Three charts on: why congestion charging is fairer than you might think



Peak-time drivers to the CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne typically earn much more than the average worker.
Taras Vyshnya/Shutterstock

Marion Terrill, Grattan Institute and James Ha, Grattan Institute

Congestion charging should be introduced in Australia’s largest cities, as Grattan Institute’s latest report shows. Our analysis also finds that the people who commute to the Melbourne and Sydney CBDs by driving are two to three times as likely to earn six-figure salaries as other Australian workers.

One of the main concerns about charging drivers who use the busiest roads at the busiest times has been about fairness. But sensible congestion charges could be designed to avoid burdening financially vulnerable people who lack alternatives to using particular roads at busy times.

Congestion charging is gaining traction in cities around the world as a proven method to manage congestion. London, Singapore, Stockholm and Milan all have congestion charging schemes. New York City legislators have approved plans to introduce it in Manhattan.




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Traffic congestion reconsidered


It’s better than building new infrastructure

Sydney and Melbourne are big, global cities, but with growth and prosperity comes congestion. The solution from the federal, New South Wales and Victorian governments has been to throw money at huge infrastructure projects. Politicians like promising infrastructure because large benefits can be targeted at key voters, while the costs are spread across all taxpayers.

But this means many people are paying to alleviate some people’s congestion. And the relief from new infrastructure tends to be short-lived. In Australia’s fast-growing cities, extra public transport capacity at peak times gets chewed up quickly, while new freeways tend to fill with new traffic soon after opening.




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This doesn’t mean governments should stop investing in infrastructure. But it does raise the question of whether spending billions of taxpayer dollars is the best or fairest way to tackle congestion.

We usually think of congestion as a force that slows us down, without thinking about how we slow everyone else around us. Congestion charging fixes this by charging a modest fee to use the busiest roads. Drivers then have to decide whether it’s worth making their trip at that time on that road.

Drivers who need to travel at peak times are always able to do so – they just need to pay a fee. Heavy users will end up paying more for using an in-demand resource. The most flexible drivers will save money by travelling later, or elsewhere, or by another mode. And this means getting out of everybody else’s way.




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City-wide trial shows how road use charges can reduce traffic jams


Charging is also fairer than the licence-plate approach of Mexico City or Beijing, where cars are banned from driving on certain days depending on their licence plate numbers. These heavy-handed restrictions ignore the fact that people’s travel needs vary from day to day. Why ban a driver on the day of a job interview?

But what about all the drivers on low incomes?

It’s fair to ask whether congestion charging will burden the most vulnerable people in society. And the answer depends on the design of the scheme.

First, the people who we should really worry about are those who: are struggling financially; frequently or urgently need to travel on charged roads or to a charged area; and lack good alternatives to driving at that time on those roads.

A sensible congestion charge would target only the busiest roads and areas – think central business districts (CBDs), major freeways and key arterial routes – and only at times of high demand such as peak hour.

So if Sydney or Melbourne were to introduce a peak-period congestion charge around their CBDs, how many vulnerable people would be affected? Hardly any.

Our research shows the drivers who would pay the charge tend to be doing just fine. It’s mostly commuters and people driving as part of their job – think tradespeople and couriers. Those travelling for work could pass the cost on to their customers – every tradie driving to the CBD would face the same charge, so no one would gain or lose a competitive advantage.




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Most CBD drivers are well-off

And the CBD commuters? They tend to earn much more than the typical Australian.

Grattan Institute analysis shows most people driving to the Sydney CBD for work each day earn six-figure salaries. Their median income is nearly A$2,500 a week – about A$1,000 a week more than the typical income for full-time workers in Sydney.

It’s a similar story in Melbourne. The median full-time worker driving to the CBD earns nearly A$2,000 a week – about A$650 more than the typical full-time worker in Melbourne.

And these CBD commuters are also generally well-served by public transport. The CBD is the most accessible location in Sydney and Melbourne, with multiple train lines and bus or tram routes running through it.

That’s why most people travel to the CBD by public transport. In Sydney, barely one in six full-time CBD workers actually commute by private vehicle. In Melbourne, it’s only a quarter. But these workers typically earn a lot more than the people on CBD-bound buses, trams and trains.


Grattan Institute, Author provided

Perhaps surprisingly, drivers to the CBD are more likely to come from inner, richer parts of the city – think Mosman and Double Bay, not Penrith or Parramatta. It’s the same in Melbourne: more people drive from Kew and Richmond than Broadmeadows or Dandenong. Even those driving in from lower-income areas typically earn more than most of their neighbours.

This means the number of genuinely disadvantaged people who would be burdened by a congestion charge is small. As for one-off trips to the CBD – maybe for a specialist appointment – these are by definition infrequent and can often be rescheduled to the middle of the day.

State governments should consider discounts for low-income people with impaired mobility. However, wide-ranging exemptions would badly undermine the effectiveness of the congestion charge – as happened in London.


Grattan Institute, Author provided

Congestion charging is a smarter way to improve Australia’s largest cities and fears that it would be unfair are overblown. It should be the centrepiece of a mixed strategy to tackle congestion. The NSW and Victorian governments should introduce cordon charging around the CBDs of their capitals within the next five years.




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Flexible working, the neglected congestion-busting solution for our cities


The Conversation


Marion Terrill, Transport and Cities Program Director, Grattan Institute and James Ha, Associate, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The dirty secret at the heart of the projected budget surplus: much higher tax bills



Bill shocks are the flipside of a surplus built on higher tax collections and tighter access to support payments.
Shutterstcok

Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

The budget is bouncing out of deficit and is set to stay in surplus for the decade to come.

That’s what the April budget and the final budget outcome for 2018-19 tell us, and Thursday’s report from the Parliamentary
Budget Office doesn’t say any different.

