At a time when the Prime Minister is refusing to accept that our weak economy needs a boost rather than a drag from the budget, stand by for loads of look-over-there spin from his unfortunate Treasurer Josh Frydenberg when he unveils the mid-year budget update today.
That was Frydenberg’s way of bluffing his way round the news earlier this month that the economy had grown by a disappointing 1.7 per cent over the year to September. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see some of those talking points get another run today.
He started with the line that, despite a result that laughed at his forecasts made only eight months earlier, the economy remains “remarkably resilient in the face of significant global and domestic economic headwinds”.
That’s a spin doctor’s way of saying “it could have been even worse”. Arithmetically true, but cold comfort. Since Frydenberg is boasting about our strong growth in exports, it’s hard to see much evidence of the global headwinds he claims are holding us back. And the domestic headwinds we’re suffering are home-grown and all too evidently a sign of poor economic management.
But Josh has more: “While other major developed economies like Germany, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Singapore have experienced negative economic growth, the Australian economy is in its 29th consecutive year of economic growth.”
Yes, but at present almost all our growth is coming from high immigration-fed population growth, not rising prosperity. As AMP Capital’s Dr Shane Oliver has noted, our annual growth in gross domestic product per person is just 0.2 per cent, compared with America’s 1.4 per cent, Japan’s 1.6 per cent and even the Eurozone’s 1 per cent.
It’s actually a sign that business investment is so unusually weak that our households, companies and governments are saving more than is needed
In the first of his look-over-there arguments, Frydenberg boasts that we’ve maintained our AAA credit rating from three leading US rating agencies. Since these agencies’ lapse in ethical standards contributed significantly to the global financial crisis, this isn’t a recommendation I’d be skiting about. Any government that lets those disreputable characters dictate its budget policy lacks the courage of its convictions.
Next, we’ve seen our current account on the balance of payments “return to surplus for the first time in more than 40 years”. Not sure whether this boast is a sign of our Treasurer’s economic illiteracy, or his assessment of ours. Only the same people who think now’s a good time for the budget to take more out of the economy than it puts back – that is, return to surplus – would be foolish enough to think a current account surplus was a sign of economic strength.
It’s actually a sign that business investment is so unusually weak that our households, companies and governments are saving more than is needed to fund our national investment in new productive assets. Our usual current account deficit would be a much better sign of strong investment in future expansion.
Then we’re told that “welfare dependency is at its lowest level in 30 years”. With the unemployment rate at 5.3 per cent and the under-employment rate at 8.5 per cent, that’s not because they’ve all got jobs, it’s because of the government’s greater use of excuses to cut people off the dole and make them reliant on charity for their survival. Talk about reversion to the mean.
In a breathtaking case of Orwell’s Newspeak, Frydenberg claimed “growth has been broad-based with household consumption, public final demand and net exports all contributing to GDP growth”.
This is the very opposite of the truth. Since growth in consumer spending was a negligible 0.1 per cent during the quarter, the vast private sector of the economy actually went backwards, with what little growth we got coming from the much smaller (and despised) public sector and from net exports.
Growth in the September quarter was weaker than expected because Frydenberg’s repeated assurances that his middle-income tax offset would boost consumer spending failed to happen. Talk about chutzpah. He changed his line to “whether spent or saved, the tax cuts are putting households in a stronger economic position, making them more financially secure with more money in their pockets” without a blush.
Finally, it’s the drought’s fault – and you surely can’t blame the government for that. “Farm GDP is 5.9 per cent lower through the year to the September quarter and falling in four of the past five quarters. Rural exports fell by 2.8 per cent in the quarter,” Frydenberg said.
Arithmetically correct, but calculated to mislead. What he hopes you won’t remember is that, these days, agriculture accounts for only about 2 per cent of GDP, meaning the drought shaved only 0.1 percentage points off growth in the quarter, and 0.2 points over the year.
All this is the balderdash we get when pollies give politics priority over policy.
Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.
Source: Thanks smh.com