This is the way to pay for Labor's rash promises

The Gonski reforms are the third big spending plan announced within weeks of a warning Labor's annual budget will be hit to the tune of $10 billion. The only fat left to trim is on super concessions.

Too much deluded rhetoric makes me giddy, and Julia Gillard's passionate comments about education reform yesterday sent me reeling towards the nearest chair.

The $6.5 billion per year Gonski reforms, that would arrive in $1 billion increments from 2014 if Labor won the next election, come on top of Labor's hefty commitment to the National Disability Insurance Scheme – between $5 billion and $8 billion a year according to the Productivity Commission – and its increases in funding for public dental care ($4 billion over six years) and $3 billion over four years to reopen offshore processing facilities.

Leaving aside the last contentious policy, Labor has embarked on three ambitious spending plans within weeks of being warned it is losing around $10 billion a year in tax receipts due to commodity price falls.

That leaves it with nothing more that self-righteous, self-deluded rhetoric – something to be proud of at post-election dinner parties, as Labor's top political operatives try to figure out where they went wrong.

Because if a reform boosts national productivity overall, as these reforms do, it's worth spending money on, right?

As Labor points out, nipping dental problems in the bud saves countless cases of expensive major surgery later in life.

Likewise, replacing a hodge-podge of complex and bureaucratic disability assistance schemes with one streamlined system channels more money to those who need it, and less to administrators who don't.

And clearly raising the quality of school education across the board feeds into a smarter, more prosperous nation.

So the Gillard government keeps its rhetoric focused on why these investments will pay huge returns – social and financial – for the nation down the track... without acknowledging for a minute that we have no money left to invest.

Even before analysts sliced $10 billion off Labor's projected tax receipts in response to falling commodity prices, it was a nonsense to think that the budget was full of fat that could be trimmed in hard times.

As Treasurer Wayne Swan noted in his May budget speech, tax this financial year was expected to be 22.1 per cent of GDP. It's now going to fall well south of that – to somewhere just above 21 per cent by next budget time.

And that's only the headline tax receipts. Australia's income tax system has been distorted by successive waves of poorly targeted family benefits – 'middle class welfare' – and superannuation concessions that effectively decrease the tax bills of millions of relatively well-off Australians. If 21 per cent of GDP comes in as tax receipts, a point or two of that flows back into the pockets of families 'doing it tough' in five bedroom homes close to expensive schools.

Despite the fact that families who have over-geared via mortgage borrowing feel as if they're doing it tough, Labor's current three reforms – targeting the dental, education and disability needs – are reminders that many Australians are doing it tougher.

And Labor is absolutely right that by socialising the costs of helping these Australians we can not only feel better about ourselves as compassionate human beings, but will reap tangible economic benefits from healthier, more productive workers in future.

But 21 per cent of GDP isn't enough to pay for these things. And as I've said elsewhere recently (Get a real job Mr Swan, July 17), somebody is going to have to start paying some tax. The 2012 budget was a clear missed opportunity to begin winding back the unnecessary middle-class welfare system set up by the Howard government to hand back the profits of mining boom mark I.

However, family tax benefits are not the only fat in the tax/spend equation that can be cut. The Australia Institute has just released staggering figures on how much the public purse is losing out to assist older, wealthier Australians to have a comfortable retirement:

It notes: "Australian taxpayers contributed $30.2 billion to the private accounts of that portion of the population with superannuation 2011-12. By 2015-16 this sum is projected by Treasury to rise to more than $45 billion, by which time it will be, by far, the single largest area of government expenditure.

"By 2015-16 the taxpayer contribution of $45 billion to private superannuation balances will account for almost twice the $24 billion projected to be spent on defence in that year. Indeed, the $45 billion subsidy is almost as much as the $51 billion provided by the Commonwealth to the states in 2012-13 and territories to provide health, education and other essential services."

Tax concessions to the middle and upper-middle classes are there for a reason – through a competitive market for super funds management (including the growing trend towards self-managed super funds), all that lucre is invested in the infrastructure and productive capacity Australia needs.

However, what Labor is rightly arguing is that we need more money channelled into the human beings that will work all that capital in future. Labor's plan is to invest directly, on taxpayers' behalf, in those human beings.

But with no fat to trim elsewhere, it is time to look at super tax concessions. Just pegging super contributions to the current $30 billion per year (in real terms), going forward would pay for all of Labor's current promises and deliver the long-term economic productivity gains that have emboldened Labor to make these rash promises in the first place.

All politically impossible, of course. A good slice of those older, wealthier Australians are, for better or worse, still part of Labor's dim hope of being relected – and they can get pretty nasty after a few glasses of expensive chardonnay.

Labor must increase the tax take to something like the levels taken by Peter Costello and John Howard in the mid-noughties. The low-hanging fruit of super tax concessions would be the obvious place to start, if Labor had the ticker to attempt it.

Instead, Labor will march towards electoral oblivion with unfunded spending commitments and leave the Coalition scrambling for the money to clean up the ensuing mess.

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