Showing posts with label treasurers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label treasurers. Show all posts

Saturday, August 10, 2019

How politics came to trump economics in Canberra

How does the federal government really work? Is it as we were told in Yes, Minister, with the bureaucrats actually in charge, quietly manipulating the politicians? Or are public servants actually the servants of their political masters, as the pollies focus more on getting re-elected than running the country well?

Does Treasury dominate the other departments and the economic advice going to government? Do bureaucrats still give ministers "frank and fearless" advice, or has their role been usurped by the ever-growing army of ministerial staffers, politically aligned think tanks and lobby groups?

In truth, it’s hard for outsiders to be sure. But a new book by a former 30-year senior Treasury officer, Paul Tilley, Changing Fortunes, is surprisingly frank and fearless in spelling out how things work, and how Treasury’s relationship with the elected government has "changed dramatically in recent times".

Last month Scott Morrison said he saw the bureaucrats’ role as implementing the government’s policies. Their advisory role was limited to advising the government of any problems that might arise during that implementation.

Tilley makes it clear this isn’t just what Morrison would like, it’s pretty much what he and his recent predecessors have long had. Treasury gives much information to the treasurer, but avoids giving written policy advice it believes would be unwelcome. What little frank advice is given comes verbally, as part of the private discussion between the treasurer and Treasury secretary.

Tilley says the art of policy advising involves understanding the true nature of the problem, predicting the consequences of policy options and framing effective policy advice.

To be influential, however, policy advisers need to find a balance between having sufficient separation from the raw politics of government to maintain a strong policy framework, on one hand, and having sufficient responsiveness to ministers to be listened to, on the other.

"Treasury’s influence spectrum had ‘frank and fearless advice’ at one end and full ‘responsiveness to government’ at the other," he writes. The trick was the find the right spot in the middle.

But by 2014, under Tony Abbott, "Treasury was now at the full responsiveness-to-government extreme," he writes.

His book is a history of Treasury from its establishment in 1901. "Treasury has long considered itself to be the best economic policy advising agency in Australia.

"Its favoured economic policy framework has for the most part been grounded in neoclassical economics - a belief in the power of markets, and the inherent tendency of supply and demand forces to move towards equilibrium.

"Non-achievement of equilibrium must be caused then, by some market impediment or government interference, and Treasury has seen it as its job to tackle those impediments or that interference.

"If there has been one enduring belief within Treasury – its light on the hill – this is it," he writes.

This is what Tilley means by Treasury’s possession – unlike so many other departments - of a "strong policy framework".

"If there has been a central defining culture in Treasury, it has been around analytical excellence – having the strongest policy framework and the best ideas. If there has been one recurring constraint on Treasury’s policy effectiveness, it has been too narrow in its focus and closed to alternative perspectives," he says.

Tilley’s title, Changing Fortunes, recognises that, over its 118-year life, Treasury’s influence has waxed and waned.

For its first 30 years it was the government’s bookkeeper. It evolved into an economic policy agency only after the Great Depression revealed its inability to provide authoritative advice on economic policy.

The economists arrived from the 1930s, with the advent of Keynesianism. The "golden years" for the economy in the 1950s and ‘60s were also golden for Treasury, which grew in size and status, leading the debate about economic ideas and allowing its influence and strength to give it "a level of arrogance".

This did not sit comfortably with the increasingly assertive governments of the post-Menzies era. Treasury was pushed out into the cold by Gough Whitlam, and kept there by Malcolm Fraser. Treasury’s advice remained frank and fearless, but was considered dogmatic, and often wasn’t listened to. I think this was when our Yes, Minister era ended.

Relations became more constructive when Bob Hawke and Paul Keating arrived, and continued so under John Howard and Peter Costello. "There was a sense of partnership in the Treasury-government relationships, and with the advancement of economic reforms that Treasury advocated it again influenced the policy agenda."

But for the past decade, first under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, then under Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison, the "political chaos" has robbed governments of the sustained political capital needed to pursue difficult reforms. Governments fighting for their political survival have maintained a "relentless push for message over substance".