It doesn’t have much choice. The Parliamentary Budget Office is required to take the government’s surplus and deficit projections for the next four years as given, and to take its economic forecasts and tax and spending announcments for the next ten years as given, whether realistic or not.

What it is allowed to do, and does once a year in a publication entitled medium-term fiscal projections, is to set out the implications of those projections.

Those implications, spelled out on Thursday, show the projected budget surplus to be so fragile as to be unrealistic, except the parts that rely on much higher personal income tax collections.

That’s right: much higher income tax collections per person, even after taking into account the coming decade of legislated tax cuts.

Middle earners hit hardest


Parliamentary Budget Office

But it won’t be higher for all of us.

The middle fifth of earners will pay far more of their income in tax in ten years’ time under the government’s projections, according to the PBO’s calculations. Instead of paying 14.9% of their income in tax, by 2028-29 they will pay 18.8%.

That’s after taking into account the long-term tax cuts the government pushed through parliament in May and went to the election on.

Without those legislated tax cuts, they would have been paying an extra 6.3% of their income in tax. With the legislated cuts (and others pencilled in by the PBO to keep the government’s tax take within its promised ceiling) they will be paying an extra 3.9%.

Put another way, the government’s tax cuts will undo some of the damage caused by bracket creep as more of each pay packet climbs into higher brackets, but not most of it.

It’s the same for pattern for the second-lowest fifth of earners. They will move from paying 5.3% of their income in tax to 9.9%, a near doubling, which is taken is taken into account in the surplus projections.




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The second-highest fifth will move from paying 22% of their income in tax to 23.4%, even after the tax cuts. The bottom fifth, who don’t pay much tax, will move from paying 0.6% to 1.2%.

Highest earners escape

But workers in the top fifth, which at the moment is workers earning above A$90,000, won’t pay a cent more, at least not on average.

The government’s projections, as spelled out by the PBO, have them paying less of their income ten years from today than they do today.

Put another way, they are the only fifth of the population that won’t be expected to wear pain to keep the budget surplus.



Parliamentary Budget Office

There are other contributors to the budget surplus. One is a pretty hefty assumed decline in growth in government spending over the next decade, amounting to 1% of GDP, taking government spending from around 24.9% of GDP to around 23.9%.

Much of it is projected to come from tighter eligibility criteria for payments, and measures to constrain their growth, something the PBO believes might be difficult to maintain:

The spending restraint seen over the past few years may be increasingly difficult to maintain over coming years given the length of time over which restraint has been applied, the pressures emerging in some spending areas, and the potential need for fiscal stimulus, noting that the projected improvement in the budget balance is mildly contractionary.

What it is saying, gently, is that it the longer the government attempts to restrain spending (for instance by imposing tough conditions on access to benefits and using debt collectors to recover alleged overpayments), the harder it will get.

And it is saying the government might need to spend in ways it hasn’t accounted for, including on measures to support the economy in the event of a downturn.

Budget conventions to the rescue

The projections assume the opposite of a downturn.

No blame should attach to this government for them, but our rather odd budget conventions dictate that the worse the economy is, the better the budget’s projections for economic growth. That’s right: the weaker our current economic growth, the stronger the budget’s projections for future economic growth.

The thinking is that over the long term, the economy should grow at roughly its long-term average growth rate. To get there when the economy is weak, as it is now, the budget assumes several years of stronger than normal economic growth to catch up.




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In this case it’s five years of stronger than normal economic growth.

The PBO contents itself with the observation that economic growth that was merely normal (or worse, remained weaker than normal) for some of those years would have a “significant and compounding effect on the budget position over time.”

The surplus is far from assured, and it shouldn’t be. The government might well find that it can’t and shouldn’t restrain spending on payments as much as is projected in the decade ahead, and it might find it needs to spend to support the economy.

It will almost certainly find that lifting the tax take on middle Australians from 14.9% of income to 18.8% is intolerable.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Build to rent could shake up real estate but won’t take off without major tax changes


Hal Pawson, UNSW

In the wake of slumping demand for apartment building, it’s little wonder the multi-unit housing industry has been eagerly eyeing a possible new residential product: “build-to-rent”.

In fact, the latest figures show that apartment-building construction starts were down 36% in 2018 from 2016. But how much will this little-known type of housing solve our housing problems?




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Build-to-rent won’t be a silver bullet solution for Australia’s housing affordability stress, but it does have potential to tick the box on several important public policy objectives. These include widened housing diversity, enhanced build standards, and a better-managed, more secure form of private rental housing.

But for this to happen, Australia’s tax settings need adjustment.

What is ‘build-to-rent’?

This refers to apartment blocks built specifically to be rented, usually at market rates, and held in single ownership as long-term income-generating assets.

The enduring owner might be, for instance, an insurance company, an Australian super fund, a foreign sovereign wealth fund, a private equity firm, or the building’s developer.

Although new in Australia, build-to-rent is quite common in many other countries. Under its North American name, “multi-family housing”, the format has generated more than 6.3 million new apartments since 1992 in the US alone. And in the UK, a build-to-rent sector has led to 68,000 units built or under construction since 2012.




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A scattering of build-to-rent schemes are already underway or completed, mainly in inner Sydney and Melbourne. And they may prove to be the forerunners of a new Australian residential property sector – but that is far from guaranteed.

In Australia, our private rental market is almost entirely owned by small-scale mum-and-dad investors, so this kind of housing would be a largely new departure from typical Australian real estate.

Potential benefits

The build-to-rent development model, involving a long-term owner commissioning an entire building, creates an incentive for higher, more enduring quality than the standard “build-to-sell” apartment development approach.

Importantly, build-to-rent is a long-run investment that caters for rental demand, which tends to grow steadily.

This means the model is largely immune to the fickle changes in housing demand resulting from typically short time horizons and primarily speculative instincts of individual buyers traditionally dominant in our market.




