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The porridge is badly allocated, Goldilocks

By Ian McAuley - posted Friday, 18 April 2008

Henry Thornton has pointed out the constraints facing the Rudd Government in framing its first budget ("The Porridge is too hot, Goldilocks"). As anyone who has tried to call an electrician or plumber knows, we have an overheated economy, bumping up against supply constraints. We have serious inflationary pressures: for some years the rest of the world has held our inflation down as we benefited from lower tariffs, a high exchange rate, intense competition in global industries, and low cost Chinese imports. But these deflationary forces are largely spent, and they can no longer compensate for our domestic sources of inflation.

Therefore, frustrating as it must be for a new administration, the Commonwealth has little option but to avoid a fiscal stimulation; it must run a cash surplus in its budget. Otherwise there will be further pressure on nominal interest rates, and Wayne Swan surely knows that there are time limits on a government’s capacity to blame the previous administration for high rates. Worse, politically the Government is locked into a promise of generous tax cuts.

That’s the macro view, which tends to dictate an across-the-board tightening of budgetary outlays.


But there should be more to framing a budget than achieving a bottom line outcome - an outcome such as a surplus expressed as a target percentage of GDP. While size counts, the composition of public expenditure also counts, particularly in an economy where some of our problems result from an under-investment in public goods.

Public budgets are divided into two categories. One category is known as transfer payments, such as age pensions, baby bonuses, and family allowances. The other is in direct goods and services, such as health care, education, defence and infrastructure, known in accounting terms as governments’ own-purpose expenditure (as if governments have some purpose other than the public interest).

There has been a huge change in the composition of the Commonwealth Budget over the last generation. In 1972-73, personal transfer payments accounted for only 21 per cent of Commonwealth outlays. By the time the Howard government brought down its last budget for 2007-08, that share had almost doubled to 41 per cent.

That growth, in fact, is an understatement, for while public accounts suggest a sharp distinction between transfer payments and government own purpose outlays, there are many grey areas around the boundary. Private health insurance subsidies, for example, are very similar in nature to personal transfers, but they are not classified as such, and tax concessions appear on the revenue rather than the expense side of the ledger, so are not counted in these figures on outlays.

This growth has occurred under both Labor and Coalition governments. There is a popular belief that governments on the “right” are tough on welfare, in contrast to a soft approach taken by the “left”, but the reality is more complex. Indeed, the recent Parliamentary debate about welfare benefits for the aged, when the Opposition attacked the Government over rumours of cuts to the Carers’ Allowance and other welfare benefits, demonstrated a reversal of that assumed ideological alignment.

In fact, governments with a bias towards free markets tend to favour personal transfers over provision of services. The argument goes that you and I know better than government bureaucrats how to spend our money. If my local school is given $500 I may not approve in the way it is spent, but if I am given $500, I have more freedom of choice; in fact I may choose not to spend it on education at all.


Yet this does not explain why governments, particularly on the “right”, should want to spend anything on individual transfers. Why not simply leave it to the market without churning it through the tax and transfer system?

To explain the growth of the welfare state we need to look back to the mid-20th century. In the period of post war posterity, there was very little need for government welfare. In part this was because we had a population kept young by high immigration. We had high employment: the Menzies Government almost lost office in 1961 because the unemployment rate was more than 1 per cent. Income disparities were low, largely because tariffs and restrictive trade practices allowed employers, sheltered from the harsh winds of domestic and international competition, to pay wages which were high by the standards of the time.

That order was to change. We aged: the immigrant who was 25 in 1960 turned 65 at the end of the century, and our life expectancies have risen tremendously. Our economic structure changed. It had to. Tariffs had brought us short-term prosperity, but by the 1970s we were paying a high and rising price for industry protection; cars, clothes, and household goods were very expensive, and often of poor quality.

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About the Author

Ian McAuley lectures in Public Sector Finance at the University of Canberra and is a Centre for Policy Development Fellow.

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