Income Tax Zone Rebates

National Economic Review
National Institute of Economic and Industry Research No. 68
October 2013

The National Economic Review is published four times each year under the auspices of the Institute’s Academic Board.The Review contains articles on economic and social issues relevant to Australia. While the Institute endeavours to provide reliable forecasts and believes material published in the Review is accurate it will not be liable for any claim by any party acting on such information.

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Income tax zone rebates
Dr Ian Manning, Deputy Executive Director, NIEIR

Remote area zone rebates or allowances have been a feature of Australian income tax since 1945 and the social security system since 1984. In 2009, the Henry report on the tax system recommended that they should be reviewed, but no action has been taken. Zone rebates accord with each of the major purposes of the tax system. The first of these is the promotion of economic efficiency and economic development, chiefly by supporting the costs of infrastructure provision in remote areas and so assisting the pastoral and mining industries, where there is a case for compensation for the incidental effects of macroeconomic policy on these industries, and also assisting tourism, defence and indigenous development. The second major purpose of the tax system is the ability to pay principle; in this case, compensation for lower real incomes due to higher outback prices. Third is the benefit principle; that is, recognition of the higher cost of access to essential services from outback areas. As the Henry review expected, there is also a case for a review of zone boundaries, of the residence requirements and, in particular, of the rates, which have not been indexed since 1993. This paper presents the case for a review.

This paper was prepared for the Shires of Bulloo, Murweh, Paroo and Quilpie, the Maranoa Regional Council and Regional Development Australia, Darling Downs South West region. It is printed with permission.

For 68 years the income tax has included provisions to reduce the tax that would otherwise be payable by residents of remote areas. The major report into the tax system prepared by the Australian Treasury in 2009(Australia’s Future Tax System: Report to the Treasurer or, informally, ‘the Henry review’) refers to these provisions as the ‘zone tax offset’. The report admits that it does not examine the zone offset in any detail but its basic attitude is clear from the wording of its Recommendation 6:

“To remove complexity and ensure government assistance is properly targeted, concessional offsets should be removed, rationalised or replaced by outlays. … The zone tax offset should be reviewed. If it is to be retained, it should be based on contemporary measures of remoteness.”

Such a review has yet to materialise. The remote area tax rebate continues to be offered at rates that were last adjusted in 1993 and, therefore, have been significantly eroded by inflation. As of September 2011, all classes of zone rebate were worth around 62 per cent of their value in 1993 (adjusted by the consumer price index for Darwin). Longer term comparisons are more difficult because of changing consumption patterns, rising incomes and the switch from tax deductions to rebates. Updating using the consumer price index, the current zone A rebate is worth approximately 70 per cent of the value of the zone A rebate to a single worker on average earnings in 1948, but in relation to average weekly earnings the current zone A rebate is worth only a quarter of its value in 1948.Given the recent lack of indexation, it appears that the remote area rebate is fated to fade away. This paper outlines the case for retaining and updating it.

History of income tax concessions for remote areas
In its present form, the Australian income tax dates from the Second World War. To pay for the war, the Commonwealth increased its rates of income tax considerably and incorporated the various state income taxes into its own tax. When the fighting ended the enhanced income tax continued to be collected, largely to pay for post-war investments in national 23 Income tax zone rebates development and also to enhance the social security system. In line with contemporary practice, the tax featured a schedule of rising marginal rates.

At the time, Australia was experiencing full employment and both businesses and governments resorted to paying ‘district and regional allowances’ to attract workers to remote and tropical jobs, many of which were considered of high priority for national development reasons. Much of the benefit of these supplements was clawed back by the Commonwealth through its marginal tax rates: at the time, the top marginal rate was over 75 per cent, although the marginal rate for a typical worker was around 18 per cent. In 1945 zone allowances were introduced in the form of deductions from taxable income for taxpayers resident in regions where workers commonly received district or regional allowances to compensate them for ‘disabilities of uncongenial climatic conditions, isolation or relatively high cost of living’.Zone allowances were made available to all taxpayers who spent at least 6 months of the tax year living in a zone, not merely those who received district or regional allowances.

Two zones were defined. Zone A comprised the Australian tropics apart from the Queensland east coast south of Cape Tribulation, and zone B included the Queensland coast from Cape Tribulation south to Sarina plus the following: a belt of inland Queensland adjacent to zone A; the far west of New South Wales; the far north of South Australia; the Western Australian goldfields and the west of Tasmania. From the beginning, and to this day, zone A attracted a greater allowance than zone B.

In 1955 the zone A boundary was extended south to the 26th parallel.

From 1958 zone allowances were complemented by loadings on the deductions for dependants, which had long been a feature of the tax system.

In 1975 the zone allowance was converted to a rebate. The additional allowances for dependants were also converted to rebates and zone residents became entitled to percentage additions to their basic dependent rebates. When rebates for children were merged into Family Allowance payments they remained as an element in the zone rebate system.The Public Inquiry into Income Tax Zone Allowances was conducted in 1981. Zone dependant rebates were increased as a result of this inquiry. A second important change was the creation of special areas, defined as places within zone A or B located more than 250 km by the shortest practicable surface route from the nearest town with more than 2,500 people as of 1981. The rebate in the special zone has been set at 3.47 times the zone A rebate.

Finally, in 1984 remote area allowances were introduced as supplements to all the major income-support social security payments. Remote area allowances are available to pensioners and some beneficiaries who are permanent residents of tax zone A and special tax zones located within zone B. They are not available in the non-special parts of zone B. The allowances are paid at the same rate without distinction between the special zones and the rest of zone A. Although not part of the income tax system, these allowances are an obvious complement to the income tax zone rebate. Taken together, they mean that the Commonwealth provides income allowances for nearly all permanent remote area residents.

The Cox Inquiry
The 1981 Cox Inquiry is the only review of the system to date and, therefore, is worth considering in detail. The four members of the Public Inquiry into Income Tax Zone Allowances called for submissions and arranged public consultations. After going through this process they found that their views diverged. As a result, the team of four members produced three reports with different recommendations. The main report was signed by the chairman (P. E. Cox) and S. G. W. Burston and, with reservations, by the other two members. G. Slater prepared a minority report with alternative recommendations and A. M. Kerr added a statement in which he endorsed some recommendations and varied others. However, the Cox Inquiry was unanimous in recommending that zone allowances should continue; the differences between its members concerned the geography of eligibility and the rates of allowance.

It is likely that in any future review much the same arguments will be considered and similar divergences will emerge. We will accordingly base our discussion of the purpose of the rebates on the points raised in 1981. We will also ask whether conditions have changed so as to affect the relevance of the arguments, keeping in mind two obvious differences since 1981:

  • that the real value of the rebates has declined through failure to index them; and  24 Income tax zone rebates
  • that the income tax rebates are now complemented by social security entitlements.

There have also been various other more subtle changes since 1981 and, indeed, since 1945.

Incidence of zone rebates
Serious discussion of remote area rebates is only possible if we know who they benefit. As compared with a situation where rebates are not available, do they benefit employees, granting them higher disposable incomes, or do they benefit employers, allowing them to reduce cash pay rates?

When remote area allowances were introduced in 1945 it was assumed that they were essentially a benefit to employers who would be able to attract labour with lower remote area loadings than would have been required in the absence of the tax allowance. However, much recent discussion of the equity of zone rebates assumes that they have no effect on pay rates and, therefore, the rebate benefits the employee. It is hard to make a definitive judgement since the answer depends on an unobservable variable: What would remote area wage rates be in the absence of the zone rebate?

Tentative answers are as follows:

  1. Where the rebate is large (as it was, in relation to wage rates, when the provision was first introduced), it is hard to argue that it will not affect at least some wage rates. When this happens at least some of the benefit will accrue to employers, who may increase the level of remote area employment in response. Per contra, when the rebate is small (as it is now, in relation to wage rates) it is less likely to be taken into account in wage negotiations.
  2. Where wage rates are fixed by centralised wage-setting authorities without regard for geographic area, it is more likely that the benefit will accrue to employees. When wage rates are set by ‘the market’, it is more likely that the rebate will be taken into account in setting wage rates and, therefore, will accrue to employers.

Given the erosion of the value of the rebate in relation to wage rates, one would expect a trend towards its benefiting employees rather than employers. However, the trend away from centralised wage determination to bargained rates has increased the chances that the rebate will benefit employers. These two trends cancel out, and the best that can be said is that the incidence of the rebate is likely to vary with circumstances. By contrast, the remote area allowance in social security unambiguously increases the income of its recipients.

Decentralisation and industry development
The Second World War was a shock to Australia’s sense of security. One reaction to this shock was to seek to raise the national population and in particular to populate the north: those vast regions with population densities way below those not so far away in Asia. It was also believed that there were significant unutilised resources in the north and that exploitation of these resources would be of national benefit. Tax incentives were an obvious element in policies to populate and develop the north.

‘Develop the north’
In 1945 it was commonly believed that one of the hindrances to populating and developing the north was the ‘uncongenial climate’. For decades up until the Second World War most tropical countries were under the control of the European powers as colonies. In these countries the colonialists managed and the natives worked. The racial division of labour in the tropical colonies meant that the idea that people eligible to be citizens of White Australia could do all the work necessary to develop tropical Australia was still somewhat novel. Populating the north would be a great national experiment and there was a sense that the nation as a whole should participate in the experiment by providing cash rewards to people who went north.

The Australian population doubled during the 37 years separating the original provision of zone allowances and the Cox Committee’s hearings in 1981, but not in the pattern envisaged by those who sought to populate the north: the growth was based on manufacturing and much of it occurred in the cities, reflecting deliberate policies of industry development. The committee held its hearings at a time when Australia was debating government involvement in industry development, particularly tariffs. Tariff cuts were a cause célèbre in remote areas where it was argued that abandoning protection would provide a major stimulus to local export industries, including pastoral production and mining. It was even argued that, in the absence of tariff 25 Income tax zone rebates cuts, zone rebates were justified as compensation for the costs of protection. Three decades on, tariffs have been cut, the mining and pastoral industries continue their cycle of boom and bust (currently boom) and the argument for zone rebates as compensation for tariffs has disappeared. The Australian population has grown by a further 50 per cent, still mainly in the major cities and their immediate surrounds but with one significant change: Darwin has moved from backwater status to become a vibrant if small city.

During the post-war period the cry to develop the north became muted. The memory of recent conflict faded and various high-profile investments to develop the north struck economic trouble (e.g. Humpty Doo rice and the Ord River Dam). At the same time, Australians became less anxious about their capacity to survive and work in the tropics, although to this day Australian tourists avoid the north and centre during the hot and wet seasons. Despite these subsiding anxieties, the Cox Inquiry took the idea of compensation for an uncongenial climate seriously. The committee observed that no place in Australia has a completely congenial climate: everywhere there are episodes when it is too hot or too cold or too wet or too dry. However, some places are less comfortable than others. According to a meteorological discomfort index, which emphasises heat and humidity, the most uncongenial region extends eastwards from Kununurra. Even in this area it is now possible (at an expense) to create congenial indoor, car-driving and plant-operating conditions through air conditioning. If air conditioning is the answer, there is no need for compensation for uncongenial climate but there may be a case for compensation for the cost of air conditioning and, for that matter, for the cost of heating in cold places.

Interest in population geography did not disappear when the metropolitan electorates forgot about populating the north, but was replaced by the promotion of decentralisation, which meant moving jobs out of the capital cities to reduce congestion costs. This argument for decentralisation was, however, irrelevant to zone rebates since it was not necessary to move more than a moderate distance from the capital cities to avoid congestion; indeed, longer moves into the remote regions tended to increase transport costs.

