Nice lines, but who’ll pay the bill, Bill?



What a speech. How beautifully delivered. But to use five words from Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s budget reply address to Parliament, it was close to being “in every respect a hoax”.

That was the charge Mr Shorten levelled against the Coalition’s second budget, but sadly there was nothing in his speech to defend Labor against the same accusation.

And why? Because this speech was a long shopping list of things Labor would seek to do if it were not under the same fiscal constraints as Treasurer Joe Hockey and his capricious Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

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But if a “Shorten Labor government” should ever eventuate (and for some reason, I can’t recall having heard that phrase before), it will certainly be under the very same constraints.

Treasurer Joe Hockey celebrates the end of the speech.

Treasurer Joe Hockey celebrates the end of the speech.

So what would it do? Mr Shorten did raise the prospect of clawing back billions of dollar in foregone tax from the ‘superannuation tax concessions’ that many commentators, including this one, have identified as the low-hanging fruit of the fiscal equation.

But would Labor actually do it? In power, they decided to tax distributions from super funds at 15 per cent for every dollar over $100,000 a year.

While that sounds fair (and it would be), the measure would have affected a tiny proportion of self-funded retirees and would not have provided the funds Mr Shorten needs to overturn the Abbott government’s ‘unfairness’ – the welfare, pension, health and education assaults that made the last budget a political disaster.

Even assuming that Labor goes to the next election with a plan to tax super distributions – which since Peter Costello’s day have been tax free – the opposition is taking with one hand, and giving back with the other.

Specifically, Mr Shorten wants to see the tax cut for incorporated small businesses slashed further.

The government is giving back 1.5 cents in the dollar, but Mr Shorten wants a bipartisan plan to make that five cents in the dollar. So while companies with turnovers of more than $2 million pay 30 cents in the dollar, really small SMEs would pay 25 cents.

He’s right to claim that lower tax in this sector would stimulate the economy and jobs growth, but that’s not what motivates this wild suggestion.

To understand why it’s important to recall the major small-business campaign Labor launched in 2012 – its generous, and productivity boosting plan was intended to outflank the ‘party of small business’, the Liberals, and capture more of the SME and self-employed vote.

There was the loss-carry back scheme that would smooth volatile profits over subsequent years; the instant asset write-off for an unlimited number of items costing up to $6500 each; and accelerated depreciated for company vehicles.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne reflects on the speech.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne reflects on the speech. Photo: Getty

All great news, but because they were funded, rhetorically at least, by the carbon and mining taxes, all torn up by Tony Abbott.

Then, just as that memory faded, the Abbott government launched its $5.5 billion ‘Jobs and small business’ package in this budget. Amongst other measures, it near-trebled the instant asset write-off from $6500 per item to $20,000 per item – also uncapped.

So Labor’s outflanking move was, err, outflanked.

Not to be outdone, Mr Shorten’s bipartisan call before Parliament on Thursday evening for a five cent tax cut for SMEs was an outflank-outflanking move.

This is getting crazy and hysterical. At some point, sound, boring economic policy has to triumph over the manic poker game of Australian politics.

Why? Because growth will not return to trend unless there is a sensible, stable enviroment of fiscal and tax policy within which to invest (and I’m here excluding monetary policy as its effectiveness is greatly diminished when rates are at record low settings).

With both major parties pushing more and more poker chips to the middle of the table to try and win the SME vote, there is every chance they will not be believed – SMEs are still smarting from the chop-and-change of tax policy in the past three years.

This was a beautifully delivered load of nonsense. Mr Shorten still has the luxury of announcing uncosted thought bubbles (like the five per cent tax cut), but gives no sign of how he would realistically raise revenue, or cut spending elsewhere, to plot a long-term course for fiscal balance.

Labor needs to do more. No doubt when an election is called, they will. But in the meantime, this was a feel-good speech that added very little to the economic debate.

Perhaps Mr Shorten saw it as a dress rehearsal – that’s fine, as long as when the real thing takes place he substantially rewrites the lines.

Topics: Bill Shorten
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