"In the daily political and media battles of the last decade, Treasury policy advice has not been sought, and at times not very effectively given. In those battles, it has been economic and budget facts and figures, not policy advice, that have been demanded," we’re told.

"The habit has developed of not providing policy advice that ministers don’t agree with. Policy advice on contentious issues now is discussed with ministers’ offices in its preparation and if the office indicates that the minister would not be comfortable with the proposed advice an information brief goes instead.

"The office’s (politically attuned) policy advice can then be provided over the top of the Treasury information brief."

The balance of policy influence has shifted to the political offices and external stakeholder groups, with the public service becoming more information providers and implementers of government decisions, he says.

"The government, therefore, is left without a strong source of genuine policy advice. The consequent lack of a consistent economic narrative over the last decade is plain for all to see."

Sunday, May 24, 2015

GITTINS the book: sneak preview II

Why did an accountant who'd forgotten most of the economics he was supposed to have learnt at uni and never really learnt to be a reporter, go from cadet journalist to economics editor in four years?

Because he had the immense good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.

I joined the Herald just as the startling policies of the Whitlam government and the global economic disruption of the first OPEC oil price shock were convincing the nation's editors that the biggest part of politics was economics, and that they needed to run a lot more stories about the economy and needed more journalists proficient in economics to do it.

The oil price shock of December 1973 happened to make my first year at the Herald, 1974, a watershed in the global economic history of the 20th century.

It proved to be the last year of the almost 30-year postwar Golden Age of strong and steady growth in all the developed countries, with low inflation, full employment and ever-rising living standards and a narrowing gap between rich and poor.

The oil shock wrong-footed Western governments and brought to light the hitherto unknown problem of "stagflation" – simultaneously high unemployment and inflation.

The advent of stagflation caused a loss of confidence in traditional Keynesian macro-economic management, which could deal with either high inflation or high unemployment, but not both at the same time. In the search for an alternative, many turned to "monetarism" - controlling the growth in the supply of money.

I became an economic journalist when the battle between Keynesians and monetarists was at its height. It turned out that through much of the monetarist criticism of Keynesianism had merit – money did matter, as the monetarists had argued – the rest was mumbo jumbo.

Money-supply targeting wasn't the magic answer promised. It didn't even work. Even so, the main instrument for managing the ups and downs of the economy was switched from fiscal policy (the budget) to monetary policy (interest rates).

Another solution to stagflation was "incomes policy" – direct control over wages, other incomes and prices. Its Australian version came late in the form of the Hawke-Keating government's "accord" with the union movement.

It took until the mid-1990s to get inflation down to the 2 or 3 per cent that had pertained during the Golden Age.

Dr Don Stammer, a veteran business economist, says you need to have seen four recessions before you're fully qualified. I thought the global financial crisis of 2008-09 would bring my fourth, but if you don't count that – I count it as a potentially severe recession turned into a mild one by remarkably skilful management – I've seen three big ones.

The recession of 1974-5 would by the itself have caused the Whitlam government's defeat had there not been more than enough other reasons.

The severe recession of the early 1980s brought the Fraser government's reign to an end after just seven years and the severe recession we didn't have to have in the early 1990s – in the sense that all recessions happen by accident rather than design – finally did for the perpetrator of that bravado in 1996, although Paul Keating's execution was delayed three years by the inexperience of a former economics professor, Dr John Hewson.

Feel free to write this on my tombstone: "he never fell for the line that economists had finally conquered the business cycle". You only had to live through the Keynesians' humiliation in the world recession of 1974-75 to be permanently cured of such hubris. I soon formed the view that recessions occurred roughly every seven years.

I know from the three recessions that have occurred so far "on my watch" – each of them accurately branded "the worst since the Great Depression" - how terrible recessions are: the fear and pain they cause to small business people, workers who lose their jobs and young people who have the misfortune to be leaving school or university at the time.

