the ups and downs of the business cycle, avoiding both high unemployment and high inflation. One is monetary policy – the manipulation of interest rates – but the other is fiscal policy, the manipulation of government spending and taxation via the budget.

This year we’ve been reminded how unsatisfactory interest rates are as a way of trying to slow inflation. Monetary policy puts people with big mortgages through the wringer, but lets the rest of us off lightly. This is both unfair and inefficient.

Which is why we should make much more use of the budget to fight inflation. That’s what Chalmers is doing. The more we use the budget, the less the Reserve Bank needs to raise interest rates. This spreads the pain more evenly – to the two-thirds of households that don’t have mortgages – which should be both fairer and more effective.

Starting at the beginning, in a market economy prices are set by the interaction of supply and demand: how much producers and distributors want to be paid to sell you their goods and services, versus how much consumers are willing and able to pay for them.

The rapid rise in consumer prices we saw last year came partly from disruptions to supply caused by the pandemic and the Ukraine war. There’s nothing higher interest rates can do to fix supply problems and, in any case, they’re gradually going away.

But another cause of the jump in prices was strong demand for goods and services, arising from all the stimulus the federal and state governments applied during the pandemic, not to mention the Reserve’s near-zero interest rates.

Since few people were out of job for long, this excessive stimulus left many workers and small business people with lots to spend. And when demand exceeded supply, businesses did what came naturally and raised their prices.

How do you counter demand-driven inflation? By making it much harder for people to keep spending so strongly. Greatly increasing how much people have to pay on their mortgages each month leaves them with much less to spend on other things.

Then, as demand for their products falls back, businesses stop increasing their prices and may even start offering discounts.

But governments can achieve the same squeeze on households by stopping their budgets putting more money into the economy than they’re taking out in taxes. When they run budget surpluses by taking more tax out of the economy than they put back in government spending, they squeeze households even tighter.

So that’s the logic Chalmers is following in eliminating the budget deficit and aiming for surpluses to keep downward pressure on prices. This has the secondary benefit of getting the government’s finances back in shape.

But how has the budget balance improved so much while Chalmers has been in charge? Not so much by anything he’s done as by what he hasn’t.

The government’s tax collections have grown much more strongly than anyone expected. Chalmers and his boss, Anthony Albanese, have resisted the temptation to spend much of this extra moolah.

The prices of our commodity exports have stayed high, causing mining companies to pay more tax. And the economy has grown more strongly than expected, allowing other businesses to raise their prices, increase their profits and pay more tax.

More people have got jobs and paid tax on their wages, while higher consumer prices have meant bigger wage rises for existing workers, pushing them into higher tax brackets.

This is the budget’s “automatic stabilisers” responding to strong growth in the economy by increasing tax collections and improving the budget balance, which acts as a brake on strong demand for goods and services.

There’s just one problem. Chalmers has joined the anti-inflation drive very late in the piece. The Reserve has already raised interest rates a long way, with much of the dampening effect still to flow through and weaken demand to the point where inflation pressure falls back to the 2 per cent to 3 per cent target.

We just have to hope that, between Reserve governor Michele Bullock’s monetary tightening and Chalmers’ fiscal tightening, they haven’t hit the economy much harder than they needed to.

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Friday, October 27, 2023

Paying tax is good and, for better government, we should pay more

On Friday, a former top econocrat did something no serving econocrat is allowed to do, and no politician is game to do: he set out the case for us to pay higher, not lower, taxes.

For years, politicians have sought our votes by promising smaller government and lower taxes. This often helped get them elected, but it hasn’t worked as promised.

They’ve reduced the size of government by privatising government-owned businesses and outsourcing the provision of many government-funded services. But though they’re always announcing tax cuts, the hidden tax of bracket creep means there’s been no real reduction in the tax we pay. Great.

The man advocating a radically different approach is Dr Mike Keating. He laid out the case for bigger government and higher taxes in a speech to the Australia Institute’s revenue summit at Parliament House in Canberra.

The pollies seeking election by promising lower taxes take it as obvious that taxation is a bad thing – a “burden” which, like all burdens, needs to be minimised.

