The budget is the government’s Plan B, but what’s Plan C if polls stay bad?



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Scott Morrison addresses the media on Sunday.
Julian Smith/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government inoculated itself against the post-budget polls. Budgets don’t produce bounces, people said. The Conversation

True for the most part – though there were Newspoll bounces (three points or better) in 1996, 1999, 2000, 2009, and 2012.

Nevertheless the fact that the first four post-2017 budget polls were all bad must have been a disappointment for Malcolm Turnbull. Newspoll and Fairfax-Ipsos on Monday both had the Coalition trailing Labor 47-53%; on Friday two ReachTEL polls, for Sky and Channel 7, had it behind 47-53% and 46-54% respectively.

Given that polling has found that the main budget measures are in themselves popular – from which Turnbull appears to be taking heart – the government might have hoped for something better in the voting results.

“Polls are not news,” Turnbull told a news conference on Monday, though he admitted to John Laws: “I do take notice of the polls naturally”. His throwaway “not news” line just invited a rerun of the clip from the day he challenged Tony Abbott, when he pointed to the Coalition losing 30 Newspolls on the trot. This week marks his loss of a dozen of them in a row.

Accepting, however, that bounces are not the norm, the Coalition backbench will be holding its collective breath in coming months.

Treasurer Scott Morrison said Australians will be absorbing the budget “over time”. From the government’s point of view, he’d better be right, and they will need to absorb it positively.

If there is not a clawback for the Coalition later this year – and of course factors other than the budget will be feeding into public opinion – things will be looking pretty dire. Some predict Turnbull’s leadership will be in the frame unless the numbers improve; on the other hand, another change would be extremely hard.

Budgets disappear quickly but not before an intense selling effort. On Monday night Morrison was mixing it at a Sky News forum on the New South Wales central coast, where the audience ranged from One Nation supporters and the party’s NSW senator Brian Burston to local Labor MP Liesl Tesch, who scored a question.

Morrison was tackled on debt, housing (at length), the banks, immigration and identity politics. A woman bluntly told him his reference to “mum and dad investors” in the property market was “ludicrous – they are all investors”. A man who described himself as editorial cartoonist to Mark Latham’s Outsiders declared the government had shifted too far to the left and wanted to know “when we’ll get the government we voted for”.

As he’s done in and since the budget, Morrison stressed eschewing ideology and just “getting things done”. The Liberals believed in investing in education and sustainable services, he said; the difference between a Liberal and Labor budget was “the Liberal budget is paid for”.

Morrison reiterated that the banks should absorb the levy the budget has placed on them. The audience thought it would be passed on – something Turnbull admitted earlier in the day the government could not actually stop, although “there are plenty of factors that will inhibit them from doing so”.

For those watching the Liberal Party’s internals, one of the notable reaction to the budget has been Abbott’s. Given that, at its core, the 2017 budget is about trashing the remnants of the 2014 Abbott-Hockey effort, one might have expected him to be much more critical, though his words have had an edge.

He said on 2GB on Monday (in the spot formerly occupied by Morrison): “We would have liked to have had a savings budget. The Senate doesn’t like savings budgets as they showed in 2014, so instead we’ve got a taxing budget but this is the best that the budget can do in these circumstances.”

In contrast, his former chief-of-staff, Peta Credlin, has been bitterly critical, saying on Sky “the budget is about the Liberal Party junking everything that it has stood for”.

One assumes Abbott’s views are much stronger than he is expressing. So why is he being careful, when often he’s anything but?

Credlin said she thought “he’s trying hard not to be accused … of fuelling an anti-Malcolm sentiment”.

If those polls don’t turn around, Abbott doesn’t want people being able to point fingers of blame at him. He’d been keen for all the responsibility to be squarely on the shoulders of the prime minister and his treasurer.

The government has been candidly admitting that this budget, so out of character for a Coalition government, is not its preferred choice. In other words, it is Plan B. But if Plan B doesn’t help do the trick with the polls, it is not clear what Plan C would be.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/55eic-6aa7da?from=yiiadmin

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Shifting the tax burden to middle-income earners will undermine jobs and growth


Patricia Apps, University of Sydney

The government’s idea of raising the Medicare levy, while also removing the 2% budget deficit levy on incomes above A$180,000, is less “transformational” and more signature Liberal policy. It shifts the tax burden towards middle income earners, as opposed to Labor’s plan to direct higher tax rates towards higher income earners. The Conversation

Rather than introducing a simple flat rate rise of 0.5% in the marginal tax rate across all taxpayers, the government has chosen to increase the Medicare levy. The reason lies in the fact that the levy contains the equivalent of a low-income tax offset due to the phasing out of the low-income exemption.

For example, in the current financial year, the thresholds for the phasing out of the Medicare levy exemption is A$21,665 for singles and A$36,541 (plus A$3,356 for each dependent child/student) for families. At these thresholds, tax rates rise by the rate of the withdrawal of the exemption, which works out to be 8% (calculated as 10% less the 2% Medicare levy rate).

In the case of a two-child family, this means an 8% rise in the marginal tax rate at an income from A$43,253, to an upper income limit of A$51,803. If a Medicare levy increase of 0.5% were introduced in the current tax year, the upper income limit for the higher marginal tax rate would rise to A$54,066.

In combining a rise in the Medicare levy with the removal of the budget deficit levy, the government is therefore proposing a rise in marginal tax rates across a wide band of middle incomes and a marginal tax rate cut for the top.

This direction of tax reform is a continuation of the incremental shift in the overall tax burden towards middle income earners over recent decades. And because the threshold for the Medicare levy exemption is based on family income, the reform will reinforce the move towards higher effective tax rates on low income second earners in a family.

This shift in the tax burden from top to middle income earners, and to middle income families, will undermine aggregate demand and, in turn, “jobs and growth” in the future.

In contrast to the government’s policy, Labor’s policy limits the rise in the Medicare levy to incomes above the top two bracket points and retains the budget deficit levy. Raising taxes on top incomes is not only a fairer policy, but a more efficient one in the conventional economic sense.