Although decentralisation provided no more than weak support for zone rebates, there was still the argument that it was in the national interest to encourage the development of remote area resources. Whereas this argument was important in 1945, the Cox Inquiry gave it relatively little attention. All members of the inquiry, despite their divergences in other respects, seem to have been persuaded that resource development would be better pursued by other means. They provided very little discussion of what these other means might be, although in the 1980s there was a rising body of opinion that held that development should be left to the private sector. The Cox Inquiry concluded that zone rebates were justified on ‘horizontal equity’ but not industry development grounds. The equity arguments will be considered below, after the economic development arguments are reconsidered.

Structure of the outback economy
Discussion of the economic development argument for zone rebates not only requires assumptions about incidence (employee or employer?) but a definition of the remote areas. It would be possible to adopt current tax definitions (i.e. zone A, zone B and the special zone), but, as the Henry report points out, these zones are in need of review. Remote areas can be conceptualised in two main ways:

  • as regions of low population density that either lack urban centres or have few and isolated towns; or
  • as regions with limited agricultural resources apart (perhaps) from small irrigated oases.

The two concepts are related, with the low population density the result of the limited resource base. For the purpose of this discussion the remote area, or outback, will be defined as country where there is no, or very little, arable or forest land. By this definition Victoria, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory do not contain any remote areas. In Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales the remote areas comprise all country outback of the wheat-sheep belt and in Queensland all country west of the Maranoa, the Peak Downs and the Tablelands back of Cairns. All of the Northern Territory is remote except Darwin and its immediate surrounds. To avoid confusion with ‘remote Australia’ as defined by the Australian Bureau ofStatistics (ABS), we will refer to this area as the outback.

Although the outback lacks arable land and, hence, has few farmers, it is by no means lacking in pastoral and mineral resources. This is reflected in the industry distribution of the approximately 150,000 jobs (1.6 per cent of the national total) that were located in the outback in 2001 (Table 1).


Three industries were overrepresented in outback employment: mining (including associated manufacturing such as smelting and equipment repair), the pastoral industry (plus fishing, hunting and a few meatworks) and tourism (in so far as this can be separated from the more general accommodation and transport industries). Defence and general government service employment was present at slightly above national average rates, while all other employment was underrepresented in relation to the national average. In particular, the outback generates few jobs in finance, information, professional and scientific services.

Arguments for assistance to outback economic development
Several strands of argument for assistance to outback economic development can be distinguished. Two of the arguments are familiar from the history of zone rebates:

  • the strategic and moral argument that Australia wishes to occupy, and be seen to occupy, its whole national territory, and to take such measures as are necessary to defend it; and
  • the argument that resources should be developed.

The question is whether, given the range of policies available, zone rebates are an efficient means towards achieving these ends. In addition, a new argument has arisen. In 1945 and even in 1981 the proponents of developing the north tended to overlook the fact that much of remote Australia was already occupied by indigenous people, admittedly at low density but including regions where a century of efforts to develop profitable settler enterprises had failed. Over the past 30 years indigenous occupation has been recognised by the award of native title over significant parts of remote Australia to traditional owners. Social and environmental changes mean that these owners and their families can no longer live on their traditional lands as hunter-gatherers. Although some remote indigenous communities have an assured economic base, many of them depend on a mixture of Centrelink payments and government employment. It is beyond the scope of this paper to enter into the current vigorous debate about the economic future of these communities but it is fair to ask whether zone rebates have a role in generating ‘real jobs’ for them.

The economic development argument for zone rebates resolves into the judgement that it is desirable to develop remote areas more rapidly than would take place under ‘hands off’ policies and that zone rebates make sense as a component of the resulting economic development policies.

If the benefit of zone rebates goes to the employee, they may be interpreted as an incentive to employees to undertake remote area work. If the benefit of zone rebates goes to the employer, they may be interpreted as an incentive to employers to create remote area jobs. Although the discussion could be cast in terms of either interpretation, the present discussion will assume that the benefit of the rebates goes to employers and reduces the cost of remote area labour. It is, in effect, a wage subsidy.

At this point it must be conceded that the effectiveness of wage subsidies in generating remote area employment and economic development is likely to vary across the outback and also between remote area industries. However, outback areas have several features in common:

  1. Their industry structure is thin. Typically, they have only one or two economic base industries plus support services.
  2. Their  economic  base  industries  are  typically trade-exposed;   indeed,   most   are   export 27 Income tax zone rebates industries directly dependent on overseas markets.

These characteristics leave the remote areas subject to several market failures:

  1. Along with other tradable industries, they are exposed to overvaluation of the exchange rate. Australia’s chronic balance of payments deficit provides evidence that the exchange rate is, on average, overvalued and that, to correct this, trade-exposed (particularly export) industries should be encouraged vis-à-vis trade-sheltered industries. This applies to trade-exposed industries generally but is crucial in the remote areas due to their dependence on such industries.
  2. Not only is the exchange rate overvalued but it fluctuates unpredictably. In addition to the price fluctuations generated by international markets, the trade-exposed industries are further exposed to price fluctuations generated by movements in the exchange rate. Current policy is to welcome these movements for their contribution to short-term macroeconomic management but they have the serious side-effect of increasing the level of risk borne by long-lived investment in the trade-exposed industries. Much of the investment required by outback industries is long-lived, consisting as it does of property improvements and transport infrastructure. Once again, there is a case for policies to ameliorate this side-effect.
  3. This industry structure and low population density mean that the remote areas depend more heavily than others on government provision of infrastructure. For example, telecommunications are commercially highly profitable in high-density areas but not so in low-density areas.

These arguments will surface in various forms as we discuss the major outback industries. As shown in the discussion above, mining now dominates the outback export industries. However, it remains that pastoral production is the classic, and most widespread, outback export industry. We will consider it first.

Pastoral production
From first settlement the pastoral industries (wool and beef) were seen as the economic mainstay of the outback, as they still are in western New South Wales, Western Queensland, northern South Australia and much of the Northern Territory. Judged by employment, they dominate the economic base of shires such as Central Darling (New South Wales), Barcoo and Boulia (Queensland). In such shires pastoral production may be augmented by hunting (e.g. feral goats and kangaroos). Some of the coastal outback supports a fishing industry, which, like hunting, is run by small businesses.

When considering the importance of sheep and cattle in the outback it is important to remember that pastoral production also occurs elsewhere, including in the wheat/sheep belt and hilly pastoral areas such as New England and the Monaro. Is it reasonable to argue for zone rebates for the remote part of the pastoral industry while denying them to the same industry operating in closer-settled regions?

Managing a high-risk industry
Government policy towards the remote area pastoral industry is discussed in a companion article that deals with the position in South West Queensland. The experience in South West Queensland and, indeed, in the pastoral industry as a whole is that the industry is high risk as the succession of good and bad seasons interacts with fluctuating commodity prices and the risk-increasing effects of fluctuating exchange rates. For the best part of two centuries the pastoral industry has proved its resilience, not only to price fluctuations but to the sequence of good and bad seasons. Resilience involves prudent accumulation of reserves during the good times and maintenance of capacity during the bad: it is hard to take advantage of the next in the capricious series of booms without productive capacity in place.

Reserves can be accumulated in different ways. One way is through cash and off-property investments but another is by making improvements to property. The pastoral industry has traditionally used a combination of off-property and on-property investment to employ funds generated in the upswings of the seasonal and commodity cycles. Similarly, the maintenance phase can be financed by running down investments (and in dire necessity incurring debt) and by postponing on-property investment, but preferably in a way that does not threaten capacity.

At the regional level, these business strategies can be complemented by government action. When the pastoral industry is in a boom phase, the government 28 Income tax zone rebates can help to release local resources to participate in the boom by restricting itself to maintenance. When the pastoral industry is in a maintenance phase, it is appropriate for governments to attempt to take up the slack, investing in infrastructure as a contribution to readiness for the next boom. It is, of course, as difficult for governments as for businesses to make the necessary financial arrangements, exercising discipline during booms and countering despondency during periods of slack activity, but this is no excuse for not trying.

In this discussion it has been assumed that fluctuating commodity prices are inevitable. It has often been pointed out that steady capacity utilisation would be less wasteful than the current alternation between the costs of overcapacity production and the costs of underutilised capacity. While steady prices sufficient to generate a moderate rate of profit minimise costs, there is no known way to achieve this steadiness in commodity markets. The chief lesson from Australia’s long and sorry history of government schemes to stabilise 0agricultural markets is that intervention at the industry level is hazardous, to say the least, and that governments are best restricted to general countercyclical policy, including the maintenance of infrastructure and its extension during times when activity levels require support.

Case for remote area wage subsidies in the pastoral industry

Against this background, can a case be made for zone rebates to assist the remote area pastoral industry? Because the rebates have to be financed, it may be assumed that they (slightly) increase tax rates in non-remote areas and, therefore (slightly), reduce employment in these areas. Can a case be made for this?

We have already noted an argument on these lines: the claim, in 1981, that zone rebates compensated for the effect of tariffs on remote area industry costs. This argument has lapsed with the cuts in tariffs, and in any case it drew a long bow. However, it can still be argued that pastoral employment in remote areas should be encouraged through zone rebates, as follows:

  1. Remote areas depend on trade-exposed industries subject to volatile international prices. These industries are important for balance of payments reasons. Price volatility coupled with a finance sector that is unable to provide insurance against medium-term price fluctuations creates risks which, if not managed, will result in these industries having less capacity (and the non-tradable industries having more capacity) than desirable in the overall long-run allocation of resources. It is neither possible nor desirable that the price volatility should be removed. In lieu of removal of price volatility, other ways should be sought to ensure that capacity is maintained, particularly in downturns.
  2. The prohibition of direct industry-specific subsidies by World Trade Organisation rules means that indirect industry support measures are relevant. Possible indirect support includes skills training, subsidies to research and market development, government provision of infrastructure and wage subsidies available on a regional rather than an industry basis.
  3. The advantages of wage subsidies on a regional basis are stronger than they appear prima facie, in that such subsidies assist the maintenance and development of regional infrastructure (defined broadly to include support services) on which the pastoral industry depends.
  4. The case for regional wage subsidies is strongest in the remote areas, due to their high level of risk. Not only are the seasons more variable than in the closer-settled regions but the thin industry structure means that there is little flexibility to turn to alternative sources of income when the pastoral industry is suffering from a downturn.
  5. The case for wage subsidies is strongest when the industry is in maintenance phase but can be made generally, in that wage subsidies compensate across the trade cycle for the higher than average (and partly artificial) risks, which otherwise result in the pastoral industries attracting less investment than is economically efficient.

The market failure case for wage subsidies in remote areas where the pastoral industry provides the economic base therefore rests on these areas being much more dependent on a trade-exposed industry subject to volatile prices than the rest of the country. In addition, the residents as a whole contribute, through their social networks and support services, to the productive capacity of the pastoral export industry. 29 Income tax zone rebates

Providing wage subsidies to all outback employers, rather than just to the trade-exposed pastoral industry, strengthens the capacity of the region as a whole to support export production while avoiding interference with the market allocation of resources within the remote areas and interfering no more than marginally with the allocation of resources between the remote and non-remote areas. The capacity of local and state governments to maintain infrastructure and the capacity of local service suppliers (e.g. retail, equipment maintenance and social facilities) are enhanced along with the capacity of pastoralists to maintain their properties

Mineral resource exploitation
Although the pastoral industry is the classic outback activity, the mining industry is currently very active in several outback regions.

