Gilding the budget lily: Labor brings in the creative accountants
Save articles for later
Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.
This month’s budget is not as profligate as its critics claim, but nor is it the deficit-disappearing, penny-pinching budget it was tricked up to be.
When ministerial staffers use words to gild the fiscal lily, it’s called spin doctoring. When the government’s bureaucrats show the treasurer and, more particularly, the finance minister how to do it with numbers, it’s called creative accounting.
Treasurer Dr Jim Chalmers and Finance Minister Katy Gallagher.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
So, never fear, Jim Chalmers and Katy Gallagher didn’t need to pay PwC a motza to explain how to make the budget seem better than it was.
No, not the way the former NSW Coalition government paid KPMG to show it how to make its budget balance look better by moving the state’s trains off-budget. Nor has the same firm been paid by another part of the state government to write a report on why it was a bad idea.
There was something a bit odd about the media’s treatment of Chalmers’ second budget. Because the budget’s purpose is to reveal the government’s plans for taxing and spending in the coming financial year, the media give all their attention to the budget balance for the coming year.
Which, this time, is expected to be a deficit of $14 billion, rising to $35 billion the following year, with the budget projected to stay in deficit through to at least 2023-24.
In a budget of $630 billion a year, in an economy of $2600 billion a year, a surplus of a mere $4 billion is nothing to get excited about.
Usually, the media ignore the estimated budget balance in the present financial year, which will end on June 30. It’s “old”. But not this year. This time, a surplus of $4 billion is expected.
Once the media got wind of a surplus, they lost interest in anything else. A surplus! First surplus in 15 years! What an achievement. And after being in power for only a year. How could you get more convincing proof of Labor’s skill as a manager of government finances?
Now, let’s be clear. The expected surplus is perfectly believable, and not the product of creative accounting. But it is the media displaying their economic ignorance.
For a start, in a budget of $630 billion a year, in an economy of $2600 billion a year, a surplus of a mere $4 billion is nothing to get excited about. It’s really a balanced budget, just as much as a deficit of $4 billion would be near enough to a balanced budget.
More significantly, the notion that any treasurer, no matter how wonderful, could turn an expected deficit of $78 billion into a surplus of $4 billion in the space of a year is fanciful. If any pollie should get the credit for it, it would have to be Chalmers’ Liberal predecessor, Josh Frydenberg.
Only he had enough time to do the things capable of helping produce such a result. With the benefit of hindsight, what Frydenberg did was greatly overstimulate the economy, adding to a surge in inflation as well as causing the unemployment rate to fall to 3.5 per cent so workers and businesses paid a lot more income tax.
Another way to look at it is that, had Treasury been better at forecasting, Frydenberg could have forecast a return to budget balance in his last budget.
But this didn’t stop Chalmers and his spin doctors from claiming the credit for himself. Consider this from the budget papers: “The improved fiscal outlook since October largely reflects government decisions to return tax upgrades to budget.”
Talk about twisting the truth. Chalmers wants to take all the credit because, confronted with an unexpected surge in tax collections of $88 billion, he only spent a bit of it.
Credit where it is due: Former treasurer Josh Frydenberg.Credit: James Brickwood
But, surely, it was the silly media that made all the fuss about the surplus, not that nice young Mr Chalmers. Well, that’s certainly what his spin doctors want you to think – all the adulation came from the crowd.
But they were subtly pushing an easily distracted media in a favourable direction. Consider this. The usual practice in the construction of budget tables is to highlight the coming “budget year”. Not this time. This time it was the old year that got highlighted. So, the $4 billion surplus was shown in bold type, not the $14 billion deficit.
(By the way, as The Australian Financial Review has reported, had Frydenberg’s $690 million [yes, million] deficit in 2018-19 – the one that presaged all the Libs’ happy election talk about “back in black” – been calculated using the same accounting rules under which Chalmers’ surplus was calculated, it would have been a surplus of $7 billion. But no, this isn’t a fiddle, either. The decision to change the rules was made, in prospect, many years earlier by some finance minister named Penny Wong.)
Now we get to the creative accounting, which the Centre for Independent Studies’ Robert Carling, a former NSW Treasury officer, has pointed out. The budget papers make much of the claim that “the government’s spending restraint has limited real [note the real] payments growth to an average 0.6 per cent over five years from 2022-23 to 2026-27”.
Wow. Now that’s what I call restraint. What an achievement. Elsewhere in the papers we’re told that this compares with real average spending growth of about 4 per cent in the eight years before the global financial crisis, and 2.2 per cent over the eight years before the pandemic.
Wow. What restraint the Albanese government is showing. Except that pollies usually quote budget figures over the four years of the budget year plus three years of “forward estimates”. So, why is the 0.6 per cent an average over five years?
Because the extra year includes in the sum the pre-budget year ending in a month. And, purely by chance, real government spending in 2022-23 is expected to fall by 4.3 per cent.
By contrast, real spending in the coming year will grow by 3.7 per cent. Then comes projected annual real growth of 0.6 per cent, 1.9 per cent and 1 per cent.
Why the huge fall this year? Partly, I suspect, because of the effect of temporary pandemic spending programs coming to an end. But also because the indexation of various spending programs was lagging the huge rise in the consumer price index, which is the inflation measure used to calculate the “real” change.
What’s worth remembering from this little fiddle is: never trust calculations of average spending growth into the future. The first year will be close to the truth, but the projections for subsequent years will always be way too low because they’re based on the assumption of unchanged policies, whereas it’s certain that spending plans will have grown by the time we get there.
The first treasurer to con me with this averaging trick was Chalmers’ former boss, Wayne Swan. But Swan got his comeuppance by making himself a laughing-stock when he treated Treasury’s forecasts of future budget surpluses as in the bag. Turned out they weren’t.
The assumptions that policies won’t change and that targets will always be achieved are the reason the budget papers’ “medium-term” projections of deficits and debt 10 years into an unknowable future shouldn’t be taken seriously.
In both sense of the word, they are calculated to mislead.
Ross Gittins is the economics editor.
The Business Briefing newsletter delivers major stories, exclusive coverage and expert opinion. Sign up to get it every weekday morning.
Most Viewed in Business
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article