The impact of taxes on hours worked declines as earnings get higher, and has close to no effect on the hours worked by those with top incomes. And by avoiding higher taxes on second family earners, Labor’s policy should have a less negative effect on second earner hours of work and therefore the tax base.

The government’s and Labor’s tax reforms therefore represent very different policies.

Patricia Apps, Professor of Public Economics, Faculty of Law, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Don’t be fooled, the Medicare Guarantee Fund provides no real guarantee



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The Medicare Guarantee Fund appears to be no more than an accounting trick.
from shutterstock.com

Stephen Duckett, Grattan Institute

Treasurer Scott Morrison pulled a health-related rabbit out of his hat on budget night, announcing the government will “guarantee” the future of Medicare. The Conversation

It will do this by allocating revenue from the recently increased (from 2% to 2.5%) Medicare levy, after paying for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), into a Medicare Guarantee Fund.

The government will then cover the shortfall to cover the costs of Medicare – defined in these budget announcements as a combination of expenditure from the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). In Morrison’s words:

Proceeds from the Medicare levy will be paid into the fund. An additional contribution from income tax revenue will also be paid into the Medicare Guarantee Fund to make up the difference.

Based on the sketchy information so far available, this fund appears to be no more than an accounting trick. The size of the fund will be determined each year based on projected MBS and PBS expenditure. The balancing item, which is the extra proportion of non-NDIS revenue, will also be adjusted each year in line with those expenditure projections.

The guarantee part is that only the MBS and PBS expenditures can be paid from the fund, “by law”. This might sound good, but don’t be fooled. The Medicare Guarantee Fund is nothing more than a rebadging exercise: it changes the badge on a policy in the hope people might think it is a new policy.

It merely provides an additional line in the budget papers, supplementing information that was already there for MBS and PBS expenditure, albeit separately. And by defining Medicare as MBS and PBS expenditure, the government has seamlessly airbrushed public hospitals out of the picture.

What is Medicare?

Until budget night this week, most people would have thought of Medicare as the medical services and public hospital scheme, and probably still do.

When Medicare was introduced in 1984, it changed funding arrangements for medical services and public hospitals, removing or reducing financial barriers to access to these services. It did not touch PBS arrangements.

It may now be appropriate to add the PBS as a third component of Medicare, as it is about access to health care. But the PBS should be an addition to how Medicare is defined. It shouldn’t be used to airbrush public hospital access out of any Commonwealth definition of Medicare.

To put it more simply, the Medicare Guarantee Fund does not include the Commonwealth’s contribution to public hospital funding. But it does include the PBS, adopting a unique and idiosyncratic definition of Medicare.

The Medicare Guarantee Fund is being created using a partial statement of Medicare spending: if the public were to assume the Medicare Guarantee Fund is purely about a public commitment to Medicare, they would be misled.

So despite Morrison’s claims the fund will provide “transparency about what it really costs to run Medicare”, Medicare funding will actually be less transparent.

What does the fund guarantee?

The government probably hopes the Medicare Guarantee Fund will be its armour against a revised Mediscare campaign, like the one Labor ran before the 2016 election. The word “guarantee” linked with “Medicare” sounds good, costs nothing and does not bind the government in any way. But it may be enough to ward off the Mediscare vampires.

Mediscare resonated in 2016 because of the 2014 budget decisions. These were seen as a breach of trust as they were policies that had been explicitly ruled out in the previous election campaign.

The controversial 2014 budget proposals aimed to reduce Commonwealth expenditure by shifting costs onto consumers and onto states. One way of doing this was through co-payments that required patients to make an out-of-pocket payment when they see a doctor.

Another cost-shifting policy was the Medicare rebate freeze, which froze MBS rebates for visits to doctors at 2013 levels, despite inflation since then which has been tracking at around 2% a year. Since rebates are also paid to consumers, this was another example of a consumer cost shift, although the burden of this strategy probably fell on providers, particularly general practitioners.

Some of the 2014 changes (like the co-payment) required legislation to implement, while others (like the rebate freeze) could be implemented by administrative action without requiring parliamentary approval.

Importantly, none of the changes that required legislation were successful. The only changes in the 2014 budget that were eventually implemented were the ones that didn’t require legislation, such as the rebate freeze and draconian public hospital budget cuts. These tore up a previous agreement under which the Commonwealth matched cost increases in public hospitals.

Even these two measures have now been partially wound back – the hospital cuts before the 2016 election, and the rebate freeze in the 2017 budget.

What should a Medicare guarantee look like?

A Medicare guarantee worth its salt would be one that protects the public from the administrative assaults of the 2014 budget. This would involve enshrining in legislation the Commonwealth-state health care agreements – as well as the “partnership” payments, which are other Commonwealth grants to the states for health care – and introducing automatic indexation of Medicare rebates.

The Medicare Guarantee Fund as proposed in the 2017 budget does not do this. It provides no guarantee of policy stability, no guarantee of additional funding, and no guarantee that a future budget will not tear into the Medicare fabric in the way that characterised the 2014 debacle.

Stephen Duckett, Director, Health Program, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Budget 2017: welfare changes stigmatise recipients and are sitting on shaky ground


Peter Whiteford, Australian National University

Some of the budget changes on welfare appear to be about sending the message that receiving welfare is undesirable. Whether these changes actually reduce social security spending and encourage independence to any significant extent remains to be seen. While the 2014 rhetoric of “lifters” and “leaners” may have been dispensed with, the dichotomy between “them” and “us” remains an underlying signal. The Conversation

There’s actually little current evidence of an unsustainable growth in spending on social security and welfare. So it begs the question as to why these measures are needed.

One of the areas attracting the most controversy is the focus on payments for people of working age, particularly the unemployed and lone parents. Some of these measures appear to be more about signalling a stigmatising approach to welfare than identifying what works most effectively.