Mineral resource exploitation and the pastoral industry: Similarities and differences
The mineral resource industry covers mining broadly defined to include production of metal ores, energy minerals and non-metallic minerals plus mineral exploration, services to mining and related manufacturing activities, such as ore beneficiation and heavy equipment repair carried out close to mine sites. This industry has several characteristics in common with the pastoral industry:

  • many of its operations, to the extent of a quarter of total industry employment, are in the outback as defined for this paper;
  • the industry is trade-exposed and has to cope with the vagaries of international commodity markets and the Australian dollar exchange rate; and
  • like the outback pastoral industry, the mining industry has the choice of making do with the levels of infrastructure provided by the Commonwealth, state and local governments, or providing its own.

Despite the likenesses there are major differences. First, most parts of the mineral resource industry are capital intensive and wages are a minor proportion of costs. Therefore, wage subsidies are unlikely to affect the location or level of industry activity. However, they may affect resource allocation decisions within the industry, particularly resource allocation to labour-intensive industry activities, such as site remediation.

Second, the exploitation of mineral resources is extractive whereas pastoral production is sustainable provided overstocking is avoided. The extractive nature of the mining industry is reflected in different financial arrangements: miners have to pay royalties to the state governments. The high profitability of the mining industry during the current boom has generated debate as to whether the states and territories are levying sufficient royalties to compensate future generations for the sale of the resource (see discussion in the companion article). Those who argue that the industry is being subsidised through low royalty payments are likely to argue that it should not receive any further benefits from wage subsidies.

Third, the exposure of the mining industry to fluctuating exchange rates is limited by the fact that the industry is largely overseas-owned, which means that its capital transactions are carried out in overseas currency rather than Australian dollars. This reduces risk and reduces the cogency of the argument for compensation for uninsurable risk.

Fourth, the financial strength of the large overseas-owned corporations which dominate mining lessens the case for wage subsidies.

Fifth, mining industry employment is concentrated in a small number of major outback centres. The four Pilbara shires plus Kalgoorlie and Mount Isa together account for nearly half of total outback mineral resource employment. These workers have access to reasonable urban facilities, which lessens the case for wage subsidies to ease recruitment.

Finally, as noted in the companion article, the mining industry has adopted a completely different employment strategy to the other remote area industries, one which may further reduce the case for wage subsidies. Many of the firms in the industry have adopted a policy of high wages, low expenditure on workforce development and low job security. A major element in this strategy is fly-in fly-out and the question raised is whether wage subsidies should apply to fly-in fly-out workers.

We will first consider fly-in fly-out and then return to the more general case. 30 Income tax zone rebates

Fly-in fly-out
Currently, whether a fly-in fly-out worker can claim a zone rebate depends on the 6-month rule. A claim can be made if the worker spends more than 6 months worth of nights in the zone during 2 successive financial years. It is not unknown for employment contracts to be drawn up with an eye to satisfying this requirement. It would be a simple matter to withdraw eligibility from fly-in fly-out workers by extending the residence requirement to (say) 10 months in each year or, alternatively, to reduce the residence period so as to include visiting professional personnel who stay for shorter periods.

The decision here depends on conceptualisation. If the wage subsidy is simply a wage subsidy to industries that are under-investing due to uninsurable risks arising from price and exchange rate volatility, it would be appropriate to extend it to all persons employed in such industries, whether in remote areas or no. If, however, the wage subsidy is a form of compensation to those who employ the residents of communities that are heavily dependent on the risk-exposed export industries and that contribute to the prosperity of those regions, it is not appropriate to extend the subsidy to fly-in fly-out workers. Looked at this way, fly-in fly-out workers should be seen as belonging to the labour markets of their region of primary residence. It is argued in the companion article that the mineral exploitation industry, with exceptions, has not been highly committed to regional development, and when it is committed to such development, it is likely to develop a resident workforce that would be eligible for remote area rebates under a 10-month rule.

A second argument for excluding fly-in fly-out workers from wage subsidies was also reviewed in the companion article: fly-in fly-out is perceived as imposing unnecessary costs on workers’ families. If this is the case, the least the Commonwealth can do is to refrain from subsidising it. Exclusion of fly-in fly-out workers while continuing to support resident employment provides employers with an incentive to the latter.

It should also be noted that, in so far as fly-in fly-out workers spend their incomes in their places of permanent residence and not in the remote regions, arguments for compensation for high living costs or for high costs of access to public services do not apply to them.

Finally, the extent to which remote area employers resort to fly-in fly-out is also influenced by fringe benefits tax. A review of this tax is beyond the scope of this article but would have to be incorporated into any considered review of the zone rebates.

Exploration and infrastructure
Mineral production sites (i.e. mines, quarries, oil and gas wells and processing facilities) generally have specialised infrastructure requirements that are, rightly, provided by the industry. However, one crucial part of the mineral industries depends more heavily on general infrastructure: mineral exploration. This is also a high-risk part of the industry because many mineral explorers find nothing. This risk is magnified financially since it arises well in advance of any resulting revenue.

Approximately 8,000 people are employed in mineral exploration nationally, which is a little over 10 per cent of the workforce employed in mining broadly defined. Of these, around 1,500 work in the outback and a further 900 or so work at no fixed address. Even if we add these numbers together, mineral exploration is responsible for less than 2 per cent of outback employment and many of these workers are likely to be flying-in and flying-out. Employment in mineral exploration is spread across the continent, with concentrations in the capital cities (particularly Perth) and the mining provinces.

Where mineral explorers are engaged in proving up and extending deposits that are already in production they may rely on purpose-built industry infrastructure, but where they are seeking new deposits far and wide they rely on the transport, supply and support facilities that happen to be in place. Support to the providers of these facilities, whether by wage subsidies or otherwise, assists mineral exploration, leading to a case for wage subsidies to infrastructure provision useful to mineral exploration.

The case for wage subsidies to the outback mining industry in general is less strong than for the pastoral industry, particularly in boom times such as the present, but is likely to become stronger when it becomes a question of maintaining capacity during a slump and when the industry is providing infrastructure of general benefit. Wage subsidies also reduce the cost of remediation, thus encouraging the industry to take this responsibility seriously. There is also a case for wage 31 Income tax zone rebates subsidies to outback resident workers as a way of lessening the advantages of fly-in fly-out to employers.

Four significant defence complexes are located within the current tax zones A and B, at Cairns (Queensland), Townsville (Queensland), Darwin/Berrimah (Northern Territory) and Katherine (Northern Territory). In total, these installations account for 13 per cent of persons employed in the defence of Australia (compared with 16 per cent Canberra). However, only about 1,250 defence personnel are employed in the outback as defined in this paper and they constitute less than 1 per cent of total outback employment.

It may be argued that the Commonwealth does not need to provide itself with wage subsidies in order to employ its own employees: it could equally well charge full taxes and use the proceeds to raise employee wages. On this argument there is no need for zone rebates for Commonwealth employees, including defence personnel. However, zone rebates are only a wage subsidy if their eventual incidence benefits the employer; technically, they are a tax rebate claimed by employees. Therefore, It would be administratively inconvenient to deny them to Commonwealth employees while allowing them for other income recipients.

It is more important to note that the effectiveness of defence personnel depends not so much on the location of their bases as on the ease with which they can access the areas that they are to defend. Access is mainly by road, although also by air and sea. Local and state governments have substantial responsibility for roads and airstrips in remote areas. There are no explicit Commonwealth payments that recognise the defence importance of these assets, although this is partly taken into account in Commonwealth grants for roads and other local government expenditures. Wage subsidies assist in equalising costs so that similar amounts of grants yield similar amounts of road maintenance. The main defence argument for outback wage subsidies is thus an argument for infrastructure subsidies.

A number of Australia’s major tourist attractions lie in remote regions, along with a considerable further number of potential attractions. Remote locations that have developed significant trade over the past three decades include Kakadu, Uluru, Broome and Shark Bay. Many less well-known remote locations have also developed tourism as part of their economic base.

Governments have acknowledged the importance of tourism as an economic activity through regulation to maintain standards and assistance with publicity. They also provide the transport infrastructure that underpins tourism. Remote area transport infrastructure is undergoing steady improvement, which has generated additional tourism activity. However, there are plenty of opportunities to develop the industry further.

The current high Australian dollar is proving that tourism is a trade-exposed industry with a claim on outback wage subsidies not dissimilar to that of the pastoral industry. Like defence, it depends on transport infrastructure, not to speak of basic social infrastructure. In this way, it generates an argument for wage subsidies to the provision of outback infrastructure broadly defined.

Lands in traditional ownership
Much effort has been expended over many decades to find an economic base for communities living on traditional lands, including experiments with agriculture, silviculture, pastoral production, tourism and mining. In some places these experiments have succeeded but, scattered across remote Australia, there remain many indigenous communities that depend on welfare payments and, hence, on remote area social security allowances.

Wage subsidies assist the states, local governments and non-profit agencies in provision of welfare-oriented employment (including health services and education). They also assist with the provision of physical infrastructure, including the transport and communication facilities without which there is little hope that ‘real jobs’ will become available. For example, it is sometimes argued that real jobs could arise in land conservation, including from such measures as the recent Carbon Farming Initiative. These developments will require local transport between communities and the places to be conserved, not to speak of transport facilities for tourists to come and admire conservation areas. 32 Income tax zone rebates

Service employment
The industries discussed so far (i.e. the outback export or economic base industries) account for roughly one-third of outback employment (Table 1). The remaining two-thirds comprises employment in various service industries, including transport, trade, education, health services and government services. In discussing the outback export industries, the importance of these service industries has been emphasised: the economic viability of outback export industries (including defence) depends on infrastructure; that is, on the adequacy of the services provided by the service industries. As a general rule these industries are labour intensive (particularly health and education) and stand to benefit from wage subsidies. Indeed, much of the economic case for outback wage subsidies rests on their contribution to infrastructure provision and the indirect contribution this makes to the export industries.

Contribution of zone rebates to outback development
It is argued above that zone rebates have a place in encouraging outback economic development and by this means underwriting the effective occupancy of the Australian continent, both by indigenous communities and by the general population. In particular, wage subsidies are helpful in two ways:

  • by assisting with the provision of infrastructure in the broad sense, so benefiting the economic base industries of the outback and enabling them to fulfil their role in utilising the resources of the outback to the national benefit; and
  • by countering high levels of uninsurable risk in the major outback export industries.

Additional benefits arise because the assistance to infrastructure helps with defence and will potentially contribute to the self-improvement of the remote indigenous communities.

Higher Education Contribution Scheme
We have so far considered zone allowances as primarily an income tax provision. However, the provision could be extended to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). HECS has many virtues as a means of financing higher education. It is essentially a tax measure since it relies on income tax assessments to recoup loans, thus avoiding many of the problems of private-sector student loan schemes, although with the corresponding disadvantage that repayment can be avoided by emigration.

An incentive to young professionals to work in remote areas could be provided by the Commonwealth forgoing HECS repayments which would otherwise have been exacted from residents of remote areas.

Costs of living
We now turn to the equity arguments for zone rebates considered by the Cox Inquiry.
Remote area rebates have frequently been defended as compensation for higher costs of living in remote areas. This is most easily argued if one takes the view that the benefit goes to employees: the concession then goes to increase the taxpayer’s disposable income to compensate for higher prices. However, in a free labour market it is likely that price compensation has already been included in the wage package and that the benefit of the rebate goes to employers. In this case, the rebate (partly) compensates employers for the higher costs of labour hire in the remote regions, where these costs relate to the higher cost of living.

