The facts don’t show that Liberals are better economic managers

By JOHN MENADUE | 25 July 2018

Malcolm Turnbull has made it clear that his mantra of ‘Jobs-and-Growth’ will be at the forefront of his campaign in the next election. This week he will be talking about the growth of a million jobs in five years, but there is nothing really remarkable in that on average over the last 15 years about 200,000 new jobs have been created each year. Further, it is less impressive because our population is growing by about two million every five years. 

Opinion polling suggests that Malcolm Turnbull is correct  about economic management with most people believing that the Liberal Party is a better economic manager than the ALP. Perhaps that is part of a common view that our superiors, even bankers, are smarter than other people. But the facts do not show that the Liberal Party is a better economic manager.

In an article in The Guardian on 19 March 2018,  Stephen Koukoulas, a research economist, after examining economic data, concluded “On both measures, the level of economic growth and growth relative to the US, Labor is a better performer than the Coalition. One of the weakest economic managers since the early 1970s is the current Abbott/Turnbull administration where GDP growth has averaged a mere 0.60 percent per quarter which is just 0.04 percentage points above the US performance”.

At the 2013 election, Tony Abbott campaigned stridently about government debt under the Gillard/Rudd governments. At that time, the Australian government debt to GDP was 30.7%. In 2017 it was 41.9% and projected to increase further.

In 2013, the last Rudd government budget deficit was 1.2 percent of GDP. It rose to 1.9 perent of GDP in 2017.

Only two Australian treasurers have been awarded the coveted Euromoney ‘Finance Minister of the Year’ award. Paul Keating won it in 1984 in recognition of the government’s role in structural reform. Wayne Swan won the award in 2011 in recognition of the government’s successful response to the Global Financial Crisis.

It is unlikely that recent treasurers, Joe Hockey or Scott Morrison, would make the shortlist for this award.

But what about Peter Costello who because of his performance as treasurer in the Howard government is now suggested as a possible and belated alternative to Malcolm Turnbull.

Peter Costello was a very lucky treasurer. He inherited a booming world economy and a mining boom. As Paul Keating once put it, Peter Costello was “Hit in the arse by a rainbow”.

But with record revenues in boom times, Peter Costello introduced measures which have left a very serious and damaging legacy. Continuing chronic budget deficits are very much due to Peter Costello. The Howard and Costello government wasted the buoyant revenues of the mining boom.

The parliamentary budget office put this problem in the following terms.

“Over two-thirds of the five percentage points of GDP decline in structural receipts over the period 2002/3 to 2011/12, was due to the cumulative effects of the successive personal income tax cuts granted between 2003/4 and 2008/9. A further quarter was the result of a decline in excise and customs duties as a proportion of GDP. Significant factors driving this trend included the abolition of petroleum fuels excise indexation in the 2001/2 Budget and the decline in the consumption of cigarettes and tobacco over the period”.

The IMF came to much the same conclusion. It identified two periods of Australian ‘fiscal profligacy’ in recent years, both during the Howard turn in office – in 2003 at the start of the mining boom and during his final years in office between 2005 and 2007. (SMH 11 Jan, 2013).

In short, our continuing structural budget deficit is due in substantial part to the Howard/Costello government’s laxity with government spending and tax reductions during the mining boom. We blew the benefits of the mining boom when we should have been doing more to improve the underlying budget position.

The Howard/Costello years locked in negative gearing concessions and generous treatment of capital gains which have been at great cost to the government in lost revenue and priced many young Australians out of the housing market.

There were tax-free superannuation benefits, franking credit rebates and a whole series of decisions on spending and tax that have caused continuing budget difficulties and the skewing of the tax system and the economy in favour of older generations. There really has been generational theft.

It is estimated by the Australian Institute and the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling that next year these tax lurks introduced by Howard/Costello will cost the budget over $50 billion a year. We are paying a very heavy price for the budget damage that Peter Costello inflicted over a decade ago.

Peter Costello must bear a heavy responsibility for our continuing budget deficit problems but Wayne Swan did not help either.

The other major cause of the structural deficit is that the Rudd government spent heavily to counter the global financial crisis. It was more successful than almost any other government in the world in avoiding a major recession and unemployment, but when the recovery took hold, the Rudd and Gillard governments did not focus on the structural deficit problem particularly as identified by the Henry tax review. Some improvements were made to reduce middle-class welfare like the subsidy to private health insurance and the over-generous concessions that Peter Costello had given to superannuants. But the improvements were nowhere near enough.

On balance, the ALP has had a better record in economic management. But Malcolm Turnbull will assert otherwise, despite the facts.

(John Menadue AO worked for Gough Whitlam, followed by a distinguished career in the public and private sectors. He headed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, was Ambassador to Japan, and later CEO of Qantas. Now retired, John is a patron of the Asylum Seekers’ Centre in Sydney. This article originally appeared in John’s own blog, “Pearls and Irritations“.)