For example, “a commitment to reduce social harm in areas with high levels of welfare dependency,” will continue through the expansion of the Cashless Debit Card to two new locations and an extension of Income Management for a further two years to June 2019. As academic Eva Cox has pointed out, the official evaluations of Income Management didn’t find evidence of significant changes as a result of the policy, even on some its key objectives including changing people’s behaviours.

Then there’s a new approach to compliance for job seekers, a demerits points phase will be followed by a “three strikes” phase to engage with welfare recipients early and prevent them from incurring financial penalties for not meeting their obligations.

The government has also signalled that it will promote “self-reliance before welfare” through changes to the liquid assets test. Currently, there is a waiting period for people making a new claim for Newstart Allowance, Sickness Allowance, Youth Allowance, or Austudy of between one and 13 weeks. It applies if claimants have funds that are equal to or more than A$5,500 for single people with no dependants, or A$11,000 for those who are partnered or single with dependants.

From September 2018, the maximum Liquid Assets Waiting Period will double from 13 to 26 weeks when a claimant’s liquid assets are equal to or exceed $18,000 for singles without dependants or $36,000 for couples and singles with dependants – that is, people with savings above these levels may have to wait up to six months before receiving payment.

Stigmatising welfare recipients, but at what cost?

The government appears to be implementing a number of the substantive recommendations of the 2015 McClure Review of the Welfare System. In particular, from March 2020, the government will introduce a new, single “JobSeeker Payment”, which will progressively replace a number of payments such as the Newstart Allowance, Sickness Allowance, Wife Pension and Partner Allowance.

While this is presented as simplifying the system, over 99% of people will have no change to their payment rates. The government expects there will be around 800,000 people receiving Newstart at the time of the change and between 15,000 and 20,000 receiving all other payments, to be combined into the new payment.

Work requirements for the unemployed will also increase. Jobseekers will also have to spend more time looking for work or working for the dole – around 270,000 people aged between 30 and 49 years of age will be forced to spend 50 hours a fortnight. That’s 20 hours more than they do currently. This is despite a recent OECD report finding that Australia already has the heaviest set of obligations on the unemployed of seven countries.

In the government’s new approach to job seekers, they accrue demerit points for failing to turn up or being intoxicated. Once four demerit points are incurred over a six-month period, they will be assessed for the next phase. This involves escalating financial penalties for each additional failure; with the first strike leading to a loss of 50% of a fortnightly payment, the second strike leading to a loss of 100% of a fortnightly payment, and the third strike resulting in the cancellation of payment with a four-week exclusion from re-applying.

The rhetoric of “three strikes” (and you’re out) is clearly derived from changes in criminal sentencing.

Another of the more striking initiatives in the budget was the announcement that from 2018, 5,000 Newstart Allowance and Youth Allowance claimants, in two trial locations, may be subject to randomised drug testing for cannabis, methamphetamine and ecstasy, as a precondition of their welfare payment.

Job seekers who test positive will be placed on welfare quarantining to reduce the cash available to spend on drugs. After an initial positive test, the recipient would have further random drug tests, a penalty will only be applied for failing to comply with a test request. It’s notable that the cost of this measure is classified as commercial-in-confidence in the budget papers and has not been published.

In a related initiative, the government will close “loopholes” which allow welfare recipients to be exempt from job seeker requirements solely due to drug or alcohol abuse. The government estimated that because of this 11,000 exemptions annually would no longer be granted. This measure will cost A$28.8 million to implement over four years.

From July 1, 2017, people will also no longer be able to qualify for Disability Support Pension on the basis of their substance abuse alone. It’s estimated by the government that 450 fewer people will be granted Disability Support Pension each year due to this measure, saving about A$22 million over five years.

But the testing of welfare recipients doesn’t end there, from January 2018, a stronger “relationship verification process” for existing single parents will ensure people are not getting higher income support payments by claiming to be single when they are not. From September 2018, people applying for the Parenting Payment (single) or single parents claiming Newstart Allowance will be required to have a third party sign a new form verifying that they are in fact single. Penalties of up to 12 months in prison may be applied to referees – presumably families or friends – who provide a false declaration.

There doesn’t seem to be much concrete evidence for the effectiveness for all these types of measures.

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report in 2013 did report that use of illicit drugs was more prevalent among the unemployed. It reported people who were unemployed being 1.6 times more likely to use cannabis, 2.4 times more likely to use meth/amphetamines and 1.8 times more likely to use ecstasy than employed people.

But the same report notes that people with the highest socio-economic status were more likely to consume alcohol in risky quantities and to have used ecstasy and cocaine in the previous 12 months than people with the lowest socio-economic status. It also appears these figures don’t control for differences in the demographic profile of the unemployed and those in paid work.

Welfare quarantining policies of this sort have been tried in the United States in recent years. According to the National Council of State Legislatures at least 15 American states have passed legislation regarding drug testing or screening for public assistance applicants or recipients.

Reports of the effectiveness of this testing vary widely.

In the United States, a 2011 review by the federal Department of Health and Human Services estimated the prevalence rate of substance abuse among US welfare users ranged between 4% and 37%. However, a review by US academics in 2005 found substance abuse disorders are less common among welfare recipients there than other serious barriers to self-sufficiency (such as physical health, poor academic skill and transportation difficulties, among a range of factors). These academics argued widespread substance abuse is not a major cause of continued economic dependence.

Earlier research pointed out that in the results of drug testing of welfare recipients there was a large group of “false positives” with no apparent disorder; and that drug-testing could not distinguish “false negatives” who may may be alcohol dependent or experiencing psychiatric disorders and need assistance.

There have also been a number of court cases in the US about the constitutionality of these drug tests when applied randomly, and it has been noted that similar proposals in Great Britain may violate EU based rights to privacy.

It’s worrying that the budget papers do not identify the costs of the proposal nor the expected savings. Overall, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this proposal is symbolic, rather than designed to have a positive impact on the well-being of those to be tested.