The Cox Inquiry took the simple approach. If the taxpayer rather than the employer benefits from the rebate, it is arguably fair that income received should be adjusted for geographic price differentials. Comparing two people on the same cash wage, the one who has to pay higher prices has the lower ability to pay taxes. However, as always, there is a contrary argument. If geographic differentials reflect different costs in service provision or different land costs, they have a function in providing incentives to the efficient location of economic activity. Compensation will blunt the incentives. A taxpayer who objects to the higher prices charged in the remote areas has the option of shifting elsewhere and the incentive argument says that this is exactly what he or she should do; the taxpayer should not be granted a concession. In this conflict of values the Cox Inquiry inclined towards the ‘real income’ or ‘horizontal equalisation’ view. Essentially they argued that the incentive effects were less important than the inequity of depressing the standard of living of outback employees. 33 Income tax zone rebates

It is one thing to claim that the cost of living is higher in remote areas than in some reference area, say the metropolitan areas. It is quite another to give this monetary expression. The following observations are more or less agreed:

  1. Transport costs add to the price of widely-distributed consumer goods in remote regions.
  2. In small remote towns there are further additions due to diseconomies of small scale, including less than truckload shipments and/or high warehousing costs for larger shipments. Consumers can avoid these costs only at the considerable expense of driving to a larger town.
  3. Remote area consumers are further disadvantaged by the limited range of goods and services on offer.
  4. Housing cost differentials are more complicated; in general, the unimproved value of the underlying land is less than in metropolitan areas but the costs of construction are greater.
  5. Construction costs are particularly high in small towns that lack resident tradespeople, since transport and accommodation costs have to be met.

The Cox Inquiry noted that the ABS had, in the late 1970s, prepared an experimental index of relative retail prices for food across Australia’s major metropolitan areas and a large selection of country towns. Where a weighted average of prices in the eight capital cities was set at 100 this index yielded values of 110 in Cunnamulla and Charleville, the only two centres assessed in South West Queensland. It was only in the Pilbara that larger and smaller centres could be compared, with an index value of 115 in Port Hedland and 136 in Marble Bar. Judging by this differential, Thargomindah would probably turn in a value around 125. The index was experimental and was not continued, but the differentials thus documented accord with current anecdotal experience in South West Queensland: not only for food but for consumer prices generally. The main exception is housing costs, which depend on the balance of supply and demand in each town.

A fundamental feature of price indices is that they cover the same ‘basket of goods and services’ for each comparison. This is a bold assumption over time (new commodities are constantly entering consumers’ shopping trolleys and old items exiting) and it is an even bolder assumption when comparing places. Consumers in remote areas have different opportunities to those in the metropolitan areas: less choice, perhaps, but also some choices that are not available in metropolitan areas (a rodeo perhaps). Again, restricted choice itself has benefits: there is no need to agonise over choice and perhaps there is more time for simple entertainment, like yarning over a beer or playing participant sport. Some remote area residents have rejected the rat race; they don’t have to keep up with the Joneses and consider that they pay less for a better life than they would have had in the cities. More generally, people confronted with different price patterns adjust to those patterns; they buy more of what is relatively cheap and don’t agonise over what is relatively expensive or not available. The resulting difficulties of measurement are known in economics as the ‘index number problem’, which means that comparisons apply to ‘typical’ people and not to those who have taken particular advantage of the opportunities available in different places or at different times. When metropolitan and remote areas are compared, the result regarding a ‘typical person’ is robust: the cost of living is, indeed, higher in remote areas.

Even so, the difficulties of measuring cost of living differentials and the lack of up-to-date evidence have caused people to appeal to an alternative differential (i.e. differences in access to government services) as a way of quantifying outback disadvantage. This does not mean that the cost of living argument has lost its force; rather, it has been supplemented with a related argument pointing in the same direction.

Isolation and services
In 1945 zone allowances were, in part, justified as compensation for isolation. This is a somewhat slippery concept. In so far as it was desirable to compensate for isolation so that it would be easier to recruit labour to the developmental task in the remote regions, the argument collapses back to populating the north, decentralisation and the exploitation of remote resources already discussed. However, the argument can take another tack: zone rebates can be seen as (possibly token) compensation for the reduced range of government services available to the residents of remote regions and/or as partial compensation for the transport and telecommunications costs occasioned in accessing essential services. Here the appeal is to another of the classic principles of taxation, the benefit 34 Income tax zone rebates principle, which argues that taxes should be related to the value of benefits received. Remote area residents receive less benefit and, therefore, should pay less. Alternatively, the private (mainly transport) costs of accessing government services are greater and there should be compensation for this. Those who make this argument tend to assume that taxpayers receive the benefit of the rebate, but like cost compensation the argument can also be applied when the benefit is assumed to go to employers. The rebate then compensates employers for the extra wages they have to pay so that their employees can access services.

In 1981 it was argued that zone rebates were an unfair way of compensating for service access costs because they were available only to taxpayers and not to people who fell below the tax threshold. This argument is no longer valid. The provision of remote area allowances to social security recipients in 1984 means that most remote area residents now gain compensation.

Remote area residents have two main ways of dealing with the problems of service access. These are:

  • Bundling trips: Visits to service outlets, other than emergency visits, can be bundled together and satisfied in a single ‘trip to town’.
  • Accepting a more limited range of choice and a concentration on the quality of local facilities. Thus, metropolitan residents who disapprove of the education provided in their local high school send their children somewhere else. Residents of towns that are not large enough to support multiple schools are much more likely to campaign for an improvement in standards in their local school.

By contrast with the lack of recent work on cost of living differences, two studies on geographic differences in service provision have been published since the Cox Inquiry.

In 1997 the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care commissioned the National Key Centre for Social Applications of GIS to develop an accessibility/remoteness index for Australia. There are two main inputs to this calculation:

  • a list of urban centres classified into five population groups, 1,000–5,000, 5,000–18,000, 18,000–48,000, 48,000–250,000 and >250,000; and
  • a matrix of road distances.

For each ‘populated locality’ in Australia, road distances are calculated to the nearest urban centre in each of the five groups. This distance is divided by the average all-Australia distance for the category. The five scores thus obtained are added and used to define five‘remoteness area classes’. (That there are five scores and five classes is coincidental: the researchers could have varied either number.) The remoteness area classes vary from ‘major city’ through ‘inner regional’, ‘outer regional’ and ‘remote’ to ‘very remote’. (Note the peculiar use of ‘regional’ in this nomenclature to mean neither metropolitan nor remote.) The ABS has adopted this index as a means of classifying the remoteness of localities throughout Australia.

The fundamental assumption underlying the remoteness index is that service availability depends on town size and that increments in service availability occur at the five population thresholds used in the classification. Using the same general methodology, a different size classification would yield different patterns. Similarly, different weights could be awarded to the size categories. Work by NIEIR for the Farm Institute provides a check on these assumptions, since this work did not take urban centre size as a proxy for service availability but instead plotted actual locations of service delivery and estimated the distances residents would have to travel to visit the nearest outlet for a standard list of services, mainly in the education, health and welfare fields. For some services, the second-nearest and third-nearest (and so on) facilities were included at reduced weight, to allow a modicum of choice. Not surprisingly, in view of the major differences between services provided in the heavily and sparsely populated regions, both the ABS and NIEIR studies supported two conclusions:

  • The accessibility of services differs systematically between rural locations (defined as all settlements of less than a thousand population) and urban locations. (The ABS has been understandably reluctant to publish remoteness indicators for other than very small geographic areas because the typical larger area, say a local government area, contains a range of locations that often have significant differences in accessibility to services).
  • The accessibility of services also differs systematically with distance from the major metropolitan areas. This differential is particularly marked if emphasis is placed on  35 Income tax zone rebates choice of service outlets; for example, only the metropolitan areas have multiple universities.

The NIEIR study distinguished between widespread and centralised services. The former are available locally in most country towns complete with a choice of service providers where this is appropriate (it is not appropriate, for example, for police services), while centralised services are provided mainly in the metropolitan areas and not in the country. Centralised services include tertiary education and specialised health services, and also, surprisingly, secondary education, which is available in the typical country town but with very limited choice.

Judged by employment, centralised services account for roughly one-third of the public services provided in Australia. Because of their metropolitan concentration, they account for the way in which service accessibility declines with distance from the main cities. However, even if attention is confined to the widespread services and the micro-variation between towns and the countryside is averaged out, the NIEIR service accessibility index generates patterns that largely accord with the ABS remoteness index. According to the ABS the ‘very remote’ area comprises: theAustralian north coast from Shark Bay nearly to Cooktown, except around Darwin; the coast of the Great Australian Bight; and all the country between these two coasts except for the immediate surrounds of Alice Springs and Mount Isa, which are merely ‘remote’. In South West Queensland all places west ofMitchell are considered ‘very remote’, while the ‘remote’ area is a strip between the ‘very remote’ area and a line running from roughly Dirrinbandi to Miles.

The NIEIR study helps to place these patterns in context. According to this study a typical journey from a residence to the nearest outlet of a widespread service (or nearest several outlets in the case of services like GPs where choice is important) will take more or less the following times:

  • 12 minutes in Brisbane;
  • approximately 12 minutes in Dalby but more like 40 minutes in the rural parts of Western Downs;
  • just under 2 hours in Roma (due to restricted choice in some services) and over 2 hours in the rest of Maranoa;
  • just under 3 hours in Charleville (again, mainly due to restricted local choice) and over 3 hours in the rest of Murweh and in Paroo; and
  • nearly 5 hours for residents of Quilpie and Bulloo Shires.

These estimates can be roughly translated into dollar costs. Without imputing any cost to residents’ time, the typical metropolitan service access trip costs around $3. It costs less in towns like Bundaberg due to less congestion and lower car parking costs. At the other end of the distribution, the typical remote area trip costs around $50. As already pointed out, remote area residents manage these accessibility costs by restricting choice, by bundling trips and simply by doing without (e.g. by forgoing education).

To a large extent the superior accessibility of essential services in the metropolitan areas and provincial cities is due to the inexorable logic of economies of scale. An approach that emphasises economic efficiency narrowly defined would leave it at that: services are cheaper to provide in large centres and if citizens want good services they should shift to these centres. (Never mind if the shift causes congestion and increases land costs.) However, the Queensland Government endeavours to guarantee equality of service access to all its citizens, if necessary by bearing transport costs and also by upholding service standards in remote areas to overcome the need for choice and duplication.

Given this policy, is there any need for zone rebates and the complementary social security allowances as contributions towards service access costs? Whatever the good intentions of the state governments, remote area residents bear significant service access costs that have to be met from their own pockets. The zone rebates can be interpreted as a contribution towards basic mobility (e.g. car ownership, assumed by service providers). In addition, accessibility costs for essential services can be taken as proxy for accessibility disadvantages more generally – those which we have already considered as cost of living disadvantages or, more broadly, the costs of a minimum level of engagement with society as a whole – those costs which, in the broad social welfare literature, are called the costs of belonging.

The Cox Inquiry argued that poor service accessibility and high costs of living together provided an equity argument for zone allowances. At the very least, accessibility calculations help to identify the affected areas and the size of the disability. Given that the prime purpose of social security is to provide minimum 36 Income tax zone rebates incomes to people who have no other income source, equity arguments apply particularly strongly to the recipients of remote area allowances, but also apply to income earners in general.

Zone boundaries
When the system was inaugurated in 1945, the then Treasurer, Mr Chifley, said that the zone boundaries took into account latitude, rainfall, distance from centres of population, density of population, predominant industries, rail and road services and the cost of food and groceries. Unfortunately, the exact criteria used in the demarcation (if there were any) have been lost.

The only general change to date in the zone boundaries occurred in 1955 when the boundary of zone A was extended south to the 26th parallel, so conveniently including the whole of the Northern Territory within zone A. As noted above, special zones were introduced in 1981.

