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The Stupid, the Strange and the Sensible in Search of a Surplus

The Gillard Government’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, or MYEFO for the acronym loving political wonks, is now out. The record continues to struggle, a fact not lost on many, even the most casual of observers. After some time discussing personalities, yesterday the discourse turned to discussing economics and the economy, a welcome shift. Wayne Swan’s budget hopes were always, at the very least optimistic and at the most fanciful when he brought down in May what he believed was the first of four budget surpluses.

Revenue and tax receipts have continued to decimate the federal budget in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis and as a resultĀ of the continuing shocks in Europe and the US in particular.

The May budget revealed a small budget surplus of $1.5 billion and that has already, in four months fallen by the wayside with the prediction of the final budget surplus downgraded to just $1.1 billion in the MYEFO update from Monday. Falling commodity prices and ongoing poor tax receipts were the chief factors blamed for the below expectation forecast.

Tax revenue over the forward estimates also points to an ongoing challenge for the budget, with expectations for the current financial year $4 billion down and over that entire period, down $22 billion.

Of course new spending will also be a major problem for the budget bottom-line and that still, despite improving poll numbers, seems like it will become the Coalition’s problem from 2013. But of course that will be tempered by widespread cuts in a variety of areas. This appears likely to include some areas of spending with bipartisan support, with rhetoric from the Opposition around the NDIS particularly troubling.

As there always is with budget cuts and payment increases, there has been much debate over the past 24 hours about the main measures employed by Treasurer Wayne Swan in an attempt to complete his budget mission. Overall, MYEFO revealed $16 billion in spending cuts and extra charges.

The main features of so-called ‘mini-budget’ were limits to the private health insurance rebate, increased visa application fees, changes to the baby bonus, a delay in funding for trades training centres and changes to how businesses pay tax.

In terms of political stupidity, cutting the Baby Bonus for a second and subsequent children wins the prize. The changes simply will not be widely liked and will quite easily be fed into the ongoing cost of living debate.

However, it is an entirely sensible decision economically to change the size of the payment made to families choosing to have more than one child. This payment is merely meant to assist with the initial costs of raising children and in no way makes a dent, nor should it, in the long-term costs of raising a child.

The government’s decision to dramatically increase the price of visa application fees, including the Working Holiday Visa, is one of the most ridiculous decisions taken in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. Tourism is a very important part of our economy and has been hit by natural disasters in the north and more broadly by the GFC and continuing trouble in Europe and the US. Add the high dollar to the equation and the Gillard Government looks quite stupid in choosing to increase prices in this area.

Another odd decision for the Gillard Government to make is to delay funding for trades training centres. Delaying funding for their baby, replacing John Howard’s iteration, will look stupid to and hurt some of their constituency, at least in the short-term. The Labor Party making these cuts to their own program also effectively blunt their own attacks on the Liberal Party over cutting funding to this program.

The ALP has also, unsurprisingly, decided to give big business a bit of a whack, though this time, it’s not just the big miners, but businesses earning over a billion dollars in general. Changes to how companies pay tax, from quarterly to monthly installments will raise $8.3 billion dollars in revenue for the government. The overall effect on individual businesses is as yet unclear but the extra impost and timing of it will certainly have some effects.

Increases to the private health insurance rebate will now be limited to inflation. It is possible that some of those on low incomes who might choose to enter the private health insurance market at the lower end could be discouraged, though the punitive measures already in place will probably cut the chances of that down.

We have a bit of a mixed bag from a government in an almost vain search for a surplus. There have been some stupid decisions and there are some sensible ones in MYEFO. The sensible ones though, especially in the case of the baby bonus payment, will quite likely be seen by many as the exact opposite, dumb ones by the broader public. The unpredictability of some of the measures is also met with the predictability of others.

The only question left is will this budget update hold up to scrutiny? There will be attacks on and questioning of it and the Labor Government from various quarters. The political pain that will seemingly be felt still seems unlikely to be quelled by a surplus.

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