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Recovery or re-election: Treasurer's stark choices in big-spending budget

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Will May 11 bring a budget that aims to extend Australia’s remarkable economic recovery or one targeted at ensuring the coalition is returned to power at the next election? Colin Brinsden reports

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Josh Frydenberg recently scolded a senior journalist for mentioning the election in the context of the budget, calling it “cynical”.

Whatever the case, announcements and leaks so far suggest the treasurer will be spending big – aged care, childcare, tax and infrastructure being just some of the areas the budget will touch.

“The budget will lay out the next phase of Australia’s economic recovery plan, to grow our economy so we can deliver the jobs and guarantee the essential services Australians rely on, and keep Australians safe,” Frydenberg says.

“We want more people in jobs and in better paying jobs.”

Spending won’t be to the same degree as October’s crisis budget, when the government was trying to protect workers and business from the COVID-19 pandemic and the first recession in nearly three decades.

Yet, the strong economic rebound has put the budget in a far better position than expected just a few months ago, providing the government with room to fund further targeted support without going deeper into debt.

Economists believe the 2020/21 deficit could now be closer to $150 billion rather than the $197.7 billion estimated in the mid-year budget review – itself a revision from the record $213.7 billion announced in the October budget.

And this is not just a wild stab in the dark.

The government’s monthly financial statement for March showed the budget deficit was running almost $30 billion smaller than predicted after nine months of the financial year.

Likewise, economists expect the deficit for 2021/22 could now be around $60 billion rather than $108.5 billion.

As confessed budget nerd Chris Richardson puts it, Australia’s “red hot” recovery is helping the budget get better.

The Deloitte Access Economics economist says this is the result of jobs recovering faster than Treasury assumed, soaring iron ore prices and households’ willingness to spend.

Treasury will be making major revisions to its forecasts after Australia posted its strongest growth in six months on record in the second half of 2020, as the economy snapped back from recession.

Notably, the unemployment rate had steadily dropped to 5.6 per cent by March when Treasury had predicted it would be 7.5 per cent at this stage of the year.

Such has been the jobs recovery, the treasurer is now aiming for a jobless rate of below five per cent before the process of budget repair begins, rather than six per cent as previously targeted.

Economists believe the jobless rate could be as low as five per cent by the end of the year given the strength of demand for workers, as suggested by forward-looking indicators like job advertising.

One budget forecast that bore no relation to reality was for iron ore, one key guide to national income.

Rather that $US55 per tonne as predicted in December, the red metal struck a record of just over $US190 per tonne, buoyed by ongoing demand from China despite trade frictions between the two countries over other commodities.

It means tens of billions of dollars of additional revenue.

Frydenberg loves to point out – as have other previous Liberal treasurers – his conservative approach to commodity prices, unlike Labor which over estimated them to the detriment of the budget.

Not that the budget should be seen in the light of the next election.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will hand down the federal budget next week – the first since strict COVID-19 measures were put in place.

In consultation with our partners at BDO, InQueensland will offer in-depth, specialised coverage of this vitally important event.

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