Dammit Abbott, it's a rocky horror show
Our wedding to Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey turns rocky horror show in the Budget 2014. With Rocco Fazzari and Denis Carnahan.PT1M42S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-38qjm 620 349 May 22, 2014
According to Treasury secretary Dr Martin Parkinson, the budget is replete with ''structural reforms''. According to his boss Joe Hockey, it will ''drive the productivity required to generate economic growth''. Sorry, not convinced.
As a vehicle for micro-economic reform, the budget gets less impressive the more I study it. Parkinson seems to be referring to reforms to the structure of the budget itself, which will build ''fiscal resilience'' over the coming decade.
Illustration: Michael Mucci.
That's true enough in terms of returning the budget to a sustainable surplus (business cycle permitting). In the process, however, the budget cuts will do little to raise the efficiency with which the government performs its own tasks, nor the efficiency of its interaction with private industries.
Rather than making what the government does more cost-effective, it just stops doing as much. It makes the federal government smaller, but not better. It's a giant exercise in cost-shifting: to people on pensions, to the young jobless, to university students, to the sick and, to the tune of $80 billion, to the states.
It's about crude spending cuts, not about using science to improve efficiency. Does anyone seriously believe imposing yet another temporary increase in the ''efficiency dividend'' on the public service will lead to cost savings without any decline in the quantity and quality of services provided to the public?
Hockey's talk of productivity improvement seems mainly a reference to the budget's increased spending on public infrastructure. I guess we shouldn't complain about the Liberals' belated recognition that adequate infrastructure increases the productivity of the private sector - it would be news to Peter Costello - but the money does need to be well spent to maximise the benefit.
Monuments and pork-barrelling do little for productivity. And I'm not convinced the Libs' bias - federal and state - towards expressways and against public transport is the way to get the greatest productivity gain.
Next exhibit on the micro-reform list would be the deregulation of university fees. The claim that this will unleash competition and so make the tertiary education ''industry'' a lot more efficient is so debatable I'll leave it for another day.
Along with Tony Abbott (St Ignatius, Riverview) and Christopher Pyne (St Ignatius, Adelaide), Hockey (St Aloysius, Sydney) has repudiated the Gonski reforms which would have put federal grants to schools on a needs basis. He's left grants to private schools unreformed and unmeans-tested, while grants to public schools will cover an ever-declining share of their costs.
Leaving aside questions of fairness (and partiality), this is a micro-reform negative. Adjusting grants to reflect students' disabilities would have done much to increase the skills, employability and workforce participation of kids at the bottom of the distribution. It could have been done more cheaply than Labor planned by reducing grants to privileged schools to compensate.
Medical services account for 9.5 per cent of gross domestic product, meaning we have few industries that are bigger, even though much of the industry is government-owned or heavily government-subsidised.
There is plenty of room for the reform of excessive schedule fees for certain procedures, perverse incentives and overservicing, particularly by the corporate sausage-machines that have been permitted to take over so much of general practice.
The doctors' union could be obliged to allow nurses and other health professionals to perform many routine procedures. Many evidence-based reforms could be implemented to reduce waste and increase productivity in public hospitals without reducing the quality of care.
Much could be done to reduce the cost of the pharmaceutical benefits scheme by taking a tougher line with foreign drug companies over generics and the ''evergreening'' of patents, not to mention the chemists' union.
Paradoxically, overseas experience says greater efficiency can be achieved by imposing a cap on the growth in total scheme spending, thus requiring medical representatives to make harder choices about which new drugs are really worth listing.
So what was done? Hockey introduced a $7 charge on GP visits, tests and scans that will be costly to collect and will get at the corporate overservicers by hitting every patient and will discourage the poor from seeing the doc, whacked up an already high co-payment for pharmaceutical scripts and slashed projected grants to public hospitals.
For good measure, Hockey stopped wasting money on all that preventive medicine stuff. Brilliant. Must have taken a genius to dream all that up.
Finally, ''corporate welfare''. The foreshadowed toughness didn't materialise, save for a brave decision to take the ethanol subsidy from a very generous political donor. But the opportunity for sharing the pain - and doing much to force change on a lot of corporate ''leaners'' - was missed.