Budget spending on welfare continues to increase

Social security and welfare remains the largest single component of government spending, and is projected to increase from A$164 billion in 2017-18 to A$191.2 billion in 2020-21, or from 35.3% to 36.6% of total expenses.

Overall social security and welfare spending is projected to grow by 0.22% of GDP over the projection period. Spending on the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is projected to grow by 0.46% of GDP, compared to other measures such as the spending on child care by 0.07% of GDP and spending on unemployment and related benefits by 0.05% of GDP. Most other components of social security and welfare expenditure are projected to fall over this period, with the largest impact being on spending on Family Tax Benefits.

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The development of the NDIS is clearly the most significant source of new social spending in this year’s budget. The additional 0.5% increase in the Medicare Levy to guarantee funding for the project will apply from July 1, 2019 and will raise an extra A$3.55 billion in revenue in its first year, rising to A$4.25 billion in 2020-21. There are also positive initiatives in continued funding for valuable longitudinal surveys, such as HILDA and the Parents Next Programme.

The main area of savings is in the area of Family Tax Benefits, where savings are to be used to fund changes in child care – although the savings over the period are more than twice as great, as the increased spending on child care. These savings of A$1.9 billion over five years are made possible by not indexing payment rates to inflation until July 2019.

In addition, a further A$415 million will be saved over five years through adjustments to the rate at which Family Tax Benefit A is income-tested when family incomes exceed the higher income threshold of around $94,000 of joint family income. As a result, around 24,900 families will lose access to Family Tax Benefit Part A, and around 71,800 families will see a reduction in their family payments.

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Overall, the 2017-18 budget has abandoned many of the most regressive welfare measures that have led to their blocking in the Senate since 2014. However, it remains the case that the freezing of payment rates for Family Tax Benefit will have the largest proportional effect on low income families with children, since these payments form a larger proportion of their disposable incomes.

There are projected increases in spending on income support and services for the aged as a result of the ongoing and predictable ageing of the Australian population. There’s also smaller increases in income support for parents and for the unemployed – perhaps partly due to the simplification of support for working age recipients – but these are more than offset by reductions in other areas of welfare spending.

To a large extent, the challenges facing government in providing the services and benefits that the Australian population values are predictable and manageable, so there is a need to base policies on evidence and not myths or stereotypes.

Peter Whiteford, Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mental health funding in the 2017 budget is too little, unfair and lacks a coherent strategy



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Mental health remains chronically underfunded.
from shutterstock.com

Sebastian Rosenberg, University of Sydney

This week’s federal budget allocated A$115 million in new funding over four years. This is one of the smallest investments in the sector in recent years. The Conversation

For instance, the Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) added more than $5.5 billion to mental health spending in 2006. The 2011-12 federal budget provided $2.2 billion in new funding.

This compounds a situation in which, in 2014-15, mental health received around 5.25% of the overall health budget while representing 12% of the total burden of disease. There is no reason those figures should exactly match, but the gap is large and revealing.

They speak to the fact mental health remains chronically underfunded. Mental health’s share of overall health spending was 4.9% in 2004-05. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, funding has changed very little over the past decade.

We lack a coherent national strategy to tackle mental health. New services have been established this year, but access to them may well depend on where you live or who is looking after you. This is chance, not good planning.

Hospital-based services

The general focus of care when it comes to mental health remains hospital-based services. Inpatient – when admitted to hospital – and outpatient clinic care or in the emergency room represent the bulk of spending. (The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare includes hospital outpatient services under the heading “Community”, which makes definitive estimates of the proportion of funding impossible.)

Outside of primary care such as general practice, or Medicare-funded services (such as psychology services provided under a mental health care plan), mental health services in the community are hard to find.

An encouraging aspect of this year’s budget is the government’s recognition of this deficiency. The largest element of new mental health spending was a commitment to establish a pool of $80 million to fund so-called psychosocial services in the community.

As Treasurer Scott Morrison said in his budget speech, this money is for:

Australians with a mental illness such as severe depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia and post-natal depression resulting in a psychosocial disability, including those who had been at risk of losing their services during the transition to the NDIS.

Yet, the money is contingent on states and territories matching federal funds, meaning up to $160 million could be made available over the next four years if the states all chip in with their share of $80 million. But this commitment was made “noting that states and territories retain primary responsibility for CMH [community mental health] services”. Whether the states agree is another matter.

This new funding seems partly a response to the federal transfer of programs such as Partners in Recovery and Personal Helpers and Mentors to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Both these programs offered critical new capacity to community organisations to provide mental health services and better coordinate care.

Partners in Recovery was established in the 2011-12 budget with $550 million to be spent over five years. Personal Helpers and Mentors (along with other similar programs) was established in the same year with $270 million in funding over five years.

With these programs now (or soon to be) cordoned off to recipients of NDIS packages, the 2017 budget measure appears to be designed to offset their loss. However, not all states may choose to match the federal funds. And some may choose to do so but try to use new federal funds to reduce their own overall mental health spending.

States already vary in the types of services they offer. All this raises the prospect that people’s access to, and experience of, mental health care is likely to vary considerably depending on where they live. In a budget espousing fairness, this is a recipe for inequity.

Lack of coherent strategy

The budget does attempt to improve the uneven distribution of mental health professionals by providing $9 million over four years to enable psychology services to rural areas though telehealth. It’s well known mental health services in the bush are inadequate.

This investment seems sensible, but $9 million pales in comparison to spending on the Better Access Program, which I have calculated to be $15 million each week. This program provides Medicare subsidies for face-to-face mental health services under mental health care plans. While this program is available for those in rural areas, accessing it is more difficult than in cities.

This budget’s commitment to mental health shows a lack of an overarching strategy. Rather than offering a coherent approach to mental health planning, this budget continues Australia’s piecemeal, patchwork structure, where the system is driven mostly by who pays rather than what works or is needed.

The development of a national community mental health strategy would be most welcome now. This would demonstrate how the primary and tertiary mental health sectors will join up to provide the blend of clinical, psychological and social support necessary to finally enable people with a mental illness to live well in the community.

