Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Trust. Why Abbott has become a brake on the economy

Here's what's missing: trust. Not just between Abbott and his backbenchers, but also between Abbott and us. If anything,  the leadership contest has made things worse.

As Abbott brought forward the timing of the leadership vote on Sunday his supporter and finance minister Mathias Cormann told the ABC the economy was "heading in the right direction".

He wanted "to build on the achievements we made in 2014".

Take a moment to consider the achievements and the direction in which things are heading.

That year began with a quarterly rate of economic growth of 1 per cent. After the budget it slid to 0.5 per cent, and then to 0.3 per cent. It's falling, rather than rising. The direction is down.

(Ignore the through-the-year figures Cormann quoted. They make the budget look good by including the very strong economic growth that preceded it.)

The Reserve Bank made its view about economic growth clear on Tuesday. Here's what it said when it cut rates an hour or two before its governor briefed Cormann and others in cabinet:

"In Australia the available information suggests that growth is continuing at a below-trend pace, with domestic demand growth overall quite weak."

It's weak and it's bleak. It isn't heading "in the right direction".

Looking ahead the Reserve Bank expects growth to remain "a little below trend for somewhat longer, and the rate of unemployment peak a little higher, than earlier expected."

Unemployment has climbed from a quarterly rate of 5.3 per cent at the end of 2012 to 5.8 per cent at the end of 2013 to 6.2 per cent at the end of 2014. We get the first figures for 2015 on Thursday.

The direction is undeniably clear, but it's not the right one. Unemployment is worse than it was at the peak of the global financial crisis. The Reserve Bank expects it to get worse still...

Hockey and Cormann will tell you that while unemployment is growing, employment is too. But it's not, really. The number of hours worked per month grew barely at all throughout 2014. More people may have been employed at the end of the year than the start but on average they've been working less, some shifting to part-time work and others to fewer hours of full-time work. Disturbingly, the Reserve Bank says the number of hours worked per month has scarcely changed since December 2011 despite three years of population growth.

None of these facts would surprise anyone in business or anyone looking for a job. What would surprise them would be to hear from the team at the top that things are "heading in the right direction". It would make them think they were being lied to.

When trust vanishes, it's awfully hard to restore. That's because it vanishes slowly.

Joe Hockey's first budget was far worse than it seemed on the night in part because he didn't tell us the truth about it on the night. The usual calculations showing the households that won or lost were missing.   The treasury had prepared them as usual, the treasurer withheld them.

And he made up stuff. He said treasury had told him that fuel excise was "a progressive tax". It hadn't. He said the poorest Australians "either don't have cars or actually don't drive very far in many cases," something many of them know to be untrue. Petrol takes up a much bigger share of a low-income budgets than high-income budgets.  

He said his own wealthy electorate of North Sydney had "one of the highest bulk-billing rates in Australia". It had one of the very lowest in all of Sydney. He said "higher income households pay half their income in tax". They pay nothing like half. Even those on $200,000 pay just 36 per cent. Back from his holidays this January he revived the claim and went further saying typical Australians pay nearly half their income in tax.

"When Australians spend the first six months of the year working for the government with tax rates nearly 50 cents in the dollar it is a disincentive. You're working July, August, September, October, November, December just for the government and then you start working for yourself and your own household income after that for another six months, he said.

But Australia's tax-to-GDP ratio is around 30 per cent, including account all taxes, state and federal. It simply can't be the case that typical Australians pay nearly half their income in tax. They don't.

And exaggerated claims have eaten away at trust. Hockey said Australia was on track to run out of money to pay for its health, welfare and education systems. The figures put forward by his then health minister suggested otherwise. In ten years the cost of Medicare had climbed 124 per cent, the cost of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme 90 per cent and the cost of public hospitals 83 per cent. But Australia's gross domestic product - the money we would use to pay for these things - climbed 94 per cent.

The government tells us it's concerned about future generations, but won't release the treasury's intergenerational report. It tells us it wants a discussion about tax, but won't release the tax discussion paper finalised late last year.

Without trust we lack confidence. We are neither spending nor investing what we should. Business and consumer confidence has been sliding since September.

Specific businesses are at a standstill. Universities don't know what fees they will be allowed to charge, students enrolling don't know what fees they will eventually be asked to pay, doctors don't know what will happen to their incomes, electricity generators don't know what will happen to the renewable energy target, big businesses don't know whether they will be hit with the 1.5 per cent paid parental leave levy and what it will be used for.

If they applied themselves, Abbott and his ministers could methodically work through each of these issues. But they wouldn't be trusted.

The government itself has become an impediment to economic growth. It had the ability to make a fresh start. On Monday it didn't take it.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

Related Posts

. February 7: The economic case for changing leaders

. February 7: Dire forecast led to Reserve Bank cut

. Reading the Abbott government wrong. It's more Whitlam than Howard