Federal budget 2014: Full coverageFederal budget 2014: Interactive data explorerFederal budget 2014: Where will your tax dollars go?
Honest Joe has delivered a stunning first instalment. It’s stunning because he has harnessed the power of compound indexation to restrain spending by more and more as each year goes by. It’s the first instalment because his second, due within two years, will deal with tax.
Until now, pension and disability payments have climbed twice a year in order to keep pace with wages.
From 2017 (a date chosen to keep an election promise about no pension changes in the first term), they will climb more slowly in line with the consumer price index.
The CPI typically climbs 2.5 per cent a year. Wages have typically climbed 3.5 per cent. The difference will create an ever-widening gap in living standards, allowing the government to save an ever-increasing pile of money.
He couldn’t try the same trick with family tax benefits because they are already linked to the CPI. Instead, he’ll freeze them for two years.
And he’ll make it harder to get nearly every benefit going. This matters when it comes to government spending because benefits (so called transfer payments) make up the bulk of government spending. It’s easy to talk about the cost of government, but the cost of running the government is small compared with the cost of the funds handed out.
The savings won’t be great to start with, all the more so because the changes to the pension will be delayed. That’s why there will be a temporary budget repair levy to fill the gap. It will end in July 2017, when the changes to the pension start.
What harnessing the power of compound indexation gives Hockey is a way to predict ever-greater savings right out to the end of the 10-year projection period. It’s an honest version of the so-called ”magic asterisk” trick used by his predecessor, Wayne Swan. Swan said there would be ever greater savings year by year because the government would cut spending as a proportion of gross domestic product year by year. It was a tautology rather than a plan. Treasury officials in the budget lock-up gave the impression they were glad to be free of magic asterisks and have in their place honestly-described measures that actually would cut spending.
In the budget papers, they say the projections ”do not assume a cap on real spending growth to achieve budget surpluses”. Instead, they are built on an identifiable cut in payments growth as a result of measures actually announced.
If pensioners and other recipients of benefits are smart, they will worry. Left long enough without one-off adjustments, the pension would eventually shrink to a tiny proportion of the average wage. But the first of what will probably be a series of one-off adjustments can be put off for years, until beyond the budget’s 10-year time horizon. When it happens, pensioners will have to justify their demands for a catch-up increase. Until then, their benefits will climb by no more than inflation and they are likely to be happy enough because at least they will be getting what appear to be twice-yearly increases.
The result, far more credible than any of the previous governments’ forecasts, is an end to the budget deficit in 2018-19 and then a steady climb to a substantial surplus of 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2024-25, or 1.5 per cent if, as is more likely, some of the proceeds of bracket creep are returned in tax cuts.
It would be going too far to say the savings are locked in. They depend on one incredibly important assumption – no recession for the next 10 years.
Australia has already stretched it out to 22 years. An extra 10 years would mean 33, a record achieved by no other country apart from post-war Japan.
Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson told a gathering of economists last month that if it were to happen, Australia could be extraordinarily proud, before adding: ”It is not, however, something on which I would want to rely.”
Two-thirds of Honest Joe’s budget savings relate to payments; only one third to revenue. That’s to be expected in a budget that concentrates on spending rather than tax. A tax review will be announced before the end of the year and if its recommended measures are anything like as dramatic as the ones Hockey is imposing on spending, high-income users of the superannuation system and others enjoying tax breaks are going to find that second tough budget unsettling.
And not just high earners.
Hockey is doing to the states what he is doing to pensioners.
From July 2017, their hospitals will be funded in accordance with Labor’s generous National Health Reform Agreement, but by a formula built on the consumer price index and population growth. It will hit the states badly, given what is happening to medical costs.
What will they do? He explained to journalists in the budget lock-up that they have options. Lifting the rate of the goods and services tax is one of them. It would be up to the states, he pointed out. But it would be their problem.
By 2017, his tax inquiry will have made its report. It will doubtless argue the case for a higher and broader GST, as has every other inquiry that has been allowed to examine the question. (The Henry tax review wasn’t allowed to examine the question.) Then it will be up to the states. Hockey might be prepared to help them. He is certainly prepared to starve them of hospital funds in order to concentrate their minds.
Hockey has not delivered a horror budget. It inflicts pain only gradually, and openly. It will help get the budget back into balance. And there is more to come.
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