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So at its full potential, this new housing product could introduce a valuable counter-cyclical component into the notoriously volatile residential construction industry, helping to offset damaging booms and busts. In other words, build-to-rent can create stability in the Australian property market.

How build-to-rent can incorporate affordable housing

Optimistically, some have claimed build-to-rent could also provide an “affordable housing” fix for many earners who are doing it tough in our existing private rental market.

But this could be possible only with the aid of major government funding or planning concessions.

Ideally, housing at rents affordable to low or moderate income earners would be included in predominantly market-rate build-to-rent schemes. Indeed, one major construction industry player recently advocated this as a standard expectation.

So how should affordable housing be provided in this case?

To find out, our analysis compares the cost of developing affordable housing by a for-profit company with development under a not-for-profit community housing provider.

Thanks to that non-profit format, and the tax advantages that go along with it, community housing providers can, in fact, construct affordable rental housing at significantly lower cost than their for-profit counterparts. Less subsidy is therefore needed.

Nonetheless, government help in some form will be essential to enable an affordable housing element. The most painless way for this to happen, from the government perspective, is through allocating sections of federal or state-owned redevelopment sites to community housing providers at discounted rates.




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‘Build to rent’ could be the missing piece of the affordable housing puzzle


Encouragingly, this strategy was recently advocated by newly designated federal housing minister Michael Sukkar.

Such designation of government-owned sites could, for instance, be factored into large-scale urban renewal projects like Sydney’s Central-to-Eveleigh and Rozelle Bays. When complete, it could fulfil the widely voiced demand that 30% of these developments should be affordable housing.

Levelling the playing field

Our modelling shows that under current conditions, even market-rate build-to-rent projects are barely viable – at least in Sydney.

The inflated price of developable land in Australia’s urban housing markets is an important contributing constraint. But our research also identifies a range of government tax settings that disadvantage build-to-rent, compared with both mum-and-dad-investors and traditional build to sell developers.

Removing less favourable land tax and GST treatment could markedly improve build-to-rent feasibility.




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From a housing policy perspective, there’s also a case for the federal government to reconsider its recent “withholding tax” decision that treats overseas-based institutional investment in rental property less favourably than investment in commercial property.

Since such global funds would likely lead the establishment of a new Australian build-to-rent asset class, revisiting the withholding tax changes could be a significant step in making build-to-rent a reality in Australia.

In any case, build-to-rent is no simple solution for Australia’s affordable housing shortage.

But even as a market-rate product, it could fulfil several important public policy objectives. How far it might do so in practice is something that governments rightly need to weigh up when considering industry-proposed tax and regulatory reforms.The Conversation

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

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Morrison’s $158 billion tax plan set to sail through Senate after deals with crossbenchers


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Morrison government will finish the first week of the new parliament with its election centrepiece – the $158 billion, three-stage tax package – passed into law.

The first stage of the tax relief – in the form of an offset for low- and middle-income earners when people submit their returns – will be available as soon as the Tax Office makes the necessary arrangements over the next few days. Getting the legislation through this week means there is only minimal slippage from the July 1 start date that was promised in the budget.

The numbers fell into place with Tasmanian crossbench senator Jacqui Lambie declaring she would vote for the package. She had negotiated with the government on her demand that it forgive the $157 million social housing debt her state owes the Commonwealth. This would save Tasmania $15 million a year, which Lambie wants used to deal with issues of homelessness and social housing.

Lambie said: “The good will is there and they know that we’ve got housing problems down there.”




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While Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who had said there would be no horse-trading over the package, was publicly coy about the deal, Lambie is confident it will be delivered.

She said some details still had to be sorted out.

What I don’t want to be doing is rushing out saying here’s the money and that’s it. We want to make sure that that money is targeted […] we’re still dealing on good faith. And I look very forward to that over the next four to six weeks.

Cormann told Sky News: “Senator Lambie has been a very forceful advocate.

She has raised issues with us. We are very happy to work through these issues with her. When we are in a position to make further announcements down the track we will.




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The other crossbench votes needed for the package come from independent Cory Bernardi and the two Centre Alliance senators.

Centre Alliance extracted a deal over action on gas prices.

It said in a Thursday statement that it had “worked with the government on both short- and long-term reforms to deal with gas market concerns.”

The government would announce the full package in coming weeks, it said.

It would include

changes to the Australian Domestic Gas Security Mechanism (ADGSM) to deal with current pricing, market transparency measures, measures to deal with the monopoly nature of East Coast gas pipelines and longer term measures to ensure future gas projects deliver surplus supply to the Australian market.

The gas agreement, canvassed publicly in recent days, has caused some blow-back from the industry.

Faced with the inevitability of the tax package passing, Labor said it would continue to pursue its attempt to split the package and then consider its options.

It is likely not to oppose in the final vote.




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Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Those tax cuts test Albanese and provoke Hanson


The proposed 3 stage tax plan will cost $158 billion.
Shutterstock

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

As hissy fits go, it was a beauty. Pauline Hanson was very cross indeed. Senate leader Mathias Cormann hadn’t called her, even though he was reportedly negotiating on the government’s $158 billion package of income tax cuts.

Venting on Sky on Wednesday night, Hanson said: “I don’t think he’s got the guts to pick up the phone and actually talk to me. And to turn around and say that he’s negotiating with crossbenchers is not the truth, because he’s not negotiating with me”.

She went on to rail about the Liberals preferencing One Nation below Labor, doing “grubby deals” with Clive Palmer and trying to destroy her.

The three-stage 10-year package, which promises an extra tax offset for low and middle income earners, is the big game in town for the first days of the new parliament, which opens the week after next, and it’s causing some grief.




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Frydenberg declares tax package must be passed ‘in its entirety’


Despite the government’s confident words during the election campaign, the Tax Office has declined to pay the offset of up to $540 until the legislation is passed. This means the July 1 deadline from when the offset was supposed to be available will be missed. (Although people will get from July 1 the tax cut in the pipeline from last year’s budget.)