You could be forgiven for thinking that, albeit slowly, the well-known problems in mental health across Australia are being addressed. But the small pool of funding in this year’s budget says otherwise. And the lack of coherent strategy is a shame. You can’t complete a jigsaw puzzle if you keep adding new pieces.

Sebastian Rosenberg, Senior Lecturer, Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is this the budget that forgot renters?



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The budget brought no increase in rent assistance to help low-income renters in the private rental market.
AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Emma Power, Western Sydney University

The measures in the 2017-18 federal budget targeting the supply of lower-cost rental housing are limited. There are no significant funding increases to social housing and homelessness services. There is no increase in rent assistance to help low-income renters in the private rental market. The Conversation

Capital gains tax and negative gearing settings remain largely untouched, and the proposed bond aggregator will support expansion of housing aimed at very specific groups.

For the majority of Australia’s renters, housing will remain unaffordable, insecure and out of reach.

Community housing

If private investors get on board, the bond aggregator may help boost the supply of affordable and community housing by providing cheaper financing to community housing providers.

These two forms of housing are extremely important. However, they do little to help most renters.

Eligibility requirements for community housing mean many who require low-cost housing, where rent is calculated at between 25% and 30% of household income, are not able to gain access.

Single older women are among the fastest-growing group of homeless people in Australia. However, most are unable to access community housing because the only eligibility benchmark they meet is their low-income status.

Women not leaving situations of domestic violence or who do not have a recognised disability will find it difficult to qualify for housing before they reach homelessness.

The private rental market these women face is obscene. There is extremely low housing security with the risk of eviction when the standard lease agreement (of six and 12 months) runs out. High rents place sufficient, nutritious food out of reach of their budget, and they face difficulties paying power bills.

Time spent bringing up children, the gendered pay gap and – for some – relationship breakdown are among the factors that lead to this housing experience.

Long waiting lists for social housing and eligibility restrictions mean this year’s budget proposals are likely to fail this group.

Affordable housing

The second target of the bond aggregator is affordable housing. This is housing that is rented at between 75% and 80% of market rent. It is often described as “key worker” housing, where teachers, ambulance drivers and police officers can live.

Affordable housing has an important place in the housing system. However, below-market rents in central, work-rich regions are still extremely high and out of reach for many.

Of more concern, it is unlikely that many of these lower-income workers would be able to maintain their high rents at retirement. This generates two risks:

  • that the renter is evicted and forced to find housing on the private market, which puts them at high risk of homelessness

  • that the housing provider continues their commitment to house the tenant securely once their income drops, so the risk here is to the housing provider’s bottom line. They will face a loss of income, as they drop rents from 80% of market value to around 30% of the retired person’s pension.

First home buyers

The budget tips its hat to first home buyers; prospective buyers will now be allowed to save up to A$30,000 at a reduced tax rate. But this is barely one-quarter of a standard 20% deposit for most apartments in Sydney.

Renters who aspire to home ownership and have sufficient income to service a mortgage may benefit from this measure. However, it will do little for the large number of low- and moderate-income households. For this group, spiralling housing costs put home ownership well out of reach.

It is also possible that this measure will add to inflationary pressure on housing prices by boosting demand for entry-level homes. Existing owners who are selling their homes would be the primary beneficiaries.

What’s missing?

There remains a need for courageous government action to tackle the structural inequities in the housing market.

Removing tax incentives that keep investor heat in the market will be essential – and so will increases to social housing budgets.

Investment in a large stock of secure low-cost social housing should be prioritised. Failing this, there will be a need to increase rent assistance payments, particularly in high-cost regions.

But this is far from ideal. More rent assistance will help renters in the short term, but amounts to a subsidy for private landlords in the long term.

Does the government care?

Underpinning much budget analysis is a sense that government should be concerned with the needs of the disadvantaged. Sociologist Keith Jacobs argues we should disavow ourselves of that view, describing housing policy in Australia as a “form of reverse welfarism that exacerbates social inequality”.

Jacobs argues:

… the state should be understood as an agency that sustains the conditions necessary for the finance industry, developers and real estate agents, along with well-off householders and landlords, to reap profits.

The failure of the 2017 budget to tackle tax measures that support individual private investment, and its emphasis on funding social and affordable housing through market investment mechanisms while providing little direct support at the bottom end of the market, does little to challenge this argument.

Emma Power, Senior Research Fellow, Geography and Urban Studies, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Budget 2017 charts new social and affordable housing agenda


Chris Martin, UNSW and Hal Pawson, UNSW

Under pressure to tackle deepening housing affordability problems, Treasurer Scott Morrison has included various housing policy measures in his budget, some relating to Australia’s small sector of social and affordable housing. The Conversation

One headline-grabber is the creation of a new entity, the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC). This will source private funds for on-lending to affordable housing providers to finance rental housing development. However, the bigger issue for the sector remains federal and state funding.

This public funding is the money that, along with tenants’ rents, co-funds state and territory housing and homelessness services. Here too Morrison is proposing reform, particularly to the primary federal-state funding arrangement for social and affordable housing, the National Affordable Housing Agreement (NAHA).

A couple of months ago we suggested the NAHA needed a reboot. Recognising the seriously run-down state of the system, we argued for an increase in funding from its present starvation level. Morrison now proposes a new federal-state funding agreement, the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA).

The level of federal funding will be the same as under the old NAHA. But the Commonwealth will press states and territories for action in defined “priority areas”. In effect, this looks like a return to a Canberra-led reform agenda for social and affordable housing unseen since the early Rudd government.

Setting aggregate supply targets

In what appears a significant passage, the budget papers reveal the government’s “priority areas” for the NHHA. We’ll consider these in turn, and then the recurring issue of inadequate funding.

Lack of transparency on the costs incurred by state and territory housing authorities in operating their social housing portfolios has been a particular problem under the NAHA. This is an area where federal engagement is welcome.

