Last night, the Australian Federal Treasurer brought down his second ‘fiscal statement’ (aka, the Federal ‘Budget’). I try to avoid the term ‘budget’ when discussing national government fiscal balances because it leads to a confusion between a the finances of a household, which uses the currency and is financially constrained and the finances of a sovereign government, which is never revenue constrained because it is the monopoly issuer of the currency. In last night’s fiscal statement, the Treasurer committed the Government to a policy path that will entrench mass unemployment (over 6 per cent for the next three years and not much below that in 2018-19). In each of the next four years, the fiscal shift is contractionary despite claims that it is a ‘big-spending budget’. It has nothing much to do with economics and all to do with the dramatic failure of last year’s fiscal strategy and the resulting plunge in electoral support. With an election next year, the Federal government has tried to run a fiscal policy with headline appeal but the reality is that the outcomes will continue to undermine the well-being of the disadvantaged. It will also fail to achieve its own fiscal targets because the in-built growth assumptions are too optimistic. Finally, it exposes the lie that the Government peddled in the lead up to the last election that on-going deficits would cripple the economy and send the nation bust. In that sense, the government is looking like the Tories in Britain in 2012 when they cut short the ridiculous austerity push which had sent the economy back into recession and instead allowed for an on-going deficit. The deficit wasn’t nearly large enough and so growth there has been pitiful. But it was large enough to support some growth. The same will be the case in Australia.
The ABC news report (May 4, 2015) – Budget figures likened to Stephen King novel as Deloitte predicts $14.1 billion blowout for 2015-2016 – is one of the worst pieces of journalism you will ever read. There is no critical scrutiny in this report at all. It clearly just takes the press release from the private consulting firm and summarises it for public consumption. That is not balanced reporting or good journalism. The ABC is our national broadcaster, funded from the public purse and reaches all the population. It is also a free resource so there are no barriers to entry to consumption. It therefore has a responsibility to provide balanced reporting and should never become partisan. The problem is that on economics matters it has become a neo-liberal mouthpiece and continually gives headline space to mainstream economics organisations who make money from selling spurious advice about the economy. The only reasonable thing that this ABC Report is that the headline likens the fiscal analysis of Deloitte Access Economics, a Canberra-based economic consultancy firm, to fictional prose, which I think is an accurate assessment.
Recall back to the worst part of the GFC when the Australian government announced a relatively large fiscal intervention in late 2008, we had a swathe of financial market commentators predicting the worst. This article (published July 11, 2009) – Alarming debt bomb is ticking – was representative of the hysteria that the public was confronted with. We read about “a nearly saturated bond market” and the ticking time bomb of government debt. Apparently, the Australian government was soon to run out of money and would not be able to fund itself. There were predictions of a “failed auction, when there are insufficient bids from authorised dealers to cover the volume of bonds offered”. The intent of all these sorts of articles were to put public pressure on the government to impose austerity (but leave any handouts to the corporate sector) intact. Some five years later, the fiscal deficit is still rising. Yesterday (March 24, 2015), the Australian Office of Financial Management (AOFM), which issues and manages Federal government debt, issued its latest press release – Pricing of New June 2035 Treasury Bond. I wonder when all the retractions are going to come from the financial market commentators, the Treasurer and a range of academics who were claiming there was a calamity approaching. Amazing really. Read on.
Its sad when politicians lie just to get political points as they face declining popularity. We saw last week that the Australian Prime Minister started attacking indigenous Australians for living in areas that they have occupied, one way or another, for somewhere up to 80,000 years. He claimed these settlements were “lifestyle” choices and people could no longer expect government support if they wanted to indulge in such choices. 80,000 years for a culture that has a deep connection with the ‘land’ is quite story compared to the Anglo settlement in Australia of 226 years for a culture that connects via iPhones! The PM was playing into the hands of the racist Australians who think the indigenous population here are skivers and drunks and should get no state support. They ignore that this cohort is one of the most disadvantaged peoples of the World. In the last few days, the PM has been lying about the state of government finances and pledging to that “the government will have the budget back in balance within five years”. There was no mention of what this might imply for the real economy. I am surprised that the conservatives haven’t learned from the previous Labor Government who made continual promises of surpluses but failed each time – largely because they didn’t understand that they cannot control the fiscal outcomes no matter how hard they try. And when they do try and run against the spending desires of the non-government sector, they just cause havoc and damage and fail to achieve their goals anyway. Stupid is not the word for these sorts of promises.
There is growing pressure on Australia’s wage setting tribunals to scrap penalty and overtime rates, allegedly because they damage employment and firms are just busting to put more workers on as long as wages drop. I have had a long association with these tribunals as an expert witness and I cannot recall the employers’ representatives ever agreeing that the time is right for wage rises. If their submissions are to be taken on their word then there would never be any wage increases. The facts are that real wages continue to fall in Australia – more rapidly in the private sector than the public. The Australian Bureau of Statistics published the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the June quarter yesterday (August 13, 2014) and the data shows that hourly wage inflation is running at 2.4 per cent per annum, which is well below the current inflation rate. Real wages growth is also well below the growth in hourly productivity, which means that the Australian distribution system is still redistributing real national income to profits. And all the while employment growth is flat or negative. Meanwhile, our cigar-smoking Treasurer sees it as his role to berate the poor for being poor and distorting the public data to hide the fact that the May fiscal statement (aka budget) significantly cuts the real standard of living for low income earners and leaves the top income earners relatively unscathed. But all of this is in the name of fiscal austerity (aka madness).
The Australia government released its annual fiscal statement (aka ‘The Budget’) last night and I admit it is the first time in many years (as long as I can remember) that I haven’t actually listened to the speech. Granted at times when I have lived abroad I missed it. But usually I watch or listen to it if I can. Last night I just could not bring myself to listen to the hubris. The build up has been too much. Australia, despite our pretensions to being the ‘clever’ country, despite our high literacy rates, despite being among the wealthiest nations in the world, is a highly ignorant nation. We allow a fool (the Treasurer) to wheel out a catalogue of lies and half-truths before us every day without stopping for a second to question them. This fiscal statement is harsh, will deliberately undermine the well-being of our weakest citizens, will damage our position in the region (cutting foreign aid) and for no reason other than the government wants to hand over real income to the corporate elites at the expense of almost everyone else. When the spending cuts and tax hikes finally come into play, they will damage the prosperity of our nation. That is much more important than the media flurry about whether the Government has broken its promise not to introduce higher taxes. Of-course they broke their promises. They always do. But we should not accept actions that undermine our welfare. That is more important.