A comparison of the current zone map with the ABS remoteness/accessibility index broadly mapped, and similarly with the NIEIR/Farm Institute service accessibility index, shows several major divergences. We consider first the zone A/zone B differential:

  1. Although Darwin is somewhat disadvantaged (according to the ABS it ranks as ‘outer regional’) its level of remoteness is well short of that in the typical zone A location. It might be added that Darwin has now developed a broad industry structure and is no longer dependent on the prosperity of a limited number of export industries exposed to fluctuating world prices.
  2. Similar considerations apply to the Queensland coast between Mackay and Cairns, which is included in zone B despite ‘outer regional’ status.
  3. There is essentially no difference in remoteness between zone A and B locations either side of the 26th parallel. No remoteness gradient runs along this line, nor is there any noticeable difference in industry composition either side (although it is roughly the northern limit for sheep).
  4. Apart from Darwin and the Queensland coast, zones A and B taken together are remarkably similar to ‘very remote Australia’ as defined by  the ABS and confirmed by NIEIR. This applies whether remoteness is defined in terms of distance from services, distances from towns or thin industry structure arising from a lack of arable land.

By contrast, apart from Mount Isa, Alice Springs, Kalgoorlie and Esperance, the special zones are not recognisable in the ABS remoteness map, nor are they to be found in the NIEIR calculations. For example, in Queensland, Charleville and Longreach are each responsible for large circles in which residents are not entitled to special zone allowances, but in both instances the typical trip to access a widespread service from within the town is rated at around 2 hours and from within the excluded circle is closer to 3 hours. Among the isolated centres in Queensland, only Mount Isa is large enough, and has a sufficient range of services, to produce a significant improvement in accessibility. This suggests two conclusions:

  1. A town population of 2,500 is too low to produce significant improvements in accessibility in an otherwise remote area. Judging by the populations of Alice Springs, Mount Isa and Kalgoorlie, the cut-off appears to be more like 15,000.
  2. The radius of 250 road km is too long. Accessibility drops rapidly with distance from urban centres.

There is a strong case for redefining the zones to take these findings into account. The exclusion of Darwin, Mackay, Townsville and Cairns and the adjacent coast, plus an extension of the eligibility period from 6 to 10 months, would go a long way towards financing the redrawing of zone boundaries. An outback zone could be based on ‘very remote’ Australia as defined by theABS. A new fringe outback zone could serve as a transition area and also accommodate towns of 15,000 plus population which would otherwise be located within the outback zone. The special zones would be abolished. It is suggested that the rebate for the outback zone would be the current special zone rebate, updated, while the rebate for the marginally outback zone would be the current zone A rebate, updated. The social security remote area allowance would be available to permanent residents of the outback zone and possibly, at reduced rates, to permanent residents of the marginal outback. 37 Income tax zone rebates

Value of the allowance/rebate
When introduced the zone A allowance was set at £40 but in 1947 it was increased to £120, a considerable concession at a time when workers were typically paid around £500 a year (average earnings per railway employee were £477 in 1948–1949). In conjunction with the schedule of marginal rates, this increased disposable incomes by 3 to 4 per cent compared with charging the full income tax to workers in zone A. The zone A deduction was indexed sporadically and in 1958–1959, after an increase, produced increases in disposable income of the order of 6 per cent for workers on average weekly earnings. The additional deductions for dependants meant that the proportion was broadly similar for taxpayers with and without dependants. From 1959, however, there was a pronounced reluctance to index the allowances, later rebates, for inflation.

The Cox Inquiry failed to produce any indexation of the rebates but its recommendations to raise the loading for dependants and introduce special zones were implemented. As a result, in the 1981–1982 tax year zone rebates produced the following increases in real incomes (calculated, for convenience, on the assumption that the allowance benefits the taxpayer rather than the employer).

  1. For a taxpayer on average weekly earnings living in zone A, an increase in disposable income of approximately 1.8 per cent. Due to the dependant allowances, this increase was roughly the same for all levels of dependants.
  2. For a taxpayer on the minimum wage living in zone A, an increase in disposable income of approximately 2.7 per cent. Increases for taxpayers with dependants were somewhat less because they ran out of tax to offset the rebate against.
  3. For a taxpayer on average weekly earnings living in a special zone: an increase in disposable income of 6.3 per cent (9.4 per cent for a taxpayer on the minimum wage).

The two dissenting members of the Cox Committee would both have made more generous allowances available:

  1. Mr Kerr, a rebate sufficient to raise the disposable incomes of taxpayers earning  average weekly earnings in the special zone by 12.6 per cent (18.8 per cent if on the minimum wage); and
  2. Mr Slater, a rebate sufficient to raise the disposable incomes of taxpayers earning average weekly earnings in a revised zone A by 16.8 per cent (22.2 per cent if on the minimum wage).

The rebates were increased in 1984, 1985, 1992 and 1993, but since then the zone A rebate has remained at $338 plus a 50-per cent loading on dependant rebates. Due to growth in earnings and lack of indexation of the rebate, its value has now been eroded to an increase of 0.8 per cent in the disposable income of a zone A resident without dependents receiving average weekly earnings.

The value of the rebate for a taxpayer without dependants working in the special zone now stands at an increase in disposable income of 2.7 per cent.The value of the remote area allowance for social security recipients stood in 2011 at an increase of 2.6 per cent in the disposable income of a single pensioner and 3 per cent in the disposable income of a couple.

The real value of zone rebates has been falling since1993, which accords with Treasury’s preference for removing concessional tax offsets. Indeed, the failure to review the zone rebate might indicate satisfaction with the current non-indexed benefit: from Treasury’s point of view there is a risk that a review will defend the rebate and recommend that it be raised. The present paper has shown that there are, indeed, strong arguments for retaining and increasing the rebate.

It is 4 years since the release of the Henry Report into Australian taxation and its recommendation that remote area tax offsets be reviewed. The review has not taken place and, in the meantime, zone rebates continue to decline in real value.

There remain three arguments for the continuation and updating of zone rebates, including the related social security remote area allowances.

First, support is necessary for remote area economic development. Zone rebates provide partial compensation for the reduction in the competitiveness of remote area export industries, which has occurred as 38 an unintended side-effect of the market-determination of the exchange rate coupled with heavy reliance on monetary policy to counter inflation. Zone rebates also assist in the provision of local infrastructure and support services in the remote areas. This infrastructure is important for the export industries, for defence and for the future of remote indigenous communities. (In discussions of public finance, this is essentially an economic efficiency argument.)

Second, compensation may be justified by the higher prices of necessities in remote areas, particularly food. This is especially important for social security recipients. (In discussions of public finance, this is essentially an ability-to-pay argument.)

Finally, partial compensation may be granted for the costs of accessing government services from remote areas. Although the primary responsibility here lies with service providers, the zone rebates recognise that remote area residents bear a share of these costs. (In discussions of public finance, this is essentially a benefit principle argument.)

This article provides a preliminary discussion of each of these topics and shows that zone rebates can be justified by arguments invoking each of the major principles of taxation. Following through from these arguments, the present paper also suggests that the zones should be updated and the levels of rebate revised. Zone rebates have not been reviewed for three decades. This article has shown that there is a strong case for updating the rebates, subject to a review of eligibility. It is time that the review recommended in the Henry report took place.


Australian Bureau of Statistics (2001), ‘ABS Views on Remoteness’, cat 1244.0,

Australian Bureau ofStatistics, Canberra.Australian Bureau of Statistics (2001), ‘Outcomes of ABS Views on Remoteness Consultation, Australia’,Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.Australian   Bureau   of   Statistics   (2003),   ‘ASGCRemoteness Classification: Purpose and Use’, CensusPaper  No.  03/01,

Australian  Bureau  of  Statistics,Canberra.

Henry et al. (2009), ‘Australia’s Future Tax System: Report to the Treasurer’, December, CanPrintCommunications, Canberra.

Hicks, P. (2001), ‘History of the Zone Rebate’, research note no 28, Department of the Parliamentary Library Commonwealth Parliamentary Library.

National Institute of Economic and Industry Research(2009), ‘A Comparison of the Accessibility of Essential Services in Urban and Regional Australia’, report for the Australian Farm Institute.

Public Inquiry into Income Tax Zone Allowances (P. E. Cox, Chairman) (1981), Report, Commonwealth Parliamentary Paper No. 149, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Economic Overview (NER 60)

National Economic Review

National Institute of Economic and Industry Research

No. 60               December 2006

The National Economic Review is published four times each year under the auspices of the Institute’s Academic Board.

The Review contains articles on economic and social issues relevant to Australia. While the Institute endeavours to provide reliable forecasts and believes material published in the Review is accurate it will not be liable for any claim by any party acting on such information.

Editor: Dr A. Scott Lowson

© National Institute of Economic and Industry Research

This journal is subject to copyright. Apart from such purposes as study, research, criticism or review as provided by the Copyright Act no part may be reproduced without the consent in writing of the Institute.

ISSN 0813-9474

Economic overview

Peter Brain, Executive Director, NIEIR


In this article Peter Brain assesses the medium term outlook for both the world and Australian economies, including the importance for the latter of public sector demand and immigration as important drivers of growth.

An overview of the medium term outlook for the world and Australian economies

The medium-term outlook for the Australian economy remains shaped by a number of conflicting influences.

On the positive side these include:

  • the strong terms of trade gains which will exert upward pressure on growth, particularly in States such as Western Australia and Queensland.
  • a steady outlook for immigration; and
  • the fact that public sector balance sheets in Australia are very strong.

On the negative side are:

  • the strong downward pressure on discretionary consumption expenditure from the weight of household debt;
  • increased import penetration of final and intermediate manufactured goods, particularly from China, leading to manufacturing closures, namely in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia; and
  • the current downturn in new dwelling construction, concentrated in 2005-06.

The strong terms of trade gains made over recent years – shown in Figure 5 – are expected to exert strong upward pressure on Australian GDP growth over the next two years. The resource boom will bring higher levels of private business investment, infrastructure development and a higher exchange rate that would have otherwise have been case. This will support higher income growth. Actual expenditures will be concentrated in the resource rich states of Queensland and Western Australia. The developing imbalance in the world economy (US trade and budget deficits, China’s increasing share of world production) will produce a correction by 2009. The question is, how severe this correction will be. A sharp correction has not been factored into this forecast, however, world growth is forecast to weaken in 2009 and 2010, and the terms of trade to fall back significantly.

Whilst the contribution of the household sector to growth will be limited by debt constraint, the state of public sector balance sheets in Australia can increasingly drive growth. The public sector can drive growth by income tax changes, infrastructure spending (which is already occurring in some states) and also debt leverage through public sector partnerships and co-opting the superannuation sector, through their infrastructure funds, to play a direct role in driving growth.

Whilst the increase in the terms of trade will benefit the resource based sectors of the Australian economy, the higher exchange rate and increasing competition from imports have, and will continue to, lead to a downsizing of Australia’s established manufacturing sectors.

The import penetration has been steadily rising in Australia, both in terms of final manufacturing products and intermediate inputs. More and more Australian manufacturers are either shifting their operations overseas or stopping operations and importing products from overseas. Australian established manufacturers in older urban area have also seen a dramatic increase in their land values as a result of the housing boom. The profitability of these operations, under increased import competition, has narrowed against the actual income potential of the land they occupy. The high exchange rate has also blunted Australia’s manufacturing export potential.

Capture1As we have seen over the recent years in Australia, the gains by the commodity based sectors of the economy and the resource based sectors will be partly offset by the downsizing and closure of established manufacturing operations. The established manufacturing sectors are concentrated in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

International outlook

The world economy continued to expand at a rapid pace in 2004 with continued strong growth in the United States, China and East Asia. Economic growth in the Western Europe and Japan also picked up significantly in 2004. World economic growth was around 5 percent in 2004. This follows growth of 4 per cent in 2003 and 3 per cent in 2002. China’s GDP growth rate was around 10 per cent in 2003 and 2004.