In 40 years I've been around for 13 federal treasurers. The Whitlam government's Frank Crean was my first. I was too junior to get to know him, which was a pity. I liked him because he reminded me of my father. I had little to do with Dr Jim Cairns and didn't get to know Bill Hayden until he was in opposition.

After the Fraser government arrived I didn't get to know rubbery Phil Lynch, but John Howard was a different matter.

Keating was an assiduous worker of gallery journalists, who learnt much of his economics from [former Australian Financial Review editor] Max Walsh until Treasury took over. I was seen as to partial to him and his policies, but that was because I invariably agreed with them – rationalism with a human face. Our greatest treasurer, with daylight second.

His successor, John Kerin, did a more-Keating-than-Keating impression. With a degree in agricultural economics, Kerin was far better qualified than most treasurers, so I thought it terribly unjust when the TV news bulletins hounded him from office by repeatedly playing a clip of him forgetting that GOS stood for gross operating surplus. None of his righteous accusers would have known that.

John Dawkins was competent but tetchy. Ralph Willis was well qualified academically, but terribly reserved.

Peter Costello had two counts against me: I was from Sydney and, like virtually all journos, I was biased against him politically. It's true I criticised him on more issues than I supported him.

But though I backed him vigorously on some unpopular measures, it would never have crossed his mind that my criticism arose from our differing values, not from partisanship.

Once, his press secretary decided to give me the treatment regularly dished out to gallery reporters who'd incurred his displeasure by inviting all economic journalists to some function except me.

I couldn't believe he could be so incompetent. Gallery reporters had no choice but to cop such treatment in silence, but as a columnist in Sydney, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by making it public. Normally I resist the temptation to go for cheap cheers, but this time I opted for a little self-publicity.

I kept it up for two weeks until the call came through from Costello. "I'm sorry to shock you, Ross, but I didn't actually read the column you say I took offence at." Etcetera. It was as close to a conciliatory call as Costello could get, so I too was conciliatory.

People kept telling me Costello was bright but lazy, but a treasurer who didn't read my columns? I believed him.

Costello's greatest achievements were his carriage of the goods and services tax and his reform of the prudential supervision of the financial system, which kept our banks out of trouble in the GFC. The notion that he's up there with Keating as a reformer is partisan propaganda.

Wayne Swan fell short of either of them. The truth is I feel a bit guilty about Swan. I let my liking for the man stop me from writing what I thought: that he was too weak to be treasurer. He wasn't brave enough on the reform front nor tough enough in controlling government spending and he couldn't sell ice-creams on a hot day at the beach.

When he was succeeded by Chris Bowen my first thought was regret that I'd neglected to take up opportunities to get to know Bowen better. But thinking about my problem with Swan I decided I was better off not getting to like these guys and so being freer to judge them on their merits.

I know Joe Hockey well enough to know he's a likable guy – and to expect him to see more easily than Costello that, with me, he'll win some and lose some – so that's close enough.

My experience watching the bad, indifferent and good management of our economy over the past 40 years has left me sure of one thing: Malcolm Fraser may have lacked the resolve to live up to it, but his slogan "Fight Inflation First" is dead right.

Part of the policy debate between Keynesians and their opponents rested on the belief that Keynesians cared most about unemployment because they worried about people at the bottom, whereas conservatives carried most about inflation because it diminished the wealth of the rich.

In one of his first speeches as [Reserve Bank] governor Bernie Fraser demolished that neat dichotomy by pointing out inflation actually hurt the poor more than the rich because the poor were unable to afford the expert advice needed to protect themselves from – even benefit from – the effects of inflation. Negatively geared investment in property or shares is a classic instance of benefiting from inflation.

If you force me to choose which is the greater evil, inflation or unemployment, there's no shadow of doubt in my mind: unemployment wins. But the choice we have to make – and the relationship between those two evils – is more subtle than that.

To me, if you care about achieving low unemployment in anything but the short term, you start by fixing inflation and keep it fixed, so you can then grow the economy at a steady but healthy rate and thus grind down unemployment and keep it low for as long as possible.

