Labor will struggle with deficit and debt until it raises taxes

There’s something strange about last week’s federal budget. It reveals remarkably quick progress in getting the budget deficit down to nearly nothing. But then it sees the deficit going back up again. Which shows that, as my former fellow economics editor Tim Colebatch has put it, Rome wasn’t built in one budget.

Let’s look at the figures before explaining how they came about. The previous, Coalition government finally got the budget back to balance in the last full financial year before the arrival of the pandemic, 2018-19.

Federal treasurer Jim Chalmers freely admits that present policies will have to be changed.Credit:Eamon Gallagher

The government’s big spending and tax breaks in response to COVID’s arrival in the second half of the following year, 2019-20, saw the budget back in deficit to the tune of $85 billion. Next year’s deficit was even higher at $134 billion.

But in the year that ended soon after the change of government in May, 2021-22, the deficit fell to just $32 billion. And in last week’s second go at the budget for this year, 2022-23, the deficit is expected to be little changed at $37 billion – which would be $41 billion less than what Scott Morrison was expecting at the time of the election seven months ago.

But the changes in these dollar figures don’t tell us much as comparing the size of the deficit with the size of the economy (nominal gross domestic product) in the same year. Judging it this way allows for the effect of inflation and for growth in the population.

So, relative to GDP, the budget deficit has gone from zero in 2018-19, to 4.3 per cent, then a peak of 6.5 per cent in 2020-21, then crashed down to just 1.4 per cent last financial year. This year’s deficit is now expected to be little changed at 1.5 per cent.

We all know why the deficit blew out the way it did, but why did it come back down so quickly?

Three main reasons. The biggest is that it happened by design. All the pandemic-related measures were temporary. As soon as possible, they were ended.

But also: the rise in world fossil fuel prices caused by the war in Europe produced a huge surge tax collections from our mining companies. Last week’s budget announced the new government’s decision to use almost all of this windfall to reduce the deficit.

And last week we learnt the government had also decided to keep a very tight rein on government spending. It introduced all the new spending programs it promised at the election, but cut back the previous government’s programs to largely cover the cost of the new ones.

Its frugality had one objective: to help the Reserve Bank reduce inflation by first using higher interest rates to reduce people’s demand for goods and services.

Budget repair is top of mind for the government, and for the structural deficit to be removed taxes will have to rise.Credit:Matt Davidson

Keeping the deficit low for another year has, Treasurer Jim Chalmers said this week, changed the “stance” of fiscal (budgetary) policy to “broadly neutral”. Which, he’s sure to be hoping, will mean the Reserve has to raise interest rates by less than would have.

Another benefit of his decision not to spend the tax windfall, Chalmers said this week, is that by June next year, the government’s gross debt will be $50 billion lower than it would have been. And, according to Treasury’s calculations, this reduction means a saving of $47 billion on interest payments over the decade to 2033.

Great. Wonderful. Except for the strange bit: two years after this financial year, the budget deficit is expected to have gone back up to $51 billion, or 2 per cent of GDP.

The deficit won’t go away but, on present policies, will stay too high every year for as far as the eye can see.

What’s more, the budget’s “medium-term projections” foresee the deficit stuck at about 2 per cent each year – or $50 billion in today’s dollars – for the following eight years to 2032-33.

In the first budget for this year, just before the election, the deficit was projected to have fallen slowly to 0.7 per cent of GDP by 2033. Now, no progress is expected. Which means, of course, that the amount of public debt we end up with will be higher than expected during the election campaign.

The gross public debt is now not expected to reach a plateau, of about 47 per cent of GDP, until the first few years of the 2030s.

So, if the budget deficits last year and this are so much better than we were expecting just seven months ago, why on earth are the last eight years of the medium term now expected to be significantly worse?

Three main reasons. First, because a new actuarial assessment of the future cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) shows the cost growing much faster than previously thought. Second, because, with world interest rates having risen so much this year, the interest bill on the public debt is now projected to be much bigger over the coming decade.

Third, because the previous government based its projections on the assumption that the productivity of labour would improve at the quite unrealistic average rate of 1.5 per cent a year, but Chalmers has cut this to a more realistic 1.2 per cent. This change reduces government revenue by more than it reduces government spending.

What this exercise reveals is that the “persistent structural deficit” earlier projections told us to expect, will actually be worse than we were told. The deficit won’t go away but, on present policies, will stay too high every year for as far as the eye can see.

Fortunately, Chalmers freely admits that present policies will have to be changed. “While this budget has begun the critical task of budget repair, further work will be required in future budgets to rebuild fiscal buffers [ready for the next recession] and manage growing cost pressures”.

He repeated this week his view that, as a country, we need to “have a conversation about what we can afford and what we can’t” – his way of breaking it gently that, if the structural deficit is to be removed, taxes will have to rise.

Ross Gittins is the economics editor.

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