But Keating says we should remember the purpose of taxation. It’s to pay for a wide range of services that governments provide to us either directly (education, healthcare, child care, aged care, pensions and payments) or collectively (defence, law and order, roads). Some services we get while we’re young, some when we’re middle-aged, and many when we’re old.

Keating says there’s a wide consensus among Australians about the things we expect the government to do for us. “We recognise that all Australians are entitled to basic levels of education, healthcare, income support and shelter, and that governments have a responsibility to ensure the provision of these essential services,” he says.

Recent Coalition governments promising us lower taxes always added the promise that this could be done without reducing “essential services”.

Keating says there’s now widespread acknowledgement that these services that we pay for collectively are critical to building our community and to our sense of community.

So taxation reflects our mutual obligation to one another as citizens. Taxation underpins an inclusive society and is an efficient way of paying for those services that are consumed collectively. Many of the services paid for by taxation add to our quality of life.

Indeed, he says, history suggests that our demand for these services, such as education and health, tends to rise rapidly as economic growth causes our incomes to grow. They’re what economists call “superior goods”. The better off we get, the more of our income we devote to them.

The problem for governments – which politicians themselves have worsened – is the disconnect in people’s minds between our demand for government services and the taxation needed to pay for them. We refuse to join the dots.

“We want increased access to more and better services on the one hand, and less taxation on the other,” Keating says.

So, let’s stop kidding ourselves. If we want more and better services from government, we’ll have to pay for them with higher taxes, just as when we want more or better in a shop or a restaurant, we know we’ll have to pay more.

But assuming we accept that truth, why do we already want the government to be bigger and better?

One way the previous government sought to square the circle of maintaining “essential services” while cutting taxes – including next July’s stage-three tax cuts – is by underspending on those services and hoping no one would notice.

Keating has thought of no less than seven areas where there’s little doubt that we need to spend more.

First, although the previous government acted on the scandals exposed by the royal commission into aged care, and governments have spent more on childcare, both remain underfunded. What’s more, increases in the availability and quality of care services are likely to lead to higher costs because higher wages will be needed to attract the extra workers.

Second, the Albanese government’s increased spending on “social housing” (what in the olden days was called the housing commission) is widely considered to be much less than needed.

Third, federal government grants for public hospitals will probably have to grow a lot faster than presently expected to reduce excessive waiting times. And the Medicare payments to GPs are still too low, risking shortages of doctors, particularly in the country.

Fourth, federal funding for universities hardly grew in real terms over the nine years of the Coalition government, and actually fell per student. Labor will be pressured to make this up. As for vocational education and training – TAFE – the new National Skills Agreement requires the feds to cough up more.

Fifth, unemployment benefits – this week labelled JobSeeker, maybe something else next week – are very low compared with most other rich economies. And the recent leap in rents means the rent assistance paid to pensioners and others on benefits is now far too mean.

Sixth, it’s clear we’ll need to spend a lot more on the AUKUS nuclear submarines and other defence capabilities. This could increase annual defence spending by at least 1 per cent of gross domestic product over the next decade.

Finally, measures to reduce carbon emissions and to fully develop Australia’s potential as an exporter of renewable energy will almost certainly require greater funding than the government is presently planning.

The Grattan Institute estimates that if present tax arrangements aren’t changed to cover the expected additional growth in government spending, the “structural” (underlying) budget deficit will be close to 3 per cent of GDP in 10 years. Keating thinks it’s more likely to be 4 per cent – or $100 billion a year in today’s dollars.

Continuing deficits of this size would be quite unrealistic, he says. He suggests not another review of the tax system, but a major, authoritative inquiry to assess how much revenue is needed to adequately fund all government services.

When the public has a better understanding of what we’d get for our money, then maybe we’ll be more prepared to accept the need for higher taxes.

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Friday, October 20, 2023

How much government spending is wasted? Sorry, don't know yet

Hands up if you think a lot of the money the government spends is wasted. I think a lot of people would agree. But the question’s not as easily answered as you may think.

My guess is that many people’s impression of the amount of waste is exaggerated. When they see what they believe is wasteful spending they notice and remember it, whereas when everything seems to be going as it should, they don’t take note.