In the projections, growth in the Chinese economy is expected to continue at around 8 to 10 per cent level through to 2009. Growth is expected to fall following the Beijing Olympics. Australian commodity exports and prices are expected to weaken at this point, with Australian terms of trade and the exchange rate both falling.

The world economy appears to have passed its cyclical peak growth rate. World economic growth is forecast to weaken slightly over 2005 -06 and 2006-07, partly in response to high oil prices. Growth is still however between 3.5 and 4.0 per cent.

The United States economy, which grew by 4.4 per cent in 2004, is projected to grow by 3.5 per cent in 2005 and 3 per cent in 2006. With continued pressures on US public sector balance sheets, high household and corporate debt levels, growth in the US economy us expected to slow post 2006. The US current account deficit reached around 6.5 per cent of GDP in early 2005. The Federal Reserve has been successively increasing rates since mid-2004, and further rates rises seem likely.

Growth in Japan was 2.7 per cent in 2004 following growth of 1.4 per cent in 2003. Growth in 2005 is projected to be 1.4 per cent and 1.8 per cent in 2006. The fundamental of the Japanese economy definitely improved over the last 18 months, and even the banking sector balance sheets have improved.

World economic growth slows to 3.5 per cent in 2008-09 and then 2.7 per cent in 2009-10, mainly reflecting weaker US economic growth and growth in China contracting to around half current growth rates.

The recent drivers of Australian economic growth

The drivers of Australia’s economic growth over the last decade are now going into reverse. From Figure 2, the household debt service ratio reaches 28 per cent of net disposable income in 2004-05. The debt service ratio is the ratio of interest and repayment of loans to net household income. This is now considerably higher than the peak level that prevailed before the 1991 recession.

In the March quarter 2005, the Australian household debt to disposable income ratio reached 174 per cent as shown in Figure 4. By comparison, the ratio four years earlier in March 2001 stood at 123 per cent. This rate of increase cannot be sustained. Indeed, this rate of increase in the household debt to income ratio is declining, as indicated by Figure 3.

It is not only debt saturation that is leading to a decline in households’ ability to absorb debt. As Figure 3 indicates, there has been a decline in the household net worth to income ratio over the last four quarters, compared to the peak level in March 2004. Household net worth is household financial assets plus market value of housing stock less financial liabilities. The major reason for the decline/stabilisation has been the stabilisation of house prices in the context of further growth in household debt.

The deteriorating household balance sheets are being reflected in the current sluggish growth in retail sales and the current slower growth in household consumption expenditure. As a result, household consumption expenditure is forecast to slow to 2.9 per cent in 2005-06 and remain at between 2.5 and 3.0 per cent per annum till the end of the decade.

Capture2In the May 2005 Budget the Federal Government gave personal income tax cuts equal to 1.0 percentage point of household income. The commencement of severe downward pressure on household expenditures from debt saturation and falling net worth to income ratios (from expected falls in house prices over 2005-06) will either offset the impact of the expenditure enhancing effects of the tax cuts, or will force the additional income from the tax cuts to be saved.Capture4
Capture3The Australian medium-term outlook

Australian GDP growth over 2004-05 was 2.3 per cent, the lowest since 2000- 01. The slowdown in Australian growth over 2004-05 reflects a gradual slowing in private consumption expenditure growth and a small fall in new dwelling investment. Household consumption expenditure and new dwelling investment were drivers of Australia GDP growth over the 2001-02 to 2003-04 peri

High levels of consumption expenditure and rising levels of business investment have lead to sharp increases in imports over the last 3 years. Import growth over the 2002 -03 to 2004-05 period has been averaging around 12 per cent per annum. Imports significantly subtracted from growth in 2004-05.

Australian GDP growth is forecast to accelerate to 2.9 per cent in 2005-06 and 3.5 per cent in 2006-07. Private consumption expenditure and dwelling construction, however, will not be the key drivers of growth. Dwelling approvals have already fallen and private dwelling construction expenditure is expected to fall by 10 per cent in 2005-06. The decline could be more significant depending upon the rate of adjustment by builders in this sector.

The decline in private consumption expenditure growth over the course of 2004-05 confirms the household debt constraint is increasing taking hold. The Federal Government tax cuts announced in 2005 will mostly be absorbed by increases in the household savings ratio. Consumption expenditure growth will fall below that ratio of growth in real household disposable income.

For the next two years Australia’s export performance will be relatively strong.

Australia’s export performance will improve over the next two years. Average export volume growth is expected to be in the vicinity of 5.0 to 6.0 per cent per annum. Export volumes are also expected to be reasonably strong as resource projects commencing over the next year are completed.

The restructuring of the manufacturing sector is adversely affecting exports. As import penetration steadily increases and plants close, exports fall because many of these bigger plants also export. Between 2008 and 2011, given the world outlook, Australia’s export performance looks bleak, unless a significant devaluation occurs.

The Australian dollar is likely to devalue strongly after 2007 or 2008.

Given Australia’s current high terms of trade from the high commodity prices and the likely downward pressure on the US$ over the next one to two years, Australia’s currency, in US$ terms, could well appreciate to the 80 cents range. This will not last. The slowdown in world GDP growth post 2008 will return the Australian current account deficit, as a per cent of GDP, to the 7.0 per cent benchmark. The return of commodity growth to more normal levels will combine with these factors to drive the Australian currency to the 60 to 70 cents range, against the US$. Given the expected devaluation of the US$, this implies a significant weighted average devaluation of the Australian currency. This is 25 per cent by 2010. The weighted average exchange rate returns to close to the low levels of 2001.

Capture6Public sector demand will become a more important driver of Australian growth.

The 2005 round of Government budgets is the forerunner of what is to come. That is, Governments in Australia sustaining growth by using their strong balance sheets to offset the decline in the capacity of the household sector to sustain growth. The State Government’s 2005-06 infrastructure expansion will add 0.5 per cent per annum to Australia’s growth rate over the next two years.

More importantly, Governments are beginning to think long term. The Queensland Government has announced a $55 billion expenditure program, while the New South Wales program is around $20 billion. Over the next 20 years, depending on the PPP (private-public sector partnership) component, Australian Governments could spend between $700 billion and $1 trillion dollars and still maintain acceptable debt to GDP ratios.

The Government sector will take over the role from the household sector in driving total investment.

 Immigration will also become an important driver of growth.

The Federal Government has announced that permanent and long term immigration will be increased by 20,000 to offset Australia’s skill shortages. Over the projection period, immigration will become an important source of growth from a variety of linkages. These include:

  • workplace growth to offset the ageing of the population;
  • direct capital inflows associated with wealthy immigration; and
  • network integration with Asia to sustain Australia’s export performance.

The next movement in interest rates will be downwards.

The downturn in the dwelling cycle has commenced. In the Eastern States the level of approvals are 10 to 20 per cent below the levels that prevailed a year ago. Domestic demand growth is slowing. Interest rates are likely to be lowered at some point in 2006. However, the extent of the downward adjustment is likely to be limited. Inflationary pressures (currently from skill shortages and commodity prices) will be joined by currency devaluation post 2008.

This will keep nominal wages and inflation at near the upper bound of the Reserve Bank of Australia’s (RBA) acceptable range for much of the projection period, despite periods of weak labour market conditions. This will also occur despite downward pressure on low skilled wage rates that will flow from the Federal Government’s industrial relations reforms.

Overall, the outlook over the projection period is one described by the RBA Governor last year. It is a growth outlook for annual Australian GDP growth that “will sometimes have a 2 in front of it and sometimes a 3”.

Capture6 Energy trade

Despite rapidly rising oil prices, rising crude oil and product imports and static domestic crude oil and condensate production, net exports of energy continue to rise. Energy exports are expected to be strong post-2006, mainly due to large expected increases in LNG exports.


Economic Overview (NER 58)

National Economic Review  National Institute of Economic and Industry Research   No. 58        September 2005

The National Economic Review is published four times each year under the auspices of the Institute’s  Academic Board.  The Review contains articles on economic and social issues relevant to Australia. While the Institute endeavours to provide reliable forecasts and believes material published in the Review is accurate it will not be liable for any claim by any party acting on such information.

Editor: Dr A. Scott Lowson National Institute of Economic and Industry  Research 

This journal is subject to copyright. Apart from such purposes as study, research, criticism or review as provided by the Copyright Act no part may be reproduced without the consent in writing of the Institute.


Economic overview  Peter Brain, Executive Director, NIEIR 

Abstract : Peter Brain assesses the Australian economy and describes alternative scenarios.

Although the GDP growth for 2003-04 was 3.6 per cent, this represented a relatively poor performance.  The GDP growth rate of 3.6 per cent for 2003-04 was the same as earlier projections. However, it represented a relatively poor performance. The reason for this assessment is due to the fact that over 2003-04 the Australian farm sector recovered from the drought. Farm product in 2003-04 grew by 27 per cent, adding 0.7 per cent to GDP growth. However, non-farm GDP grew by 3 per cent for 2003-04 despite a 5.6 per cent private consumption growth which represents the highest rate of growth for a number of years. Moreover, the growth rate of all the private investment components was 6 per cent or greater.  The reason for the relatively poor GDP growth outcome is, firstly, the poor performance of exports and, secondly, the growth in imports. There is a lag between farm production recovery and exports so the growth in exports resulting from the farm recovery will occur in 2004-05.  In 2003-04 imports grew by 13.1 per cent, only slightly below the growth in 2002-03. This represents a growth in import penetration across a wide range of sectors, including clothing, textiles, motor vehicles, chemicals and machinery. Imports represent one quarter of GDP. Hence, a 13.1 per cent import growth rate means that the growth in imports over 2003-04 reduce GDP by 2.5 per cent from what would otherwise have been the case if imports had growth in line with GDP.  Over the last two years in particular, the growth in imports has been a major negative factor in determining  Australia’s growth performance.

Australia’s exports performance has also been poor but will recover over the next three years.

In the few years since 1999-00, the value of Australia’s non-resource based exports has been flat. That is, no change has occurred. This is despite the value of trade in the Asia-Pacific region for non-resource based products growing between 30 and 40 per cent over the past four years.  In 2004-05 exports of goods and services are expected to grow by 5.1 per cent, in part due to the recovery of the farm sector. Exports will also recover over the next two to three years because of the coming on-line of major resource projects that were commenced in 2002 or 2003. The most important of these will be the fourth liquefied natural gas (LNG) train on the North West Shelf. In 2006 the Darwin LNG train will come on-line.

Both the United States and Australian dollars will devalue over the next five years relative to our trading partners. 

Exports may well recover, but without a substantial devaluation of the Australian dollar, import growth will continue to outstrip the growth of exports. With the upswing in the world interest rate cycle now occurring, the continuation of the current growth in imports would lead to an Australian current account deficit of around 7 per cent of GDP. To hold the current account deficit at the 5 per cent level, which is the projection to 2008-09, it is necessary for the Australian dollar to devalue,  in weighted average terms of around 15 per cent over the 2006 to 2009 period. This is built into the projection.  It can be seen from Table 1 that the United States/Australian exchange rate stays relatively unchanged over the projection period. The projection also allows for the outcome that the United States dollar devalues 20 per cent against the Euro, yen and yuan over the projection period. Because Australia maintains parity with the United States dollar, it follows that there is an equivalent devaluation of the Australian dollar against these currencies. The appreciation of the yuan against the United States dollar is also assumed to trigger the appreciation of other Asian currencies against the United States dollar.  It is the devaluation of the Australian dollar that leads to a more subdued growth rate for imports over 2008 and 2009.

The recent evidence is that the downside phase of the dwelling cycle has commenced.

