Labor's likely lay of the land
If re-elected, Labor will adopt a less austere fiscal policy, opt for industry support over trade rule changes, handball housing to the Reserve Bank and, most likely, pass completely on GST reform.
Where’s the Australian economy headed if Labor manages re-election?
Yesterday we looked at how the economy would fare if the Coalition's broad economic and fiscal policies – to the extent that we know them – were successfully implemented.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard's speech last week gives us a guide to Labor’s medium-term agenda building on its record in government, which includes maintaining economic growth through the financial crisis, overseeing the return of labour productivity growth, and a low inflation environment that has allowed considerable freedom to the Reserve Bank to loosen monetary policy during an historic inflow of investment driven by a resources boom.
Labor remains committed to a contractionary fiscal policy, but not to a surplus this year out of concern for impacts on employment. Wayne Swan spelt this out very clearly in December when he abandoned the surplus commitment, stating that the government would not be engaging in any further spending cuts beyond those already locked in, to offset further falls in tax revenue. He rejected the suggestion that the government would now increase spending. That means the extent to which the government is departing from its policy of fiscal contraction entirely relies on how tax revenue fares – and in particular how iron ore prices fare between now and the end of the financial year.
As suggested yesterday in our look at the Coalition’s fiscal policy, the specific difference between the parties lies in the extent to which the Coalition’s fiscal-discipline-at-all-costs approach, compared to Labor’s approach based on maintaining employment, translates into reality if the economy softens, with Labor having left itself greater policy flexibility if contractionary fiscal policy starts feeding into a weakening economy.
The other component of Labor’s fiscal policy is a commitment to identify "long-term" or "structural" savings in the May budget to pay for the extended (decade-long) rollout of its education funding reforms and the establishment of the full National Disability Insurance Scheme from 2015. These savings will not be immediate, and will have no short-term impact, but are likely to be of the kind that reduce the long-term growth of large spending programs or tax expenditures, thereby freeing up funding to switch to NDIS and Gonski.
The quality of these savings can only be assessed once they are revealed, but some of them are likely to have only limited impact over forward estimates, meaning a proper assessment would require a 10-year forecast from the government of the kind it initially provided for its CPRS (but not for the subsequent version that was adopted).
Labor has shown a reluctance to come to grips with the revenue problems facing state governments and the future shape of GST; further reform in this area looks to be off Labor's agenda. But the GST needs to be reformed and restructured. Both sides need to get to grips with whether exemptions such as food should continue, or whether the rate should be increased (with appropriate compensation packages). Both sides could use it as an opportunity to redo commonwealth-state financial agreements, or in Labor's case sort out problems with the mining tax. But the GST was the major tax reform of the Howard government, of which Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey were members; perhaps they'll show more courage in further reform than Labor.
There is also substantial difference between Labor and the Coalition on industry policy. Despite Sophie Mirabella’s attempt to out-socialist the government on "anti-dumping policy", the Coalition has been shifting away from the unquestioning support of heavy manufacturing that marked the Howard government, while Labor, partly in response to the pressures of a high dollar, has an explicit commitment to "industry specific plans". It will soon be releasing an Industry and Innovation Statement aimed at manufacturing, likely to provide more support for that sector, perhaps disguised as "innovation" incentives, or more government procurement, or marketing programs (inevitably led by "ambassadors").
This may provide some limited support for employment in manufacturing, although that sector actually halted its decades-long decline in employment size in 2012. Some sub-sectors appear to be addressing the challenge of competing in trade-exposed sectors in the era of a safe haven currency. But any short-term support is at the expense of medium-term efficiency in the economy as resources continue to be misallocated into favoured industries.
This is perhaps the biggest challenge for the next term of a Labor or Coalition government – which will ostensibly run until 2016. The future of the local car industry will become a major policy issue from as early as 2014. The most vulnerable car maker remains Ford, whose US leadership has shown it is tough on costly offshore subsidiaries, especially those that leak money. Europe is a major concern for Ford (and GM), but exiting (Ford) or downsizing (GM) could be easy options here ahead of tough decisions about Europe. Toyota is likely to remain the only local manufacturer of note in coming years, but even that is not guaranteed.
Indeed, for a guide to the future of automotive manufacturing, look at what is happening in the local oil refining industry. Big transnational oil companies have abandoned oil refining in NSW and it has proved to be surprisingly easy. Importers like Trafigura are now moving into the import space created by their departure. Can Ford and GM similarly abandon Victoria in the car-making business? Influential unions like the AWU and the AMWU will be working overtime in Canberra to ensure Labor does everything it can to prevent them from leaving.
Like the Coalition, the government appears to have no plan to address the ongoing flatness of residential construction (except for apartments, which appear to be picking up) and non-residential construction, which remains "subdued" as Glenn Stevens noted in his statement yesterday. The Reserve Bank is looking to construction as well as private consumption to pick up as the peak of the mining investment boom passes this year (and the PM flagged the passing of that peak as a significant policy challenge).
Both sides are relying seemingly entirely on monetary policy to put some spark into, particularly, residential construction, although both the Queensland and NSW governments have over the last 12 months sensibly shifted first home owner programs in favour of new construction.
For both parties this presents a potential problem that may be emerging as either Joe Hockey puts his feet under the desk at Treasury or Wayne Swan (we assume) returns in September: if construction simply doesn’t respond even to the remarkably accommodative monetary policy currently set by the Reserve Bank, what will the then-government do as the mining investment boom recedes in the rear view mirror? Labor can point to its willingness to ease fiscal policy (which might have some flow-on effects to a softer dollar), and to its efforts to support manufacturing, but both sides at the moment appear to be relying on the Reserve Bank to make the transition to a post-boom economy.
At that point, the disappearance of housing supply off the national agenda after 2010 might come back to haunt whoever has stewardship of the economy.
This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on February 6. Republished with permission.