And what’s wasteful can be in the eye of the beholder. All the government money that comes my way is well spent, but the money it’s giving to people I don’t know or don’t like – or to causes I don’t care about – that’s waste. Well, maybe, maybe not.

Many people convince themselves governments waste massive amounts, in order to justify their objection to paying more tax, or their resentment of what they already pay.

Remember, no one in government just stands there tearing up banknotes. Some of the money can be spent on, say, fighter planes than don’t work properly, or roads that are rarely used, but almost all the money spent ends up in someone’s hands, not just as a pension or benefit, but as a payment for work they did for the government, either as its employee or the employee of a company that did something for, or sold something to, the government.

The people who get money from the government in this way don’t regard it as a waste. What do they do with it? They spend most of it. And when they do, this generates income for other people. The money goes round and round. It’s rare for government spending to benefit no one.

But that doesn’t mean the money was well spent. That it benefited the people it was supposed to benefit, or that they got as much benefit from it as intended. That can be particularly so when governments don’t just give people cash, but do things for them that are supposed to help them.

When you think of it like that, my guess is that a fair bit of the government’s spending is wasteful. But I can’t tell you how much. Why not? Because even the government doesn’t know.

Why not? Because governments don’t do nearly as much evaluation of their spending as they should. Australian governments have no culture of regularly and rigorously checking to see spending programs are achieving their stated objectives.

But here’s the news. The Albanese government has vowed to change this. In fulfillment of an election promise, it has allocated spending of $10 million over four years to set up the Australian Centre for Evaluation as a unit within Treasury. It’s the baby of assistant treasurer Dr Andrew Leigh.

The centre will improve the number, quality and impact of evaluations across the Australian public service, working together with evaluation units in other departments and agencies. “It will save taxpayers money and make government better,” Leigh says.

It will partner with other departments to conduct evaluations on mutually agreed priority programs. These evaluations will build momentum by helping to build departments’ capabilities and demonstrating the value of better evaluation across the government.

“Building the … public service’s evaluation capability is also an important step towards reducing the over-reliance on [outside] consultants” and cutting spending on them. Using consultants “is expensive and delivers inconsistent results”, Leigh said.

Last week, Leigh announced that the centre’s first evaluation, with the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, would be of Workplace Australia, the latest name for the network of community and for-profit outfits contracted to provide “employment services” to people having a hard time finding a job.

Leigh says that making sure the Workplace Australia network’s employment services are achieving their stated objective – which is to reduce long-term and “structural” unemployment – is a key part of achieving the government’s commitment to full employment, as outlined in its recent white paper on employment.

Good. Because I’ll be amazed if the evaluation doesn’t find the Workplace Australia program has been a huge waste of money, doing amazingly little to help unemployed people with problems on their way to a decent job.

On one side, bureaucrats have used the tendering system to pay as little as possible for the services the government says it wants to be provided. On the other, the “providers” – even some of the community organisations that seem only in it for the money – have learnt all the ways to tick the boxes and be paid, while doing precious little to help people with problems.

In the era of robo-debt, it didn’t take the providers long to twig that the previous government was happy to pay them for punishing the jobless for minor or manufactured misdemeanours, rather than helping them.

The telltale sign that Workplace Australia was yet another example of the failure of outsourcing – looked good on paper; didn’t work in practice – is the number of times the bureaucrats have tried to fix it by giving it a new name. The old Commonwealth Employment Service became Jobs Services Australia, then the Job Network, then the one-word, lower-case jobactive, then Workforce Australia.

Leigh, a former economics professor, is a great believer in the wider use of the “randomised controlled trials” that the medicos have used so successfully to ensure the procedures and pills they prescribe are “evidence-based”.

This, he hopes, will make the evaluations more accurate in determining what works and what doesn’t.

I have to say there’s a reason that, to date, the evaluation and improvement of spending programs has been half-hearted to non-existent. It’s because ministers and their department heads aren’t keen to have people producing documentary evidence that they aren’t doing their job properly. And the last thing they’d want is for such a report to find its way to the public’s attention.