It has long been NIEIR’s contention that the down-phase of the current dwelling cycle would only commence when significant growth in established house prices ceased. By the June quarter 2004, established house prices had stabilised with a fall in established house prices in Sydney offset by more moderate price growth elsewhere. Moreover, the trend in approvals and the financing of dwellings for new construction all point to falls in dwelling construction over the next two years. Over the next two years the cumulative decline in housing construction is projected to be 18 per cent.

The borrow and spend behaviour of households is now reaching its peak. Household balance sheet constraints will be a negative factor for growth for the foreseeable future. 

The ending of the established house price boom will also lead to a curtailment of a key driver of recent Australian economic growth, namely household borrowing to support consumption expenditure.

The growth in established house prices since 1996 resulted in the ratio of household net worth (the value of the housing stock plus financial assets less financial liabilities) increasing from 6 to 7.8 by June 2005 (Figure 2). From Figure 4, this allowed households to borrow to fund a borrowing gap which has reached 15 per cent of disposable income by June quarter 2004. The borrowing gap represents the difference between consumption expenditure and discretionary income. Discretionary income is significantly smaller than household income in the national accounts because it includes superannuation contributions and superannuation interest, which represents income that is not available for current consumption.  From Figure 3, by the June quarter 2004 the build up in debt to fund the borrowing gap (as well as the high level of housing investment) drove the household debt to net disposable income ratio to 163 per cent. In the June quarter 2002 the rate stood at 137 per cent.  From Figure 1, the household debt service ratio now stands at 25 per cent of disposable income, the highest on the historical record.  The combined impact of stable (or falling) house prices, high debt service and debt-income ratios will, at the most optimistic, force households to hold the borrowing gap at around 15 per cent of income. This will force consumption expenditure to grow in line with household disposable income, which in turn will reduce the rate of growth of private consumption expenditure to between 2 and 3 per cent over the medium term.

Even with modest consumption growth, the debt-income/debt-service ratio will continue to rise. A recession is likely at some point before 2010.

If the borrowing gap is held at 15 per cent, the debt-income ratio will still increase by around 7 percentage points per year. By 2009, given the projection in Table 1, the debt to income ratio will reach 200 per cent. If households decide to stabilise their debt-income ratio then the household savings ratio will have to rise to 6 to 8 per cent. Household consumption would most likely fall and the economy would experience a recession, probably a severe recession. However, given the forecast methodology outlined above, this aspect has been translated into a lower trend rate of growth rather than a recession and this aspect makes the low case projection of more interest than the high case projection.

Fiscal stimulus will support the household sector in the short term.  

The position in the short term is not as bleak as the borrowing gap would suggest because of the strong fiscal stimulus being given to the economy. The May 2004 Federal Budget and the election promises of October 2004 will give a stimulus of around 1 per cent per annum to household income over the next two to three years. This will probably be enough to partially offset the constraints of the household debt-service ratio. Beyond 2007, if a severe recession is to be avoided, further significant fiscal stimulus will be required. That is, as the growth in household debt slows, public sector new borrowings will have to increase significantly.

The alternative scenarios

The problem for Australia is that Australia is not the only economy with households with large amounts of illusionary wealth created by housing price bubbles. The same is true in North America, the United Kingdom and some Western European economies. An economy that is an indicator, in terms of a low scenario over the medium term, is the Netherlands. The Netherlands was a fast growing economy over the second half of the 1990s, in part driven by rapid increases in borrowings funding a house prices-wealth creation consumption boom. In 2001, house prices stabilised due to tightening monetary policy. In 2003 the economy was in recession with private consumption falling by 1.5 per cent, the largest fall since World War II.  For the Netherlands the catalyst was tightening European monetary policy over 2000. For Australia the likely trigger for a low scenario is also most likely to be an external shock such as illustrated in Table 2. There are a number of potential shocks with good probabilities of occurring over the next two to five years. They are listed in the Table.

The reason why a transition path from the base to low scenario is likely to be associated with an external catalyst is that there are two factors that would allow policy authorities to keep the economy on the base scenario trajectory despite increasing constraints in growth. These are:

  1. strong public sector balance sheets which would allow fiscal policy to be expansionary for a decade or more;
  2. the potential for Australian nominal interest rates to be lowered by between 1 and 2 percentage points.

This cushion would allow the base scenario to be achieved if the world economy remained supportive.  Unfortunately, because of vulnerable households in a number of major economies, any negative shock to the world economy is likely to trigger the ushering in of a long period of low growth for Australia, in particular, and many parts of the developed world in general. In short, the low scenario, at least to 2012 or thereabouts, does not have a low probability of outcome.  The high scenario assumes the most optimistic outcomes for the world political economy.

Australian energy trade, 2004-10 

ABARE and NIEIR analysis and estimates of Australian energy trade trends are presented below. Over the period there continues to be an energy trade surplus with projected increases in net oil imports being more than offset by coal, natural gas and uranium export increases.  In 2004-05 the trade surplus, at a projected $7.4 billion (NIEIR/ABARE), will be about $2 billion higher than in 2003-04 due to higher thermal coal exports (tonnes, prices) and higher LNG exports.



Capture3 Capture4


The Economic Impact of Public Events

National Economic Review

National Institute of Economic and Industry Research 

No. 67 November 2012

The National Economic Review is published four times each year under the auspices of the Institute’s Academic Board.

The Review contains articles on economic and social issues relevant to Australia. While the Institute endeavours to provide reliable forecasts and believes material published in the Review is accurate it will not be liable for any claim by any party acting on such information.

Editor: Kylie Moreland

© National Institute of Economic and Industry


This journal is subject to copyright. Apart from such purposes as study, research, criticism or review as provided by the Copyright Act no part may be reproduced without the consent in writing of the relevant Institute.

ISSN 0813-9474
The economic impact of public events

Ian Manning, Deputy Executive Director, NIEIR


The present paper examines a small and ill-defined area of government–private sector interaction: the organisation of public events. In particular, events that receive subventions from the public purse and that draw patrons from outside as well as within the subsidising jurisdiction are considered. Neoclassical economics asserts that economic policy should concentrate on leaving decisions to markets. As applied to the analysis of events, the neoclassical policy recommendation is for reliance on user charges except where there are non-economic reasons for free or subsidised provision. However, NIEIR’s analysis of event provision shows that this recommendation relies on assumptions that have not applied in most parts of Australia over the past 30 years. Instead, subventions to events that increase tourist visitation can increase incomes and employment. Thus, the case for subventions becomes one of priority against other expenditures, preferably exercised in the context of a coherent strategy for the future.

 Mixed economies and government– private sector interaction

When the United States went into ideological overdrive following the end of the Cold War, it let loose a wave of propaganda for market economics. Soviet central planning and government ownership of business enterprise were discredited. Economies should, therefore, be reformed to the opposite extreme, with government curtailed to providing law and order and all else left to the private sector. Some of the most effective propaganda involved the promotion of sophisticated neoclassical economic modelling, which purported to show that a completely privatised economy delivered the best of all worlds. In countries dominated by the American way of thinking, this modelling became the standard by which economic policies were assessed. Its intended target was not the Soviet-style centrally-planned state but the mixed economies inherited largely from the wave of socialist reforms that followed the Second World War.

In Australia’s case, it was conveniently forgotten that the economy had been mixed ever since the 19th-century colonies found that private enterprise was unable to provide them with the infrastructure they required. For the most part, academics and treasuries influenced by the neoclassical wave of thought deliberately assumed away the insights of Keynes’s generation, which supported mixed economies. One of these was the finding that markets are generally ‘imperfect’, which is a polite way of saying that they cannot be relied upon to generate an optimum allocation of resources as described by neoclassical theory. This is not to claim that government action can be relied on to improve matters: far from it. However, there are occasions when governments have opportunities to increase employment and incomes. It is arguable that they should be on the lookout for such opportunities and take advantage of them when they arise.

Since its foundation in 1984, NIEIR has remembered the findings of the economists of Keynes’s generation and, accordingly, has stood apart from the neoclassical economic models favoured by the American economic evangelists. The intellectual problem with the neoclassical models is their high level of abstraction and the plethora of assumptions, many of which contribute directly to their pro-market findings. It should not be surprising that when attempts are made to apply them to policy problems, highly abstract models can generate misleading results. It is inevitable that economic models should simplify the intricacies of the mixed economy in which governments, privately-owned business and non-profit organisations have basically complementary tasks but can sometimes be in (necessarily imperfect) competition, but important that the simplifications capture the major causes and effects rather than being assumed from ideological principle.

The commitment to the vision of a purely private market economy has diverted attention from the realities of government–private sector interaction. These differ industry by industry. Although all industries rely on government for the enforcement of contracts and property rights, the dependence of the mining sector on the administration of exploration and mining licences differs from the dependence of the finance sector on the administration of debtors’ and creditors’ rights and its ultimate dependence on government as lender of last resort. Again, there is general reliance on governments for the provision of an educated workforce but skill requirements are frequently industry-specific. Despite the targeting of government-provided physical infrastructure in privatisation campaigns, one major industry, road transport, is, to this day, completely dependent on infrastructure owned and managed by the three levels of government. Others depend on infrastructure that is to various degrees government provided, guaranteed or assisted. The mixed economy refuses to go away.


Event organisation as an activity

This article looks at a small and ill-defined area of government–private sector interaction: the organisation of public events. In particular, the paper considers events that receive subventions from the public purse and that draw patrons from outside as well as within the subsidising jurisdiction. Public events in this sense include sporting, cultural and business-oriented events, such as trade fairs. The event may be as brief as a few hours or last for a season and may take place on a single site or a range of sites. Events can be organised by government agencies, non-profit organisations or commercial businesses. Event organisation includes the production and marketing of the event itself and the coordination of a range of suppliers, including (in various proportions) venues, entertainment, security, accommodation and transport.

The production of events is not recognised as an industry in standard industrial classifications. If anything, it would be a subsector of tourism, which again is not recognised as an industry in the standard classifications, although the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has a definition of the sector and from time to time releases statistics about it. Persons employed putting on events may be classified as working in sport, the arts, business services, religion or,if all else fails, in entertainment not elsewhere classified.

An important distinction is that between events themselves and associated economic activity. Although accommodation, meals and transport may be arranged as part of an event, they are provided by recognisable related industries. There is also a distinction between events and event venues, sometimes expressed as arm’s length transactions (the event organiser hires the venue). However, events are frequently organised by venue operators while, in the opposite direction, organisations that are primarily event promoters may branch out into venue ownership. In the closely-related field of tourist attractions, venue and events may coalesce.


The predilection for user charges

Economic theory distinguishes between excludable and non-excludable events. The latter, exemplified by street parades and fireworks displays, are conducted in public spaces where it is impractical to charge for entry and where, indeed, some of the attendees may be unwilling witnesses rather than beneficiaries. Because it is not possible to charge attendees directly, the source of finance preferred in neoclassical economics, user charges, is not available and non-excludable events must, therefore, be financed from sources such as public culture and recreation budgets, business advertising budgets or the demonstration budgets of groups wishing to apply political pressure. Neoclassical economics allows that where governments finance a non-excludable event, they cannot be faulted for failure to impose user charges, although (as with all government expenditure) their priorities may be criticised.

Excludable events are those where it is practical to charge entry fees. The neoclassical principle is that both the event and the venue should be financed from user charges or, if available, by the use of voluntary labour. However, it is common practice for governments to contribute to the staging of excludable public events, sometimes by way of direct subventions, sometimes through more limited assistance (e.g. for marketing) and quite frequently by contributing to the infrastructure cost of venues. These contributions are contrary to neoclassical principle, but have been defended in two major ways.