If the tax legislation is passed quickly, a few weeks’ delay for the offset is no big deal, especially as many people won’t be putting in their tax returns for a while. But the pressure on the government to deliver the first stage of its plan ASAP – not least because the economy needs the stimulus – reduces its ability to hold out indefinitely on its insistence it won’t split the package to accommodate objections to the later cuts.

Labor is in even more of a bind. It is happy to tick off the first stage – worth $15 billion – but has yet to decide its position on stages two (costing $48 billion and starting 2022-23) and three (costing $95 billion and commencing 2024-25).

Its objections are particularly to the last stage, which delivers cuts for higher income earners. Both the later stages come after the next election, due early 2022.

Those urging Labor should try to block at least stage three argue, apart from the equity issue, that mounting economic uncertainty makes it irresponsible to lock in such big tax cuts out in the “never never”.

On the other hand, a strong case can be made on grounds of principle and practicality for Labor to wave the whole package through.

The question of when a party or politician has a “mandate” is vexed.

On one view an opposition can claim it possesses a mandate to stay faithful to positions it advanced before an election even after it has lost that election.

But when the Morrison government went to the polls with the tax package as its prime policy, it does seem to have a strong case to say the parliament should pass it.

The same point would have applied if Bill Shorten had won. He would have had a mandate for his proposed changes to franking credits and negative gearing – both opposed by the Coalition.




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It doesn’t help maintain faith in the political system, or in election promises, for parties to try to govern from opposition, despite the Senate’s voting system sometimes facilitating this. Voters should be able to expect that major election policies of the winning side are implemented (perhaps with some alterations at the edges by parliament).

It is another matter when, as happened with the Abbott government’s 2014 budget, big new controversial initiatives are brought in soon after the election campaign, during which they were not flagged.

The practical reason against Labor going to the barricades on the tax package is that as it regroups, there is little to be gained by taking on this particular battle, especially when it is trying to reposition itself as appealing better to “aspirational” voters and leaving behind language attacking the “top end of town”.

Labor might be right that the proposed long term tax cuts could look irresponsible later, but if so, that is a fight to be had at the next election, when the ALP could highlight doubts it had previously registered.

There are divisions in Labor about what to do. Victorian MP Peter Khalil this week said if the government won’t split the package, Labor should vote for it all. Anne Aly, a backbencher from Western Australia, expressed concern about the package’s implications against a darkening economic outlook. The ALP has asked the government for more information. Anthony Albanese is consulting within the party before shadow cabinet decides the position it takes to caucus.

While the government is focusing the rhetorical pressure on Labor, it has an eye to the alternative route – to get the package through via the crossbench.




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For Cormann, the new Senate is easier than the last, partly because the non-Green crossbench has been slashed at the election.

To pass legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens the government needs four of the six non-Green crossbenchers. These include two from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, two from Centre Alliance, South Australia’s Cory Bernardi, and Tasmania’s Jacqui Lambie.

Bernardi will vote with the Coalition. He has said he wants to help the Morrison government as much as possible, and on Thursday he announced he is winding up his Australian Conservatives party. It’s not clear whether he’ll seek to rejoin the Liberals, from whom he defected in 2017, or even stay in the parliament.

Cormann has been in discussion with Centre Alliance about their push for lower gas prices, and an agreement on some action appears likely. While this deal is formally separate from the tax package, he and they both have that front of mind.

This would leave one vote to be collected.

Lambie refuses to comment on her position. Hanson said earlier this month she was “not sold” on the current package and “therefore not likely to support the measures” – and proposed some of the funds be used for a coal-fired power station and a water security scheme.

After Wednesday’s outburst, Cormann was (of course) on the phone to her at crack of dawn Thursday. On her account, he said: “I’m not negotiating with crossbenchers with this at all. We have our three stages. We’re going to pass that no matter what”.

The government aims to keep the heat on Albanese. By the same token, if the crossbench has to come into play, Cormann won’t want a repeat of last term, when he couldn’t muster the numbers to deliver tax relief to big companies.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Frydenberg declares tax package must be passed ‘in its entirety’


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government’s tax relief package is shaping up as the first test of incoming opposition leader Anthony Albanese, with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg declaring on Friday it must be supported “in its entirety” when put to the new parliament.

But Albanese has only guaranteed support for the first tranche. As for the later cuts for higher income earners, “we will consider that,” he said on Friday.

But let me tell you, it is a triumph of hope over experience and reality that the government knows […] what the economic circumstances are in 2025 or 2023, in the middle of the next decade.

Appearing with Albanese on the Nine Network, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said:

Albo, it would be remarkable if your first act as leader of the opposition was […] to oppose a long term package of tax relief – that would show a real tin ear for the Australian people”.

In an interview with The Conversation, Frydenberg refused to be drawn on what the government would do if unable to get the whole bill through.

It would, however, be hard for it to avoid splitting the bill – to hold out would deny the immediate relief pledged in the April budget.

All or nothing

Nor could Frydenberg say when parliament will meet to consider the legislation, although the government has effectively conceded it will not be in time for the promised July 1 start of the additional tax offset promised in the budget. (A smaller offset from last year’s budget will be paid from then.)

But Albanese said the tax cuts could be passed in time for July 1, because it would only need a couple of hours of sitting. “We’ll do a deal. I can do that. One speaker a side, and Bob’s your uncle.”

Frydenberg said Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe had highlighted the positive impact the tax cuts would have on household incomes.

“Let’s too not forget that $7.5 billion will flow to households in the coming financial year, as a result of these tax cuts,” Frydenberg said.

Tax cuts as good as rate cuts

“This benefit to households and the economy is equivalent to two 25 basis point interest rate cuts and is one reason why growth and household consumption is projected to pick up,” he said.

“The tax reforms we are putting to parliament are not just providing immediate relief, but leading to long term structural change. This will tackle bracket creep and reward aspiration.