So Leigh’s is a worthy crusade. Let’s hope he gets somewhere. Actually, if evaluations became a regular thing, and led to regular improvements, ministers and mandarins would have a lot less to fear.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Voting No? You may have this key assumption wrong

If you’re thinking of voting No in the Voice referendum because governments have been spending so much taxpayers’ money trying to “close the gap” without much sign of success, perhaps you need to reconsider. If the Voice to parliament of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is enshrined in the Constitution, obliging our politicians and bureaucrats to listen, chances are that money will be better spent.

But I can tell you now the message First Nations people will be trying to get across: we want the local spending on health and education and the rest to be administered by Indigenous-led local organisations.

Why? Because when you do it that way, the money’s spent by people with a much better understanding of what the problems are, and the best ways to go about fixing them. Because when the government’s being represented by Indigenous-run outfits, they get much more trust and co-operation.

I’ve realised this mainly by reading a report, Better Outcomes and Value for Money with a Seat at the Table, issued by the Lowitja Institute, a largely government-funded, Indigenous-controlled health research organisation, based in Melbourne.

Let’s start with some facts about government spending on Indigenous people.

According to the Productivity Commission’s most recent estimates, for the 2015-16 year, spending by all levels of government on Indigenous people totalled $33 billion, representing 6 per cent of those governments’ total spending of $556 billion.

Some mates of mine believe Aboriginal people get a lot of government money the rest of us don’t. Only $6 billion of that $33 billion was specifically targeted to Indigenous people. The remaining $27 billion was the share of ordinary spending on hospitals, education, aged care and, importantly, the justice system, used by Indigenous people.

Even so, that $33 billion represents average annual spending of $44,900 per Indigenous person, compared with $22,400 per non-Indigenous person.

Why are Indigenous people getting twice as much? Because they have more disadvantage than the rest of us, and so need more help. For instance, their burden of disease is 2.3 times that of non-Indigenous people, the report says.

Indigenous people “have survived centuries of systemic racism, economic and social exclusion, and intergenerational trauma. As a result, our peoples now die far earlier and experience a higher burden of disease, disability, poverty, and criminalisation than other Australians,” it says.

But here’s the upside. Because governments are spending so much, “slight improvements in the efficiency of the existing spend would generate substantial savings, both directly and through flow-on impacts to other policy areas,” we’re told. For a case study, read to the end.

The federal government first signed a statement of intent to work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in 2008, to “achieve equality in health status and life expectancy … by 2030”.

This partnership was refreshed and strengthened in 2020 by a National Agreement on Closing the Gap, made between peak Indigenous community organisations and all federal, state, territory and local governments.

The agreement accepted four priority reforms: formal partnerships and shared decision-making, building and strengthening the community-controlled sector, transforming government mainstream organisations, and shared access to data and information at a regional level.

Are you getting the message? In practice, however, the report says, “these changes have been patchy and incremental despite increased investment from government”.

“An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice could support more effective public investment in our wellbeing because our communities know what they need and how to deliver outcomes with the right support,” we’re told.

The report argues that government-run, top-down programs to close the gap haven’t worked as well as community-controlled initiatives.

Research indicates that Indigenous-controlled community health organisations “attract and retain more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients than mainstream providers, are more effective at improving our health, and see more significant health benefits per dollar of expenditure,” the report says.

It was Indigenous community health organisations that had the knowledge and expertise to rapidly respond to the especially great threat presented to their people by COVID-19.

Throughout the first year of the pandemic, just 147 cases of the virus were reported among Indigenous people, out of 28,000 total cases in Australia. There were no Indigenous deaths and no identified cases in remote Aboriginal communities.

In the second year, Indigenous community health organisations worked tirelessly to ensure their communities were vaccinated.

Turning to education, the report says the federal government’s “remote school attendance strategy”, begun in 2013, with total spending of more than $200 million over eight years, had seen falling attendance rates.

By contrast, the report argues, in 2017, the community-led Maranguka justice reinvestment project in Bourke achieved a 31 per cent increase in year 12 retention, a 23 per cent reduction in recorded rates of family violence incidents, and a 42 per cent reduction in adult days spent incarcerated.

These improvements were calculated to have saved the NSW economy $3 million that year – five times the project’s operating costs.

I’ve drawn my own conclusions from all this. So close to the vote, I leave you to draw yours.

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