All levels of government should be pressed to quantify the level and type of need for housing in the community. And they should be made to set clear “new supply” targets for meeting that need.

That said, the federal government should stop pretending to be shocked at the lack of new social housing delivered by those authorities under the NAHA. The shortfall in NAHA funding has been obvious for years. It simply is too low to bridge the gap between the rents low-income public housing tenants can afford to pay and the costs of properly maintaining the system, let alone growing it to keep pace with rising need.

Residential land development

The stress laid on this issue within the budget policy statement reflects the federal government’s stated concern about “the supply side” of the housing affordability problem. It has framed state government planning controls as an impediment to new housing development.

However, merely loosening requirements and offering existing land owners the prospect of greater development does not ensure it will actually happen.

To ensure land owners don’t just sit on development opportunities speculatively, the federal government should use its NHHA leverage. This could include pushing the states and territories to make greater use of land tax, which would spur development and bring under-utilised land and housing to market.

Inclusionary zoning

Inclusionary zoning is a specific type of planning mechanism. It requires housing developments (above a certain size) to include some proportion of dedicated affordable housing. Ideally, this should be rental housing preserved as “affordable” in perpetuity.

Inclusionary zoning is long established in other countries and has long been demanded by housing advocates in Australia. It is now the subject of increasing interest from planning authorities – for example, the Greater Sydney Commission.

The co-financing arrangements for the NHFIC could incorporate active use of land-use planning powers for inclusionary zoning. Development sites – or developer levy proceeds – could be part of state and territory contributions to funding affordable housing development.

A commitment to build into the NHHA incentives for stepped-up use of inclusionary zoning by state governments is, therefore, very welcome.

However, the budget papers indicate that state compliance with this NHHA expectation might involve not only housing dedicated to affordable rental housing, but also “dedicated first home buyer stock”. This seems to raise the prospect of developers meeting inclusionary zoning requirements simply by reserving some newly built units for first home buyers rather than investors.

The best way to enhance first home buyer prospects vis a vis investor landlords would be to level the playing field by winding back investor negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions, not through this kind of tinkering. And to cast such “FHB reservation” initiatives as in any way equivalent to inclusionary zoning for affordable rental housing would be a highly retrograde step.

Renewing affordable housing stock

An interesting inclusion in the proposed terms of the NHHA is a clause about renewing affordable housing stock.

First, it appears positive in acknowledging the need for a public housing overhaul and indicating a new level of federal government interest in making this happen.

At a minimum, states and territories should be required to undertake a comprehensive audit of their existing portfolios. The level of outstanding disrepair has to be costed. They also should identify where renewal can best take place, balancing need for expanded and upgraded housing with sensitive treatment of existing communities.

Second, it indicates federal backing for further transfers of public housing as a growth path for the affordable housing industry. However, as our recent research for AHURI shows, this is feasible only if the operating cost gap is funded.

Past community housing growth through transfers, particularly following the 2009 housing ministers’ commitment to expand community housing to 35% of all social housing, involved an understanding that Commonwealth Rent Assistance, paid through Centrelink to transferred tenants, would help cover that gap.

Without additional funding in the NHHA, a new phase of growth through transfers requires a recommitment by governments to use rent assistance as an effective operational subsidy to community housing providers. A new target and timeframe to replace the 35% benchmark also need to be considered.

Homelessness services

Previously the subject of a separate funding agreement (the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness), homelessness services have struggled for years in the face of that agreement’s pending expiry and short-term extensions.

The NHHA will fund homelessness services on an ongoing basis, which the sector has welcomed.

Funding shortfall remains

As we’ve indicated throughout, the objectives of the NHHA – and of the social and affordable housing system generally – will continue to run up against the reality that decent housing of this kind costs more than low-income households can afford to pay.

This applies especially to people living on the miserable level of benefits such as Newstart. A subsidy is required, both to build up the stock and to keep it in good order.

Clearer targets, more transparent cost accounting, and innovations like NHFIC finance won’t bridge the gap. On the contrary, to successfully use those initiatives to build more stock, both state and territory housing authorities and non-government affordable housing providers need a larger subsidy than present funding provides.

The budget has indexed NHHA funding to wages. It would be nice to think that land and housing prices will increase only in line with wages.

In reality, properly funding the growth and maintenance of our social and affordable housing stock will require more than what the federal government is offering.

Chris Martin, Research Fellow, Housing Policy and Practice, UNSW and Hal Pawson, Associate Director – City Futures – Urban Policy and Strategy, City Futures Research Centre, Housing Policy and Practice, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Labor to oppose Medicare levy for lower- and middle-income earners


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Bill Shorten arrives to deliver the budget reply speech.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has said Labor will oppose the budget’s increase in the Medicare levy hitting taxpayers on incomes under A$87,000. The Conversation

And he has flagged a Labor government would reimpose the deficit levy on high-income earners, that automatically expires on June 30. “Labor will not support spending $19.4 billion on the wealthiest 2% of Australians,” he said in his budget reply on Thursday night.

Labor says that a combination of the pared back levy rise and the deficit levy would deliver an extra $4.5 billion over ten years “without putting the burden onto families earning modest incomes”.

The combination would mean that, under Labor’s proposal, those on incomes of more than $180,000 would pay a 49.5% marginal tax rate.

After the opposition hedged its position last week, Shorten has confirmed a Labor government would put an extra $22 billion into schools above the amount the government has pledged, going back to the original ALP plan.

In an extensive attack on key budget measures, Shorten said Labor will oppose the government’s cuts to universities, its proposed increase in student fees, and the change in the repayment threshold that “hits women, Indigenous Australians and low-income earnest the hardest”.

In power, it would reverse the government’s new cuts to TAFE.

Labor would also oppose the budget plan to give a tax break for people saving for their first home. Shorten said this was a “cruel hoax”, a joke and an insult, representing just $565 for each first home.

He said the 0.5% boost in the Medicare levy – imposed to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme and to take effect from mid-2019 – would affect every Australian down to an income of $21,000.