That describes how we've managed our economy over the past 20 years. In the preceding 20 years governments pursuing the alternative strategy of fighting unemployment first would rev up the economy after ever recession, soon bringing inflation back up and thus sowing the seeds of the next bust.

Edited extract from Gittins, by Ross Gittins (Allen & Unwin), out this week.

Ten reforms that transformed Australia

1. Floating the dollar

2. Deregulating the banks

3. New taxes on capital gains and fringe benefits

4. Removing import protection

5. Privatising government businesses

6. Enterprise bargaining

7. National competition policy

8. Central bank independence

9. Goods and services tax

10. Taxes on mining and carbon

My five worst predictions

1. Expecting the severe recession of the early 1990s to be a "soft landing".

2. Doubting the move from centralised wage-fixing to enterprise bargaining would be an improvement

3. Saying the US authorities were right to allow Lehman Brothers to fail in September 2008

4. Expecting Australia to be caught up in the subsequent Great Recession

5. Failing to foresee the adverse social effects of micro-economic reform

The best of 13 treasurers

1. Paul Keating. By a country mile. He instigated the sweeping reforms that transformed the economy and laid the groundwork for better day-to-day management of it. He made the economy less inflation-prone and more flexible, thus able to reduce unemployment faster.

2. Peter Costello. Greatest achievement was to free the Reserve Bank to change interest rates as it saw necessary, meaning the economy is now  managed more by econocrats than politicians. He also ensured our banks were tightly supervised while the Americans were letting theirs create so much havoc.

3. Wayne Swan. Despite his failings he deserves a spot on the treasurers' honour board purely for his surprisingly deft handling of stimulus spending and human confidence in the wake of the global financial crisis, ensuring we suffered only the mildest of recessions.


Saturday, February 8, 2014

Our three top treasurers in 40 years

In the 40 years I've now been an economic journalist for Fairfax Media I've given 12 federal treasurers the benefit of my free advice. I doubt it has made much difference, but I do know this: despite all you read in the paper, our economy is now far better managed than it used to be.

For this I give most of the political credit to just three of them: Paul Keating, by a country mile, Peter Costello and one you won't believe: Wayne Swan.

That the economy is now far better managed is easily proved. We went from boom to recession in my first year, 1974, back into a severe recession in 1982 under treasurer John Howard, and then again in 1990 with Keating's "recession we had to have".

Each was worse than the one before and each was correctly labelled "the worst recession since the Great Depression". I formed the view that recessions happened about every eight years.

But as Paul Bloxham, of the HSBC bank, has reminded us, Australia is now in its 23rd year of continuous economic growth. Must be doing something right.

To have achieved such an unprecedented gap since the last severe recession we had to escape the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, the US "tech-wreck" recession of the early 2000s and the Great Recession that followed the global financial crisis in 2008 - and still isn't really over.

Reckon that was all down to good luck?

We owe it at least as much to good management. I know because I remember the roller-coaster ride the economy was on before the econocrats got it back under control.

Wages rising 25 per cent in a year and inflation hitting more than 17 per cent under the Whitlam government; inflation back up to 12 per cent under treasurer Howard and unemployment peaking above 10 per cent after his recession; mortgage interest rates hitting 17 per cent and unemployment peaking at 11 per cent in Keating's recession.

Turns out the present growth period accounts for just over half my 40 years. And of my 12 treasurers, Keating, Costello and Swan were in office for well over half.

Keating is our best treasurer by far because he instigated the sweeping reforms that transformed the economy and laid the groundwork for better day-to-day management of it. He made the economy less inflation-prone and more flexible, thus able to reduce unemployment faster.

Costello's greatest achievement was to free the Reserve Bank to change interest rates as it saw necessary, meaning the economy is now managed more by econocrats than politicians. He also ensured our banks were tightly supervised while the Americans were letting theirs create so much havoc.

Swan deserves a spot on the treasurers' honour board purely for his surprisingly deft handling of stimulus spending and human confidence after the GFC, ensuring we suffered only the mildest of recessions.

Aided by some in the media, his political opponents have had great success in rewriting that recent history. But later historians won't be deceived.