Writing on the wall for super as surplus slips

The mini-budget served up little more than dogdy dishes from creative accountants, writes David Potts.

The mini-budget served up little more than dogdy dishes from creative accountants, writes David Potts.

Wayne Swan can say what he likes, but for all his scrimping and saving there's no way the budget will be in surplus this year. Come to that, any real scrimping and saving to be had won't be by him.

Even accepting his argument that small savings in the mini-budget will multiply - unlike the baby bonus but rather some kind of mythical magic pudding - that's only compared with what might have been. Not spending what you were going to is a saving only in Wayne's world of weird accounting.

Especially when new things pop up that you can't do without along the way. The mini-budget had almost as many spending initiatives as savings, even under the wider and more disingenuous definition.

New spending that was so essential it had to be made an exception includes $10 million to set up a Superannuation Consumer Centre that will conduct research and "related consumer advocacy". That makes it a lobby group, so at some point it's bound to bite the hand that's feeding it.

Still, that'll be another saving when the government abolishes it.

Then there are the hollow logs, such as lost bank accounts. My favourite is the money in a special category called "decision taken but not yet announced". I'd give anything to know what is lurking there.

Where was I? Oh yes, the pain is still to come because there's only so long the government can pretend there's even a sliver of surplus. Although super got off lightly, this time the writing's on the wall, Superannuation Consumer Centre or not.

It still looks as though the mining tax is destined to be the first tax never to raise a cent, so there goes the surplus. And only the $5.5 billion from making the tax on big companies monthly instead of quarterly prevented next year's budget being even deeper in deficit.

Treasurers during the past 30 years must be kicking themselves for not thinking of that one, and somebody in Treasury's expanding creative-accounting department is set for a gong. Why stop at monthly? Make it fortnightly, perhaps. Or even daily.

Scarier still, extend it to income tax and super. Oops, what am I saying? Luckily, the time-shifting trick is a one-off, unless Treasury can figure out a way of creating more days in a year. If anybody can, it will.

But shuffling money around from one year to the next, or from the next year to this, is meaningless as far as the economy goes and doesn't disguise an underlying deficit.

And don't let anybody tell you a teeny-weeny deficit might not be so bad. Its true size has been hidden but, more to the point, a genuine surplus would take pressure off an overvalued dollar over time.

The mini-budget forecasts an average year. But only the threat of recession could justify a deficit.

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