“Earning more is nothing to be ashamed of and should be encouraged not punished. Rewarding aspiration is in the Coalition’s DNA and will be a fundamental driver of our policies in government.”

In his assessment of the economic outlook, Frydenberg had two messages.

He said in his discussions with some of Australia’s biggest employers, “I’ve been buoyed by their confidence and their desire to work with the government, to support continued economic growth and job creation”.

Headwinds worsening

But the economy “faces significant headwinds. Trade tensions between the United States and China have increased, with the potential to negatively impact global growth.

“Were there to be another round of US tariff increases, the potential for which has been flagged publicly, the proportion of global trade covered by recent trade actions would double from 2% to 4%.”

Also, flood, drought and fires had taken a toll and the housing market slowdown was hitting dwelling investment and having an impact on consumption.

The challenges made the government’s agenda for growth, including tax relief, so important and time critical.

Asked whether the “headwinds” faced by the Australian economy were stronger than at budget time, when he also spoke of headwinds, Frydenberg said: “I think the tensions between China and the US have increased”.




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Frydenberg spoke with the US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin this week and the two will meet in Japan at the G20 finance ministers meeting in a few weeks. Frydenberg stressed in the conversation the importance of free trade to Australia and its wish to see disputes resolved as amicably as possible.

Asked whether, if the economy deteriorated further, the government would be willing to live with a smaller surplus next financial year than the $7.1 billion projected in the budget, Frydenberg said, “that’s the amount that we’re committed to”.

He would not be drawn on the signal this week from Lowe that an interest rate cut was coming.

The Treasurer said the current unemployment rate of 5.2% reflected “strong labour market performance”.

While there are no plans for an overhaul of federal-state relations by the re-elected government, Frydenberg said he would work closely with the states on infrastructure and managing population.




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He said he would respond fully to the Productivity Commission report on superannuation, although he had not set a date for this.

“The issues that were raised through the Productivity Commission report which we need to have a good look at are about the unintended multiple accounts and the under-performing funds,” he said.

“The royal commission [on banking] recommended having a single default [account], which we accepted and Labor accepted, so we’ll go ahead and do that”.




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The Conversation


Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The budget’s dirty secret is the hikes in tax rates you’re not meant to know about



File 20190418 28090 vaki39.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The wheels of the economy will grind more slowly because of undeclared tax rate hikes in the budget.
Shutterstock

Steven Hamilton, George Washington University

As I mentioned a few days ago, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Prime Minister Scott Morrison recycled three pretty big tax ideas in the 2019 budget, each one originally from the 2018 budget but supercharged, and in one case doubled.

The ideas were:

  • eventually eliminating the 37% bracket to make the tax system flatter;

  • upsizing the Low and Middle Income Tax Offset to A$1080; and

  • increasing the value of business investments that may be written off.

Today I’ll deal with the second: the Low and Middle Income Tax Offset, also known as the LMITO or lamington.

In last year’s budget it was to be worth up to $530 per person, but this year the government intends to more than double that to $1,080. And they’d do so retrospectively, so that by the time people put in their 2019 tax returns, many will get a tax cut more than twice as big as originally expected.

(As it happens, the operative word is “intends”. In budget week Morrison said the Tax Office would be able to make the changes “administratively” without the need for legislation. He didn’t have time to introduce the leglislation and Labor would broadly support it. Last week in its official pre-election overview of the government’s finances, the public service said no. It would need “the relevant legislation to be passed before the increase to the Low and Middle Income Tax Offset can be provided for the 2018-19 financial year”.)

The idea of the lamington

But let’s examine the idea of the lamington anyway because it does have bipartisan support and will become law and part of the tax scales. On one hand, it will deliver a welcome boost to taxpayers on middle and low (but not the lowest) incomes. On the other hand, it will push up a key marginal tax rate and kill incentives in a way the Treasurer hasn’t yet acknowledged.

The offset is a gift of $530 (soon to be $1080) slipped into the tax returns of everyone who earns between $48,000 and $90,000.

People earning more than $90,000 will get less of the offset as their income climbs, up to an income of $125,000 when it the offset will vanish. Low earners will get $200 (soon to be $255), climbing to the maximum of $530 ($1080) as their income climbs from $37,000 to $48,000. People with an income too low to pay tax won’t have any tax to offset, and so will get nothing.

Described in dollar terms as I just have, it’s easy to understand. You can work out the tax cut you’ll get, and the Coaltion has helpfully prepared tables to let you see.

But it is possible to describe the changes in another way, not in dollar terms, but as a new set of marginal rates. And this is where they get interesting, and unattractive.

As a longer-term goal, the Coalition says it wants most taxpayers to pay the same unchanging marginal rate of 30% for all incomes between $45,000 and $200,000. It believes that high marginal rates and frequently changing marginal rates sap incentive.

By 2024 it wants the tax scale to look like this:



Commonwealth budget papers

Frydenberg says the lower, flatter scale would incentivise “people to stay in work, to work longer, to work more”.

So you would think he wouldn’t want to make it bumpy, or lift the marginal rate, which is exactly what his LMITO does.

What the lamington does to those rates

You won’t find the following chart anywhere in the budget papers, but it is what the offsets in this budget and in the last one will do to the tax scale for the next four years before they are replaced by the flatter scale.

First, here’s what we are told the rates look like today:



Australian Tax Office

Now, here’s what they will actually be when you take account of the existing Low Income Tax Offset (or LITO) and the promised supersized Low and Middle Income Tax Offset (LMITO) in the budget.



Derived from Commonwealth Budget Paper 2, 2019

The graph is lumpy in part because the LMITO is clawed back at the impressive rate of 3 cents for each extra dollar earned between $90,000 and $125,000.
This means it adds 3 cents to the marginal tax rate in that range, pushing it up from 37 cents to a high 40 cents, before at higher incomes it falls back to 37 for taxpayers earning more than $125,000.

