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Federal

May 13, 2014

Keane: Hockey robs from the poor -- but not the rich -- in first budget

Joe Hockey's first budget as Treasurer will hurt the poor -- not the rich. So what's the gain from all that pain, asks Crikey's politics editor from Canberra?

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Well, in time-honoured budget style, we were promised The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it’s more like The Barber of Seville ­— except if you’re on the government’s list of enemies or can’t fight back.

In broad terms, this budget doesn’t do much to address any fiscal emergency. The path back to surplus isn’t noticeably shortened, and at this rate we won’t be back in the black until well into the government’s second term. That’s partly because of exactly the same problems that beset former treasurer Wayne Swan have confronted Treasurer Joe Hockey in his first budget — a tepid economy, low nominal GDP growth (I’m still sceptical of that — let’s keep an eye on what actually happens there, because 2013-14 has already been revised up), revenue write-downs and the problems of finding big savings that can build up over time rather than inflict a big hit on public demand while the economy is still below trend.

Without Hockey’s deficit levy and petrol excise indexation, revenue would have yet again seriously underperformed, leaving the return to surplus further away than ever.

But if Labor occasionally inflicted on the poor some unwarranted fiscal pain — delaying increases in overseas aid, refusing to lift Newstart even when business declared it was too low, punishing single parents by shunting them off parenting payments — the Coalition has built its entire response to its fiscal dilemma on going after low-income earners and those it deems unfriendly, while ensuring its key supporters are looked after.

Thus, jobseekers in their 20s will be denied Newstart for periods of six months, including a “waiting period” to get on it, during which young people will presumably subsist on charity and the muscular goodwill of anti-welfare hairshirts. On the upside, this will save taxpayers over $300 million a year.

Students will be asked to repay their loans sooner, and face a higher interest rate while doing so, bringing forward billions in revenue. The foreign aid budget will yet again be slashed as the Coalition abandons the Millennium Development Goal target on aid, saving the best part of $8 billion. We’ll all pay more, both to access GPs and to buy medicines; those without any alternative about their transport use — usually lower-income earners — will have to pay more petrol excise.

Meanwhile, all corporations but the largest companies will get a tax cut, as will mining companies; the staggering cost inflicted by high-income earners and wealthy retirees on the tax base via superannuation concessions will dramatically expand — from over $30 billion next year to $50 billion in 2017-18 — without the government lifting a finger to stop it. Remarkably, the lunatic school chaplaincy program will be pumped up with $250 million of new funding — an urge to impose religion on the rest of society is one thing, but when it costs a quarter of a billion dollars, it starts to look like an obsession.

“What’s the gain for the pain, particularly when the pain has been so disproportionately distributed?”

The only concession to equity is a temporary, and small, “deficit levy” for very high-income earners, and some cuts to middle-class welfare like Family Tax Benefit B, where the threshold will be dropped to a $100,000 income, and the pausing of indexation of other benefits payments. When Labor froze the indexation of cut-off thresholds several years ago, it was “class war” and “the politics of envy”, according to the Coalition, and savaged by News Corp. How times change.

The ABC and SBS (the latter as collateral damage) will be docked 1% of funding with the promise of more to come — with a public demand from Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull that it somehow not affect the ABC’s actual content, presumably as a warning not to consider shutting inefficient and costly regional services.

The upshot of all of which is, this is an inequitable budget, in which low-income earners bear the burden of fixing the deficit while the Coalition’s favourites in the business sector and among high-income earners are, at worst, asked to make a token contribution, and in which the true culprits of an unsustainable budget continue to enjoy fiscal indulgence.

The government will attempt to disguise all this with its infrastructure investment and its “$20 billion” (in fact, $1 billion) medical research fund. The government’s infrastructure investment funding is mostly existing Labor-era programs re-announced, or new projects funded by the axing of public transport projects; the medical research fund is a mechanism under which patients paying more to access healthcare now will be (partly, and very slowly) funding health research in the future. It’s arguably a kind of intergenerational transfer within health research. Speaking of intergenerational transfers, the budget confirms that the widely ridiculed “Direct Action” program will be capped at “$2.55 billion over 10 years”, as the Budget Overview explains — the final humiliation for Environment Minister Greg Hunt, whose policy figleaf for climate denialism was touted as a $10 billion, 10-year program in 2010, before both climate denialists and climate action advocates spotted how useless it was.

If that’s a positive, there are others — the direct incentive payment for employers to hire older workers represents a legitimate attempt to drive away (or buy away) the stigma attaching to older workers. The return of petrol excise indexation is a big, brave move by the Coalition — it’s almost forgivable that the government is pretending it will be hypothecated to roads spending.

Curbing the generous indexation of pensions is overdue, and probably took a Coalition government to do, given pensioners tend to be rusted-on Liberal voters. Policy bravery of this kind deserves to be applauded, even if the Coalition refused to show any such thing in opposition.

But look at how the budget will still be in deficit in four years’ time. What’s the gain for the pain, particularly when the pain has been so disproportionately distributed? Joe Hockey could return the budget to surplus much earlier if he lopped off even a fifth of super tax concessions that flow to high-income earners. But they’re somehow considered untouchable, while low income-earners, the young, poor foreigners, pay for the alleged “budget crisis”.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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