After four Budgets in two years, we’re accustomed to a steady stream of ‘decisions taken but not yet announced.’ Tonight, the Treasurer delivered a Budget full of decisions announced, but not yet taken.
The Treasurer said he is prepared to make difficult decisions in difficult times, but instead we saw that he’d prefer to defer them.
These deferred decisions are only going to become harder as Australians spend their pandemic savings buffers, inflation accelerates and the Reserve Bank slows the economy.
The ferocity of the inflation problem – which has been confirmed in the Budget by upgraded inflation forecasts – meant the Government could not risk increasing price pressure through additional spending.
The Budget has been carefully curated to ensure new policy spending did not fall into the current financial year when the inflation risk is (at least on current forecasts) most acute. Only $1.6 billion was added to the net policy spend in 2022-23 and $130 million to direct capital spend. Stimulatory policy flows again from 2024-25, when the forecasts safely park inflation in the 2-3 per cent target band.
The public sector (including Commonwealth, state and local government spending) pushed up to over 27 per cent of GDP mid-year, and the program of spending outlined in the Budget suggests the Commonwealth component of that will increase further from 2024-25.
That ratio is high when compared to the long-term average of 23 per cent of GDP. It was appropriate when the COVID-19 shutdowns were strangling the economy – but not this year. The economy is hitting capacity constraints and employers of every size are suffering from acute skills shortages.
The Reserve Bank has been quickly reversing the stimulatory policy it put in place during the COVID-19 lockdown years, and this Budget was the Government’s opportunity to do the same with fiscal policy.
The Government hasn’t risked additional inflationary pressure with fiscal policy, but neither has it delivered what the economy needs, which is tighter policy that removes some inflationary pressure.