Bizarrely, it means the party that has pledged to abolish the 37% rate because it saps incentive has decided to first boost it to 40% over a substantial range of incomes.

The graph is lumpy further down the income scale for another reason: as the LMITO climbs between $37,000 and $48,000, the separate LITO is is clawed back.

Below are the “including offsets” and “excluding offsets” scales together, to enable you to see the differences. The tax rates people will face are those including offsets.



Derived from Commonwealth Budget Paper 2, 2019

The graph clarifies the trade-off at the heart of the lamington: it targets tax relief at low and middle earners at the necessary cost of higher rates further up the income scale.

How much of a problem is it? Well, that depends.

It’s a classic example of what economists call the equity-efficiency trade-off.

Arthur Okun, an adviser to US President Lyndon Johnson, described it thusly: redistributing income is like transporting water from one place to another in a leaky bucket – you can do it, but you’d better be prepared to lose some water as you ae doing it.

In much the same way, you can restrict tax cuts to low earners, but that means high earners have to face higher marginal rates which to some degree will shrink economic activity.

The critical question is how much it will shrink economic activity, how leaky is the bucket?




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It worsens incentives for the roughly 700,000 Australians earning between $90,000 and $125,000. For every additional dollar each of them earns, the government will take away an extra 3 cents. That might not sound like much, but the evidence suggests it will have an effect.

How? Well, the tax rate increase lowers the benefit of generating additional taxable income. And there are a range of ways to avoid generating additional taxable income. The most obvious is working fewer hours, for example by not working overtime or by working fewer days per week. Secondary earners (often women returning to work after maternity leave) are particularly prone to that kind of response.

But it also could mean not going for promotions or pay rises where they take effort, for example by not gaining extra skills or not putting in additional work effort. And, as I found in a recent study, it could involve claiming more deductions to put a brake on your taxable income.

What will the lamington cost us?

Relying on data for the Australian tax system, I find that a 3 percentage point increase in the marginal tax rate results in an average reduction in taxable incomes of around 0.6%. For someone earning $125,000 per year, that amounts to a reduction in taxable income of $750 per year, by any of the means described above or others.

If we assume the average affected person earns in the middle of the relevant range, that implies an aggregate reduction in taxable income of almost half a billion dollars a year from the 3 percentage point tax increase. That means around $300 million less in consumption and saving and around $200 million less in income tax revenue, all because of LMITO.

That half a billion per year is the real, measurable, and unavoidable cost of targeting the Coalition’s tax break. When economists talk about “distortions” or “deadweight losses” created by tax increases, that’s what they mean. It is the cost of fairness. Whether that cost is worth paying is an open question. The government has evidently decided that it is. And now we can decide at the ballot box, ideally armed with proper information.

But it is of concern that the presentation of the policy – while politically attractive – obscures the genuine increases in marginal tax rates the Coalition’s changes will bring about, and thereby their real economic costs.

Eliminating most offsets and concessions, as recommended by the Henry Tax Review in 2010, would do the tax system good. And it do all of us good by making it easier to see what we are being asked to vote for come election time.




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A simpler tax system should spark joy. Sadly, the one in this budget doesn’t


The Conversation


Steven Hamilton, Assistant professor, George Washington University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Potentially unaffordable, and it still won’t fix bracket creep. The Coalition’s $300 billion tax plan assessed



File 20190408 2927 lwoiiu.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The budget tax cuts aren’t tax reform, and probably can’t be paid for over the longer term.
Mick Tsikas/AAP/Shutterstock

Danielle Wood, Grattan Institute; Kate Griffiths, Grattan Institute, and Matt Cowgill, Grattan Institute

The big surprise in last week’s budget was the size of new income tax cuts – A$158 billion over a decade, in addition to the A$144 billion already promised in last year’s budget.

A lot of the plan doesn’t take effect until 2024-25, so it’s easy to dismiss as tax cuts on the never-never. But given it’s a central plank of the government’s campaign for re-election, it deserves closer scrutiny.



Grattan Institute

The plan comes in three stages.

The major part of stage 1 is the Low and Middle Income Tax Offset – giving everyone earning less than $126,000 a cheque in the mail come July and then for the following three years. Stage 2 (2022-23) would lift the top threshold of the 19% and the 32.5% brackets. The biggest cuts would come in stage 3 (2024-25) when the government removed the 37% bracket and cut the 32.5% rate to 30%.

Everyone earning between $45,000 and $200,000 would face the same 30% marginal tax rate.


2019 Budget infographic

Unsurprisingly, in absolute terms the biggest beneficiaries would be high-income earners. More than half the benefit would go to the top 20% of earners, those with taxable income over $87,500 a year.

But to better understand what the plan would do to the progressivity of the system, we need to consider what would happen to rates without the plan.

Without change, the average tax rate would increase across the income distribution, as wage growth pushed people into higher tax brackets.

The plan would prevent some of that bracket creep by lowering future tax rates.

Most taxpayers would be better-off than without a change – but high-income earners would benefit the most.




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NATSEM: federal budget will widen gap between rich and poor


It goes part-way to addressing bracket creep for low and middle income earners. Someone in the middle of the income distribution would pay 3.6% more tax in 2029-30 than today, instead of 6.1% more without the plan.

But Australia’s highest earners – the top 15% of taxpayers – would escape bracket creep entirely, paying the same average tax rate or less in 2029-30 than today.



Grattan Institute

This result would be a shift in the proportion of tax paid at different points in the income distribution.

Middle earners, those earning between the third to top and the third to bottom ten percents of the income distribution, would pay a larger share of tax in 2029-30 than they do today: 23% compared to 20%.

But high-income earners, those in the top fifth of the income distribution, would pay a smaller share of tax: 65% in 2029-30 compared to 68% today.