It would mean a worker on $55,000 would pay $275 extra a year, while someone on $80,000 would face an extra $400.

“Labor cannot support making people on modest incomes give up even more of their pay packets,” he said. Labor would only support the levy rise for those in the top two tax brackets.

Shorten said the budget “fails the fairness test” and it “fails the generational test”.

It was a “budget of big government, higher tax and more debt” and “devoid of values altogether”.

He dismissed the government’s measures to protect Medicare, saying that Malcolm Turnbull “only discovers his heart when he feels fear in it”.

The opposition leader was at pains to counter the widespread observation in commentary that this was “a Labor budget”.

He confirmed Labor would not oppose the budget’s tax on big banks, which has sparked a furious reaction from the banking sector.

But it was worried that “the weakness of this government will turn $6 billion tax on the banks into a $6 billion charge on every Australian with a bank account or a mortgage”.

The banks knew they could run over the top of this weak prime minister, he said.

“He’s giving them a levy with one hand, a tax cut with the other and a free pass for bad behaviour. I’ll give them a royal commission.”

He said that “if the banks pass on a single dollar of this tax to Australian families then that should be the end of this treasurer, this prime minister and this government”.

Shorten said that since budget night Labor had identified $1 billion in measures it would not support, including the $170 million set aside for a marriage equality plebiscite to which the Senate has refused to agree.

Earlier, in Question Time, the opposition extracted from the government the fact that the cost of its ten-year corporate tax cut – the first part of which is already legislated – would be $65 billion over the upcoming decade, compared with nearly $50 billion over a decade when announced a year ago.

In his budget reply, Shorten said: “This is a recipe for fiscal recklessness on a grand scale. It is a threat to Australia’s triple A credit rating – and therefore a threat to every Australian mortgage holder”.

Labor’s plan to close tax loopholes that let big companies shuffle money internationally would deliver $5.4 billion over a decade.

Shorten announced that a Labor government would cap at $3,000 the amount people could deduct for the management of their tax affairs. Although affecting only one in 100 taxpayers, this would save $1.3 billion over the medium term.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann called on Shorten to submit his speech to the Parliamentary Budget Office for costing.

“If Bill Shorten is serious he needs to come clean with the Australian people about how much bigger the deficit would be over the forward estimates period as a result of the announcements that he has made,” Cormann said.

He said Labor’s numbers did not add up and it would put the triple A credit rating at risk.

Social Services Minister Christian Porter said that Labor had not outlined enough to fund the NDIS.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/55eic-6aa7da?from=yiiadmin

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Budget 2017: a glimmer of support for innovation and advanced manufacturing


Drew Evans, University of South Australia

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s 2015 National Innovation and Science Agenda was a call to arms for Australia’s research and industry sectors to collaborate and drive our economy. The Conversation

One and a half years on, you’d be excused for thinking a few pages of notes were missing from Budget 2017. Specifically no comment was made about the vision of where our great “ideas boom” was taking us – setting the scene to unite industry and researchers alike.

For manufacturing there was a glimmer of hope in the announcement of A$100 million to boost innovation, skills and employment in advanced manufacturing.

It addresses people, know-how, process and partnerships. If connected into a strategic plan there could be benefits for businesses as the manufacturing sector redeploys into new activity.

However, it does appear narrowly focused on the here and now for closed and closing automotive manufacturers.

In the absence of linkage with the National Innovation and Science Agenda, the pending 2030 Roadmap from Innovation and Science Australia, and comment on the research and development tax incentive review, the A$100 million may be an expensive band-aid.

Capital upgrades

The funding announcement refers to A$47.5 million for a new Advanced Manufacturing Growth Fund to support South Australian and Victorian manufacturers for capital upgrades to “make their businesses more competitive through innovative processes and equipment”.

My experience of project work with manufacturing companies is that capital cost of equipment (capital expenditure, or “CapEx”) has never been a roadblock to growth and success.

When the business case stacks up, CapEx is easily justified. The business case is built upon having the right people and know-how in the business.

In isolation the drive to purchase new equipment presents no value to business, and may even lead to stranded assets. But coupled with people and know-how, opportunities may come.

It’s important to recognise that right now, existing manufacturers are looking at how to utilise and/or redeploy their existing assets. In particular the automotive parts manufacturers are seeking new opportunities that match with existing equipment.

An example is a company that I am working with, Precision Components in South Australia. They are redeploying their large metal presses previously used in car component manufacturing to create components for capturing solar energy at HeliostatSA. It’s a project that has contributed to export capability for HeliostatSA.

Redeployment is the focus for many businesses today, not new equipment.

Small scale research projects

The funding announcement refers to A$4 million to support small scale and pilot research projects in advanced manufacturing, administered through the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre.

This seems like a good move.

Boosting innovation requires broadening the base of businesses looking to grow, and collaboration with university research programs is one way to achieve this. Small grants build confidence in collaborative partnerships, and help to clarify what the innovation is and its future return on investment.

For example, the government’s Innovation Connections scheme has had success in seeding innovation and collaboration.

A recent recipient of an Innovation Connections grant, company Sentek Pty Ltd, is utilising this scheme to fund new product development, and to underpin justification for future and larger investment. I am collaborating with Sentek on this project.

Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) Projects

The funding announcement refers to A$20 million under the Cooperative Research Centre – Projects initiative for larger scale advanced manufacturing research projects.

This funding should be warmly received.

The CRC program links researchers and industry, with the aim of delivering economic value to the industry partner and the sector more broadly. This scheme funds the real costs of research, develops skills in people, and incentivises transitioning knowledge out of the university.

The newly formed CRC Projects scheme is in its infancy, with industry firmly in the driving seat for administering the projects.

From the first two rounds of funding under the CRC Projects, a total of 28 projects have been funded. Each project has seen a co-investment from industry, universities, other research institutes, and the federal government.

Crunching the numbers for the funded projects shows, on average, the government invested A$2.04 million per project. This indicates that the new A$20 million of funding could support around an additional ten projects. This will stimulate activity and add value to our advanced manufacturing sector.

