Here’s the real story of Australian debt
Of all the campaigns against Labor in News Limited publications, its latest one on government debt is the most deeply hypocritical.
The “exclusive” today purported to reveal Prime Minister Julia Gillard would be leaving $14,238 in debt to every working Australian (journalists John Rolfe and Gemma Jones used the wrong workforce number and inflated the calculation, but never mind that). Like the Coalition’s version of recent economic history, the piece airbrushes the global financial crisis from its account of events.
That’s the financial crisis that Tony Abbott recently said had ended nearly four years ago, and that Bank of England governor Mervyn King said on Monday was “far from over”.
The hypocrisy lies in this: let’s assume the Rudd government had done what Christopher Pyne says the Coalition would have done and run surpluses during the financial crisis, thereby ripping tens of billions of dollars out of the economy while the financial crisis and ensuing recession was unfolding. In the absence of the Rudd government’s stimulus packages, and with another $25 billion+ pulled out of demand, Australia’s jobless rate would have soared, particularly in industries like construction, retail and manufacturing. The result would have been massive unemployment across areas like western Sydney — exactly the area whose interests The Daily Telegraph purports to represent. In effect, the Telegraph is telling its readers it would have preferred if many of them had lost their jobs just so we could stay debt free. Still, it’s easy for News Ltd journalists and editors working in Surry Hills and in the bubble of Canberra to cavalierly dismiss the importance of keeping a job for a tradie or shop assistant living in Blacktown.
The hypocrisy goes deeper. Without the Rudd government’s stimulus program, particularly its cash handouts, the advertising market would have crashed far more spectacularly than it did in 2009. And what are the main beneficiaries of the advertising market? Media companies like News Ltd. Careful what you wish for, chaps.
The Tele’s article invoked some heavyweights to back up its case, including Saul Eslake, who told Crikey he’d been taken a little out of context in the piece. According to Eslake, Rolfe had contacted him to ask if Australia faced a debt crisis. Eslake’s reply was that Australia didn’t, and he compared us with Canada, which will not return to surplus for some years and will likely have a debt approaching 30% of GDP, compared with 11.5% for Australia. Over time, Eslake suggested, Australia might develop a problem due to the actions of a number of governments, including the John Howard government. This prompted Rolfe to ask how soon it would become a crisis, which Eslake answered by noting a debt crisis can come on very quickly — “the lights don’t turn amber, they turn red”. This, said Eslake, was portrayed as him saying a debt crisis was around the corner and it was entirely the fault of this government.
“We have a fiscal problem,” Eslake said, “because what was a temporary surge in revenue before the financial crisis from corporate tax, the GST and capital gains tax was used to fund permanent increases in outlays in welfare programs, public sector payrolls (chiefly by state governments) and subsidies and transfer payments, as well as tax cuts. I was one of the few saying around 2005-06 that this surge wouldn’t last. Chris Richardson did too, there weren’t too many others.”
“As it turns out, the world of debt is a lot more complicated than journalists and editors might have us believe.”
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