It’s more a tax cut than tax reform

The government has been keen to sell the tax package as a “huge reform” because it removes an entire tax bracket.

It says flattening the tax scale would create a greater incentive for higher-income earners to work. But unlike earlier tax reform packages, there has been little in the way of clear articulation or modelling to demonstrate that this would be the case. And there are reasons to doubt that it would be the case.




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Mothers have little to show for extra days of work under new tax changes


The people who would benefit most from the tax reform would be in the top 6% of the income distribution in 2024-25. Barring major changes to gender work patterns in the next five years, they would be disproportionately men, working full time. But as the Henry Tax Review pointed out, the people who are the most responsive to changes in effective tax rates are second-earners (mainly women) working part-time.

Proper reform of the income tax system would lower the economic barriers to second-earners working more: the increase in tax, the cuts in family and childcare benefits and higher childcare costs that accompany working more.

And it might not be affordable

The budget numbers point to a decade of surpluses, exceeding 1% of GDP by 2026-27, even with the tax cuts. But the surpluses rely on payments as a share of gross domestic product falling steadily over the decade, from 24.9% of GDP today to 23.6% by 2029-30.

Achieving such a reduction would require significant cuts in spending growth across almost every major spending area, during a period when we know that an ageing population will increase spending pressures, particularly on health and welfare. The Parliamentary Budget Office says ageing will add 0.3% of GDP a year to spending by 2028-29.

The approach marks a change since the 2016-17 budget, when the government forecast that payments would grow as a share of GDP over the decade because of the ageing population. There have not been enough significant savings measures in the past three budgets to explain the turnaround. It appears to be more driven by assumption than by reality.




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Expect a budget that breaks the intergenerational bargain, like the one before it, and before that


If we were to make the still-conservative assumption that spending remained merely constant as a share of GDP at 24.9%, the third stage of the tax cuts would push the budget back into deficit in 2024-25.

The bottom line

The pre-election tax package finally does something about bracket creep – but solves it only for the highest of earners.

It passes up the opportunity for more comprehensive reform. And most disconcertingly, it punches a sizeable hole in government revenue just at the time an ageing population will start to demand that more money be spent.




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What will the Coalition be remembered for on tax? Tinkering, blunders and lost opportunities


The Conversation


Danielle Wood, Program Director, Budget Policy and Institutional Reform, Grattan Institute; Kate Griffiths, Senior Associate, Grattan Institute, and Matt Cowgill, Senior Associate, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What will the Coalition be remembered for on tax? Tinkering, blunders and lost opportunities


Robert Breunig, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Kristen Sobeck, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is part of a series examining the Coalition government’s record on key issues while in power and what Labor is promising if it wins the 2019 federal election.


Politicians often invoke the word “reform” to convey the significance, or gravitas, of a particular policy change they are proposing.

However, the tax policies implemented over the six years of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government should be more aptly described as: no reform, lots of tinkering, two blunders and some lost opportunities.

To be fair to the leaders of the Coalition, both Abbott and Turnbull began their prime ministerships professing a large appetite for tax reform.

In opposition Abbott and his treasury spokesman Joe Hockey had promised a major inquiry. Hockey said it would pick up where Labor’s Henry Tax Review left off:

We thought the Henry Tax Review was going to be a proper process. Now, that has obviously been an abject failure. We’ve said – Tony Abbott announced
in Budget and reply speech – we will have a proper process for proper tax reform, and whatever comes out of that process, which will be a white paper, we will take to a subsequent election, seeking the mandate of the
Australian people – their approval.

Treasury’s Re:think tax discussion paper, which is as far as the tax white paper process got.
Source: Commonwealth Treasury

It got as far as a discussion paper, seeking submissions.

When Turnbull assumed the leadership, the draft white paper, which would have followed the discussion paper, was scuttled, and the process ended.

Tinkering…

Instead what resulted were marginal changes to personal income tax. One of the brackets was expanded and a new low and middle income tax offset was added.

Marginal changes to superannuation tax further added to the complexity of the tax system as a whole. The current superannuation system disproportionately rewards higher income earners because most contributions are taxed at the same low rate (15%) regardless of the taxpayers’ income tax rate.

The Coalition’s response was to apply a 30% tax on contributions for those earning $250,000 or more (down from the previous threshold of $300,000) and to cut the cap on concessional contributions from $30,000 ($35,000 for those aged 49 and over) to $25,000. And it capped at $1.6 million the amount that could be transferred into the “retirement phase” where fund earnings in retirement were exempt from tax.

It made the system much more complex, and it could have been done more simply, perhaps by reimposing tax on super earnings in retirement (at a low rate) or by taxing by contributions at a standard discount to taxpayers at a marginal rate, as recommended by the 2009 Henry Tax Review.

Alongside these marginal changes, there was also a failed attempt to cut the company tax rate (only the tax rates for small companies were cut) and a muddled discussion about the progressivity of the income tax system.

All in all, many a tinker, but no reform.

Blunders…

Human-induced climate change is compromising the sustainability of our planet. The only way to solve it is by changing incentives using the economic toolkit at our disposal. The Carbon Tax was a good tax. It shifted the costs of pollution onto those who created it, instead of subsidising processes that damaged the environment.

No solution to climate change is possible without corrective taxes.

At some point we’ll have to climb that mountain again, assuming the mountain is not underwater before politicians come to their senses.

The repeal of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax was also a step backwards. By taxing rents (excess profits) instead of profits, it avoided the disincentives created by traditional company taxes. And, it was a good example of the kind of taxes that could eventually replace or supplement company tax.

…and lost opportunities

Changing the GST could have ensured at least one significant contribution to overall tax reform. At 10%, the rate is relatively low by international standards and applies to a shrinking share of spending, as more and more of our money is spent in places or on goods that aren’t taxed.