Innovation Labs

The funding announcement refers to A$10 million to establish Innovation Labs in South Australia and Victoria to serve industry.

It’s difficult to know what this means in reality.

Perhaps the purpose is to provide facilities for early stage innovation to be tested at minimal expense, and reduce the risk of the business making significant investment in infrastructure.

Perhaps it will allow researchers or companies to shore up concepts before seeking investment and raising capital. Maybe existing facilities will seek financial support to expand their remit across a diverse advanced manufacturing sector.

A topical example relates to additive manufacturing – generally known as 3D printing. Businesses producing 3D-printed products need a testing ground to conduct certification and accreditation of products prior to sale. The Innovation Labs could fill this void, and complete the link between laboratory research and commercial product.

Engineering excellence

The funding announcement refers to A$5 million investment in engineering student research at universities, technology institutions and in industry to maintain the flow of highly trained engineers to the automotive design and engineering sector.

At the heart of innovation are people.

Engineers represent one discipline that contributes to the pipeline of innovation. An investment to see the continual training of excellent engineers may address the loss of traditional career pathways.

Perhaps the funds will aid in restructuring of engineering education towards emerging opportunities in the health and medical, agriculture, renewable energy and other sectors.

As more details come to light in the coming weeks and months, the Turnbull government’s vision for Australia’s manufacturing future may become clearer.

But the sense from the manufacturers themselves is that they will just get on and do it anyway.

Drew Evans, Associate Professor of Energy & Advanced Manufacturing, Australian Research Council Future Fellow, University of South Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Budget needs a sharper policy scalpel to help first home buyers


Rachel Ong, Curtin University

In its 2017 budget, the federal government repeatedly stated its preference for a “scalpel” rather than a “chainsaw” or “sledgehammer” approach to demand management in the housing market. The Conversation

The number of housing measures in the budget are more wide-ranging than in previous budgets of recent times. Policy levers on both the supply and demand side have been incorporated within a raft of housing measures. The government claims this is a “comprehensive package that can make a difference”.

However, do the demand measures go far enough to make much-needed inroads into the housing affordability crisis now facing an entire generation of would-be first home buyers? Or is the so-called scalpel too blunt to make a meaningful difference for them?

First Home Super Savers Scheme

The budget’s key housing measure for helping young people gain a foothold on the home-ownership ladder is to allow first home buyers to use up to A$30,000 of voluntary superannuation contributions for a deposit on their first home.

Clearly, the scheme will attract the tax advantages of superannuation. Therefore, in principle, it will help first home savers accelerate their savings to buy a home, thus bridging the deposit gap, while protecting superannuation savings accumulated through compulsory employer contributions.

However, at least two key questions are pertinent.

The first relates to how many first home buyers will likely be well positioned to make voluntary contributions to their super saving account. There appears to be a general reluctance among Australians to make voluntary contributions.

Existing research has found household budget constraints are a major barrier that make it unaffordable for many to make voluntary superannuation contributions. Poor financial literacy and lack of knowledge of the superannuation system are other factors.

The second key question relates to the scheme’s impact on property prices. The scheme does not aim to ease demand pressures in the housing market. It is likely that high house prices will not be curbed, so the prospects of home ownership will continue to fade for many first home buyers.

Existing demand-side levers, including the First Home Owners Grant and stamp duty concessions for first home buyers, have not succeeded in improving the affordability of houses for most young people. Hence, it is difficult to see how an additional demand lever such as the First Home Super Savers scheme is going to have a substantial impact on affordability.

This is not to say that the budget has completely ignored the need to temper demand tensions in the property market.

Demand pressures can be eased via measures that target two other types of property owners – older home owners and property investors. The budget does contain measures that target both groups. Yet again, the question remains as to whether the levers are long enough to produce meaningful impacts.

Targeting older owners and property investors

Older downsizers aged over 65 years will be allowed to channel up to $300,000 from the sale proceeds of the family home into their super fund.

Many older home owners are living in larger dwellings than they need after their children leave home. Helping elderly home owners – sometimes coined “last home buyers” – to downsize into smaller dwellings can free up larger homes for first home buyers in earlier stages of life who are forming families.

However, the impediments to downsizing are many. These include financial barriers but also non-financial barriers. Importantly, most elderly home owners have strong emotional attachments to their family home and local community.

However, a lack of appropriate and affordable dwellings in neighbourhoods where older owners would like to stay also poses barriers to downsizing. For downsizing reforms to be effective, financial incentives will need to be accompanied by supply-side solutions that broaden the diversity of the housing stock so older home owners’ housing preferences and needs can be met.

The government has not made any significant changes to tighten negative gearing or capital gains tax concessions to reduce competition from property investors. Concern has focused on the potential contraction of private rental housing supply should investors withdraw en masse from the private rental market. However, a longer-term perspective would take into account second-round effects.

As investors sell off their rental properties, more properties will become available in the market to meet demand from first home buyers. This will not only have the impact of easing tensions in the rental market as more renters become home buyers, but it will also encourage subsequent second property investment as young career-builders seek to accumulate more wealth in their property portfolios after securing their first home.

Such second- and third-round effects need to be incorporated more into policy thinking so that policy design rests on not just short-term, but medium-to-long-term, considerations.

Is the scalpel sharp enough?

The budget contains myriad demand and supply levers that directly or indirectly aim to assist young people with their first home purchase. It represents an overdue but welcome acknowledgement on the government’s part that much needs to be done to improve home-ownership prospects for first home buyers.

A package of measures that seeks to influence both supply and demand simultaneously in the housing market is, in principle, a sensible approach to an entrenched policy concern such as housing affordability. However, in practice, policy design matters.

In the case of the 2017 budget, it would appear that the scalpel will need a whole lot more sharpening if it is to make an effective incision into the housing affordability crisis that’s plaguing an entire generation of aspiring home owners.

Rachel Ong, Deputy Director, Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.