Abbott continues to tell porkies

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Sunday, 15 February 2015 18:30 by Ken Wolff

I was surprised during last December (and again in the past week after the unsuccessful spill motion) when Abbott and his ministers reverted to the line that the LNP government had inherited a huge budget deficit from Labor.

Early in December they were claiming that Labor had been deceitful by going into the 2013 election claiming that the deficit was only $18 billion whereas when the Liberals gained the treasury benches it was shown to be $46 billion (and I noticed in Abbott’s appearance at the National Press Club at the beginning of February that he had rounded this up to $50 billion). That attack, in itself, was part of Abbott’s resetting of the agenda after his ‘ragged week’ and was obviously intended to turn attention back on Labor and away from the problems his government was facing: there is no doubt that approach will continue.

The first lie is the $18 billion deficit. That was the figure in the last Wayne Swan budget in May 2013 but Swan also made an ‘Economic Statement’ in August (during the election period) as the terms of trade deteriorated and economic activity slowed, reducing government revenue. By the time of the PEFO (Pre-election Financial Outlook) the deficit was actually $30 billion, which had been revealed slightly earlier in Swan’s ‘Economic Statement’. The $12 billion increase came from slowing GDP growth, and the subsequent decrease in revenue, and only $373 million (about 3% of the increase) arose from policy decisions by Labor. So Abbott’s claim that there was a $28 billion increase in the deficit is a fiction created by adopting a set of figures that had already been superseded before he was elected (although semantically it was the figure ‘going into the election’ — so perhaps Abbott is just playing with words again).

Abbott’s claim, however, was also dealt with at the time and found to be false. In June last year, Chris Bowen said that Joe Hockey had doubled the deficit by changes to government spending and changes to government economic assumptions and parameters: the ABC’s Fact Check found that Bowen’s statement — ‘checks out’. Other economic commentators also pointed to the spending and revenue decisions made by the Abbott government as making a major contribution to the increased budget deficit.

Although it has been done before, I will go through the details of the government’s finances. Please bear with me, as I will have to provide quite a few figures in explaining the situation, using the 2013-14 PEFO and MYEFO (Mid-year Economic and Financial Outlook), with some minor reference to the last two budgets. And it should be noted that the PEFO is the only financial document that is put out by Treasury and the Department of Finance. MYEFO and the budget are products of the government of the day after, of course, taking advice from the financial departments, but the final shape of those documents is always a result of government decisions. PEFO simply sets out the current situation based on the ruling assumptions and existing policies.

Firstly, we do need to understand that treasury forecasts are simply that — they are ‘estimates’ and ‘projections’. As such, they are subject to many qualifications and assumptions. Treasury itself states that:

The forward estimates of revenue and expenses … incorporate assumptions and judgments based on the best available information at the time of publication together with a range of economic assumptions and other forecasts and projections.

Major taxes such as company and individuals’ income taxes fluctuate significantly with economic activity. Capital gains tax is particularly volatile and is affected by both the level of gains in asset markets and the timing of when those gains are realised.

In addition revenue forecasting relies heavily on the observed historical relationships between the economy, tax bases and tax revenues. Such relationships may shift over time as the economy changes, presenting a further risk to the estimates.

(In relation to that last statement, the economy is currently undergoing changes as the mining boom ends and, therefore, there is an increased risk to the surety of the estimates.)

The MYEFO gives examples of the potential impact of certain hypothetical changes. If commodity prices fall, impacting the terms of trade and causing GDP to fall by one per cent, then government revenue could be reduced by $5.5 billion. On the other hand, if there is a 0.5 per cent improvement in both labour productivity and workforce participation, government receipts could increase by $3.7 billion.

Those examples are important because Treasury also explains the ‘confidence levels’ of the economic and fiscal forecasts. For example, although MYEFO forecast GDP growth of 2.5%, the 70% confidence level places growth anywhere between 1.75% and 3.25%, and the 90% confidence level between 1.5% and 3.5%, which means the preceding hypothetical examples actually fall within the range of possible forecasts.

With those provisos in mind, we can consider the actual figures and what went into increasing the budget deficit. If we believe Abbott the increase was $28 billion but only $16 billion if we believe PEFO. Or we can also look at the accumulated deficit over the forward estimates (to 2016-17) which increased from $54.6 billion to $122.7 billion, a difference of $68 billion. I will work on the last figure because that provides the full impact of Abbott government decisions.

Firstly, you will probably recall Hockey’s payment of $8.8 billion to the Reserve Bank, something the economic commentators said was not sought by the bank and was unnecessary. That leaves $59.2 billion to account for.

Abbott’s big ‘policy’ of repealing the carbon ‘tax’ was a major contributor to the loss in government revenue, to the tune of $13.7 billion over the forward estimates. That leaves $45.5 billion.

Repeal of the mining tax saw the loss of another $3.3 billion. That leaves $42.2 billion. (Those three big ‘decisions’ by the Abbott government cost the budgets over the forward estimates a total of $25.8 billion.)

There was another set of significant losses to revenue that many of us would not have heard about. Apparently there were 92 taxation and superannuation changes that had been announced by previous governments but not yet implemented. Abbott and Hockey decided to proceed with only 34 of those changes, foregoing another $3.1 billion in revenue. That leaves $39.1 billion.

The ABC Fact Check explains changes to a couple of the assumptions and parameters better than I can:

  • a change to the terms of trade methodology, reducing the economic growth forecasts, causing a $2 billion hit to the bottom line over the forward estimates
  • a change in the projected unemployment rate, leading to higher benefits payments totalling $3.7 billion extra
That leaves $33.4 billion.