Value-added (GST) tax rates in OECD and selected Asian countries.
Re:think, Treasury tax discussion paper, March 2015

These factors, combined with the fact that GST is difficult to evade and less costly to administer, suggest that broadening the base is low hanging fruit on the tax reform tree, ripe for picking.

Instead, it may as well be forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden. We’ve gone in the wrong direction by adding even more exemptions and cutting short talk of increasing the rate.

The failed debate on company tax cuts was another missed opportunity.

What remains is a system that applies different rates to different company sizes, one of few remaining dividend imputation systems in the world, and no discussion about the sustainability of corporate income tax revenue in the future.

All up, the government’s approach over the past six years has largely been piecemeal. It also managed to dismantle two of the most significant tax reforms that could have contributed to a more sustainable tax base in the long run.

Would Labor be better?

It remains to be seen whether a Labor government will be able to achieve more. Some of the party’s proposed changes, such as the treatment of capital gains, head in the right direction, but what it is offering falls short of comprehensive reform.

At the same time, many of its proposed changes will add additional complexity, fail to account for interactions within the entire tax system and use tax exemptions to reach goals that could be better achieved with payments.

Many an international tax reform was engendered by crisis, so there’s hope, of a sort. The opportunity still remains to get in early before weaknesses inherent in the current system become grossly apparent.

What we’ve got is unfair and its complexity rewards those with the resources to pay to understand and exploit it. It is overly reliant on income and company tax in place of indirect taxes, like consumption tax, and it tries to achieve too many disparate objectives, without consideration for the workings of the family and social security payments system.

There is much scope to improve things. What we need most are fearless leaders, from all sides of the political spectrum, who treat comprehensive tax reform as important and can work together to achieve it.




Read more:
What will the Turnbull-Morrison government be remembered for?


The Conversation


Robert Breunig, Professor of Economics and Director, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Kristen Sobeck, Senior Research Officer, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: budget tax-upmanship as we head towards polling day


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

For the government this “election budget” is an exercise in juggling. On the one hand, it is throwing out voter bait. On the other, it is running hard on the theme of economic responsibility.

For the second budget in a row, there are highly generous tax cuts, amounting to A$158 billion over a decade. This is on top of the earlier $144 billion.

The government wants this election to be all about tax.

The tax cuts you will get, now and later. The “higher taxes” that Bill Shorten would impose – by cracking down on negative gearing and cash refunds for franking credits. And by claiming that Labor’s climate policy is a “carbon tax”.

A theme in Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s speech was that the government was taking its initiatives “all without increasing taxes”.

Under the budget’s tax cuts, low- and middle-income earners would pocket up to $1,080 within weeks of the election – for families with a dual income, this amounts to $2,160.




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Tax giveaways in Frydenberg’s ‘back in the black’ budget


The government points out that its tax cuts are the most generous since John Howard’s time. But two things might be noted about this comparison. The 2007 tax package has since been much criticised for being irresponsible – and Howard did not win the election of that year.

Despite earlier speculation, the Coalition won’t try to rush any of the tax package – which includes a reduction in the 32.5% rate to 30% from July 2024 – through parliament this week.

The government wants to set up as much of a contrast between itself and Labor on tax as possible. Frydenberg told a news conference the tax bills were “a package” covering the immediate tax relief and the rate change. The government was asking the public “who do you trust?” to deliver lower taxes.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said: “We are just not prepared to haggle with the Senate in the next 24 hours.” It was up to the Australian people to back the government in, he said.

But in a game of bluff and counter-bluff on tax, Labor could simply match the immediate relief – which it did instantly.

This neutralises part of the tax argument, although the government can still highlight the contrast between its longer-term tax regime and Labor’s “higher taxing” agenda.

On economic responsibility, the budget’s boast is for a $7.1 billion surplus next financial year – the first surplus in 12 years. “The budget is back in the black and Australia is back on track,” Frydenberg told parliament, as he outlined the growth of surpluses to a total of $45 billion over four years.




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Iron ore dollars repurposed to keep the economy afloat in Budget 2019


We can be sure that in the election campaign Labor will match or even better the budget’s surplus figures.

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen has learnt from the experience of the last election, when the Labor program came in with a slightly worse fiscal bottom line over the forward estimates than the government’s. The difference wasn’t huge but it was enough to be a political handicap.

The budget’s economic projections seem credible enough, although there is the perennial question over its forecast for wages growth – 2.75% in 2019-20 and 3.25% in 2020-21.

The fact that early in the imminent election campaign the departments of Treasury and Finance produce a detailed economic outlook imposes a discipline on the pre-election budget. A government that tried to fiddle the forecasts would quickly get caught out.




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Frydenberg’s speech was notably sombre about the outlook for the economy, despite saying the fundamentals were sound.

“There are genuine and clear risks emerging both at home and abroad,” he warned, highlighting the cooling of the residential housing market and global trade tensions.

His words are a reminder of how quickly things can change – including the prospect of strong surpluses projected into the future. Good economic times suddenly turned bleak in the early days of the Rudd government, as a result of the global financial crisis.

The budget provided a nice reality check on the beat-up the government indulged in over the medevac bill. Remember all the hyperbole Scott Morrison sprouted, when he said he was going to have to spend more than $1 billion reopening Christmas Island?

The budget includes just $178.9 million to manage the transfer of people from Nauru and Papua New Guinea for medical treatment, $3.2 million to increase the police presence there and $3 million to reinforce the campaign to discourage people getting on boats.

The government says that if it is re-elected it will repeal the medevac bill and close the Christmas Island facility by July 1 – returning any people who have been transferred back offshore.

Questions to the office of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton this week about whether anybody had been transferred under the new legislation received the response that no comment was being made.

Morrison told his party room on Tuesday, before the budget, that three dates were available for the May election – May 11, 18 or 25. The general expectation is that he will announce the poll quickly. The budget might look benign, but the government does not want an extended period of Senate estimates next week which would facilitate picking it apart.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.