But there was also a projected slowing of the economy: GDP growth figures were lowered. While this is something over which neither the Labor nor Abbott governments have much control, the Treasurer does have a say in selecting which figure to use for the forecasts (see the earlier paragraph on confidence levels). In MYEFO, the slowing economy was projected to reduce taxation receipts by $37 billion over the forward estimates.

So Abbott government decisions had actually increased the potential deficit by $71.6 billion over the forward estimates and it had to juggle the figures even to keep the increase to $68 billion. Even allowing that some of the worsening of the deficit would have happened no matter who was in government, Abbott government decisions directly added about $29 billion to the deficit (and up to $34.6 billion if we add the government influence in changing parameters).

Offsetting those losses, Abbott and Hockey had proposed abolishing the benefits introduced by Julia Gillard that were to be funded from the carbon and mining taxes. That would have decreased spending by $9.5 billion or reduced the deficit by that amount: but, of course, he has not been able to abolish all of those measures, so the deficit remains higher. Even if they had passed the parliament, the deficit would still have increased by $62.1 billion of which at least $20 billion would have arisen from decisions by the current government.

Estimates of government revenue for 2013‒14 were continually revised downward from the 2013‒14 budget through to the 2014‒15 budget:

  • $376 billion in the 2013‒14 budget
  • $369.5 billion in the PEFO
  • $364.9 billion in the MYEFO
  • $363.5 billion in the 2014‒15 budget
Despite that continual revision, the actual figure for the 2013‒14 financial year was lower still at $360.3 billion, $15.7 billion below the original budget estimate in May 2013 and even $3.2 billion below Hockey’s budget estimate in May 2014. So there are clear revenue problems for the government that have nothing to do with decisions by the former Labor government.

(As a postscript, Hockey’s more recent MYEFO in December 2014 also showed that revenue was continuing to decline in 2014-15; down $6.3 billion since his own budget estimate and down almost $21 billion on the forecast in Swan’s last budget.)

You would think that if a government takes decisions that decrease revenue it would also take other measures to increase revenue (not focus solely on cutting costs) but Abbott’s government has locked itself into the neo-liberal position of reducing taxes and so has very little room for manoeuvre. During the election campaign, it could be argued that Abbott lied by omission by not detailing how he would make up the foregone revenue ($17 billion) of his promises to abolish the carbon and mining ‘taxes’. People were left to believe that the ‘taxes’ could be abolished and nothing more need be done. I would suggest that Abbott knew that at the time and, given his promise not to raise taxes, already knew that he would undertake significant spending cuts to make up the shortfall — but of course he wouldn’t discuss that in any detail. And then, to justify the cuts, his government artificially increased the deficit and blamed it on Labor.

If Abbott and Hockey had really wanted to increase revenue to improve the budget position they would have kept Labor’s tax on annual superannuation earnings above $100,000 and the reduction in the fringe benefits tax concession on novated car leases: or have considered similar measures on other ‘tax expenditures’. Tax expenditures are foregone taxes when government provides certain benefits without taxing them or allows concessional tax rates: for example, military personnel receive a number of allowances and benefits that aren’t taxable although legally they are ‘income’. (It is only the tax foregone, not the full cost of the benefit that is counted.) Changing tax expenditures allows governments to increase revenue without increasing income tax, although there would obviously be vested interests who would ‘lose’ from such changes — such as the outcry from vehicle retailers and manufacturers when the change to the taxation of novated car leases was first announced.

In the 2013-14 budget the cost (foregone revenue) to government of tax expenditures was about $120 billion and was projected to rise to $146 billion in 2016-17 (which is the equivalent of 8% of GDP or about a third of projected government revenue in 2016-17).

While many concessions would be considered socially beneficial, there are others that appear to be of most benefit to those on higher incomes — superannuation is the one most commented on in that regard. In 2013-14 it was estimated that the concessional tax applying to superannuation cost the government $35 billion in revenue and that was projected to rise to $51 billion in 2016-17, or a total of $170 billion over the forward estimates. Eliminating the concessional tax rate for the earnings of superannuation funds would raise $65 billion over the forward estimates, and eliminating the concession for employer contributions would raise $62 billion, a total of $127 billion. While it would somewhat defeat the purpose of compulsory superannuation (to reduce old age pension payments) to entirely eliminate concessions, there is certainly scope for changes that could easily raise a few billion dollars: for example, even to raise the concessional tax rate from 15% to 17.5% could potentially raise $4.25 billion over the forward estimates: or $8.5 billion if raised to 20% — that is still a ‘concessional’ rate of tax but just not as generous.

Why isn’t Abbott considering such measures? Instead, he is even scrapping the changes that Labor made that would have helped revenue.

He is blaming the deficit on Labor when it is clear that about half of the increase in the deficit comes from a ‘natural’ fall in taxation receipts as the economy slows and transitions away from the mining boom, and the rest from decisions by Abbott and his government after it came to power. Other commentators, more expert than I, have already shown his claim is false and yet he returned to it in December, and again in the past week, obviously taking the view that because it was disproved six to eight months earlier most voters would not remember. That is probably partly true but it is also pure propaganda, no longer just ‘spin’: ‘spin’ is about putting the best possible light on a bad situation, not about blatant lies. Abbott, as he did in opposition, appears to be operating on the principle that if he tells the same lie often enough, people will believe it.

What do you think?

About Ken Wolff

Ken says that although this is old news he will have to keep returning to it because that is what Abbott and Hockey keep doing.

Next week we will continue the financial theme and how to raise revenue with 2353’s discussion of ‘Tax reform’.