A government may decide that an excludable event has such merit as a community occasionthat entry should be free, an approach often taken for events with educational, cultural or commemorative content. Short of this, it may decide that the event should be available at subsidised prices, either through a subsidy paid to the event provider or indirectly through venue subsidisation. A great many arts events fall in this category.

It may be argued that the event generates spin-offs for businesses that justify the subvention. In the extreme case, it may even be argued that the addition to business activity generates increased tax revenue such that the subsidising government actually gets its money back.

The first of these arguments is not particularly amenable to economic analysis because the benefits can only be measured indirectly. This is the domain of cost–benefit analysis, which specialises in the imputation of market-derived values to costs and benefits that are not directly valued by market transactions. Sometimes reasonably satisfactory surrogates are available, but sometimes they are not: for example, it has proved very difficult to put a market value on biodiversity. Where such values are important, difficult decisions have to be made as to how to evaluate mixed bags of market, near-market and distant-from-market values. In some studies, particularly those with environmental costs and benefits, NIEIR has included non-market costs and benefits, but other studies have concentrated on the second, purely economic effects of events. This may be termed economic impact analysis, as distinct from cost– benefit analysis, and concentrates on effects on employment and incomes.

Approaches to economic impact assessment

The economic impact of subventions to events can be estimated by economic modelling. Assessment using neoclassical models produces predictable results: events are assumed to absorb resources that would otherwise be employed in other types of production and, therefore, have negligible overall effects. Given the underlying assumption that the economy is subdivided, without remainder, into a series of perfectly-competitive price-equilibriated markets and is therefore fully employed, this result is inevitable. There is no need to have recourse to models if these assumptions are made, except to identify which areas of production contract in order to expand the production of events.

The position is rather different if the industries impacted by the event have spare capacity. This requires that markets be imperfectly competitive, including that production can be marginally increased without affecting price. A typical case would be a chef who does not increase prices just because his or her restaurant achieves 95 per cent occupancy for a night or two. Whether or not production can be increased without affecting prices is a practical matter, and cannot be solved by assumption. NIEIR has frequently been contracted to estimate the economic impact of events where it can be argued that the concerned industries have spare capacity and production is, for a range of capacity utilisation, demand-determined. The institute has evaluated both events where the existence of spin-off benefits is the primary defence of a subsidy and events whose primary justification is cultural or educational but where spin-off benefits are welcome and help to justify the subvention. Impacts may be calculated in advance (as part of advice as to whether the event should be supported) or in arrears (as part of an audit process and also for reference in deciding future applications). Either way, the calculation requires a comparison of two scenarios: a scenario in which the event is held (in the ex-post case what actually happened) and a scenario in which the event is not held. The impact of the event is estimated by differencing the scenarios.

The construction of formal scenarios requires both geographic and time definitions. These are adopted primarily according to client requirements but might also reflect data availability. The geographic area impacted may be limited to the immediate surrounds of the venue(s) but may be expanded to include their Local Government Area (LGA), the state or the whole country, while time definitions may include the run-up to the event, the event itself and its lasting effects. NIEIR can match these definitions to its datasets and models and, hence, provide assessments at the LGA, state and national levels (the sub-LGA level generally requires additional data collection) and for time periods defined by quarters (with the peak day or week a possibility subject to additional data collection).

Because the argument for subsidisation from spin-offs is expressed in economic terms, it is appropriate to measure the impact of the event by the addition to gross income obtained by differencing a scenario that includes the event and one which does not. (Gross income, in this context, means cash income before deduction of depreciation.) Some clients are also very interested in benefits in terms of employment generation and governments are sometimes interested in estimates of the amount of additional tax revenue generated by the event. The benefits thus calculated can be related to the size of the subvention and different subventions can then be compared for effectiveness and (with a little further modelling) can also be compared with the benefits of equivalent tax cuts.

Measuring benefits in terms of changes to income and employment does not provide a full cost–benefit analysis. Two elements are missing:

  • assessment of additional external benefits, such as the educational value of the event or environmental benefits; and
  • assessment of additional external costs, such as environmental costs and alternative leisure foregone to participate in, or work for, the event.

The simplest approach to these costs and benefits is to limit assessment to market values. This approach is regularly accused of ignoring much that is relevant. However, attempts to be all-inclusive can end up giving excessive weight to shadowy and elusive effects. NIEIR prefers to err on the market-value side but includes major external costs and benefits where it assesses them as relevant and assessable.

In evaluating events, it is not common to spend much effort on environmental effects. This is because few events have the primary purpose of generating environmental benefits and for most of them environmental costs are incidental. There is a substantial literature on environmental costs and benefits and defensible conventional values are available for many environmental costs, such as noise and carbon emissions. If these are considered significant they can be included in the assessment.

When events have educational value, it is theoretically desirable to include a value for this benefit. Various methodologies have been suggested, such as estimates of the cost of providing the same education by alternate means or estimates of the capital value of the addition to earning power resulting from the education. Educational and entertainment values are sometimes hard to distinguish, and attempts have been made to tie them down by surveys of willingness to pay over and above the actual admission charge and documentation of how much people have spent travelling to the event. These types of evaluation can quickly become subjective. Similar arguments apply to health effects.

A category of cost sometimes put forward is the cost of leisure foregone by people who work as a result of the event, to which one might add alternative leisure foregone by those who attend the event. As with all allocations of time, the basic point is simple: if people didn’t do one thing, they would do something else. The problem is that evaluation is necessarily subjective. Take the case of those who forgo leisure to work. At one extreme, the foregone leisure may have been, for example, a family occasion that the worker would much rather have attended but forgoes in order to retain a reputation for reliability with his or her employer. At the other extreme, the foregone ‘leisure’ may have been moping around for want of anything better to do or money to do it with. In this latter case, hours worked are not a cost but rather bring the benefit of approved social participation. The cost of ‘reservation wages’ is further discussed below.

Event assessment methodology

A decision to concentrate on income generation as the measurable benefit of subventions to events has the great advantage of bringing assessment into the realm covered by the National Accounts and, hence, of economic models based on the National Accounts. Thus, additional income resolves into additions to wage and salary income and gross profits within the selected geographic area. Remembering that the income and expenditure sides of the National Accounts are, by definition, equal in aggregate, the increases in gross income are conveniently measured as net additions to expenditure. There are two dimensions to this: direct expenditures that would not have taken place in the absence of the event (with an offset for direct expenditures curtailed by the event) and indirect expenditures that arise as a multiplier result of the direct expenditures.

Direct expenditures for the geographic area that includes the event venue comprise, primarily, expenditures to the area by visitors who came to attend the event and also, pro rata, expenditures by people who visited partly because of the event and partly for other reasons. There may be other additions: for example, a trade fair will generally receive additional income from the local expenditures of out-of-region exhibitors and may generate income from additional sales of local products, while the accommodation and other expenditures of a visiting sporting team, its officials and visiting media may be offset against the share of the gate revenue that the team takes home.

Sources of information on the direct impact vary from event to event. Subject to judgements as to relevance, NIEIR has used the following sources.

Surveys of attendees are conducted face-to-face at the event. All attendees are asked their age and gender and, depending on the study, they may be asked about their marital status, number of dependent children, occupation, household income and ticket type. Where events run for multiple days or cover multiple venues, the questionnaires cover days and places of attendance. After asking normal place of residence, local attendees (those who live in the geographic area or region defined for impact assessment) are asked their expenditure at and associated with the event, whether they would have travelled elsewhere to attend a similar event had the event not been held locally and whether they ran down savings to attend. Visitors from outside the region are asked whether the event is a major or merely contributing reason for their visit, their expenditure associated with the event (including its broad composition) and the means of transport and type of accommodation employed. Data are also collected on satisfaction with the event and the likelihood of attendance at subsequent similar events, but these data are for market research purposes and do not affect the assessment of benefits.

Similar data may be collected from event participants themselves. At trade fairs these include exhibitors and buyers, at sporting events the competitors and visiting officials and at cultural events the performers. However, for sporting and cultural events, information from the organisers may be substituted for direct interviews with participants.

At trade fairs, locally-based exhibitors may be asked to estimate the value of additional sales generated at the event. It is admitted that such estimates are necessarily approximate, if only because sales concluded after the event can only be anticipated.

Information provided by the venue owner and the event organiser and their subcontractors generally includes the event budget (particularly cash flows into and out of the region) and total patronage (so that survey data may be expanded to total coverage).
Interviewers are supervised and endeavour to question a random selection of attendees. Participant data may, however, be collected by distribution and later collection of forms. Data are compared to the results for other events as a check on validity and also to dimension particular events in relation to others in the same region.

Although local visitors are asked various questions for market research purposes, their only contribution to the economic analysis is the amount they spend financed by reductions in savings or by forgoing travel outside the region. All other spending is, by their own admission, financed at the expense of other local expenditures and, hence, does not alter demand within the region.

Greater attention is paid to visitors from outside the region. The number of net additional visitors from outside the region (typically interstate and overseas) who would not have come apart from the event is estimated, as is the number of visitors who extended their visit because of the event. The resulting addition to visitor days is estimated along with the number of bed-days of additional accommodation, by accommodation type. (Overseas visitors tend to stay in hotels or backpacker hostels, but interstate visitors frequently stay with relatives or in a caravan.) Crucially, an estimate is made of additional expenditure in the region, divided into: event entry fees and other revenue to the event organiser or venue; meals, food and drinks; entertainment; accommodation; transport; additional sales by local businesses resulting from trade fair or similar exposure (if any); and other.
The estimate thus prepared may be termed the addition to the exports of the region promoting the event. The estimates will vary according to geographic definition: as the geographic boundary is broadened from local through state to national, a higher proportion of expenditure becomes local and exports diminish.

None of this has proved particularly controversial. It is the next step that brings out the difference between neoclassical and post-Keynesian approaches.
Neoclassical assumptions to minimise assessed impact
We must first dispose of the neoclassical trump card, known technically as the reservation wage. The underlying assumption is full employment, meaning that all people who want paid employment are at work for precisely their desired number of hours. In these circumstances, increases in employment are not possible without increases in wage rates. People who take on work as a result of the increase in wage rates are accordingly giving up leisure to the value of the previous wage rate (because by the full employment assumption they would have worked at the previous wage had they not valued their leisure more highly). Therefore, the benefits of any additional employment are negligible. However, it has been noted that the value of leisure foregone is highly subjective and can even be negative, and will argue below that the full employment assumption is questionable. Reservation wages are irrelevant when the focus is on income and employment, and even in a strict cost–benefit context their value is highly debatable.

We now turn to the main point at issue, which is the valuation of expenditures curtailed by the event: expenditures which would have been made in the absence of the event but are not made due to the event. As already noted, the neoclassical analysis depends on the assumption of full employment and means that curtailed expenditures are similar to event-generated expenditures. Two variants of the neoclassical story have been proposed, both of which depend on labour being fully employed.

One story runs as follows. An event transfers expenditure from the regions of visitor origin to the region holding the event. In all regions, labour is fully employed. Increased expenditure in the region holding the event causes wage rates there to rise, while reduced expenditure in the regions of visitor origin causes wage rates there to fall. These changes in wage rates precipitate a flow of labour from the regions of origin to the region of the event. The transfer of expenditure is matched by a transfer of labour. This prediction is easily tested in practice. For no event that NIEIR has examined has there been any evidence that the required changes to wage rates have taken place or that the event has been staffed (either directly or indirectly) by labour migrating from the visitors’ home states.

A more plausible version of the neoclassical story runs as follows. As in the first neoclassical story, visitor spending raises the demand for labour in the region that holds the event and workers can only be attracted to provide for the demand by offering increases in wages. However, in this story, the response to the increased wages comes not from different geographical regions, but from the effect of the increased wage rates in reducing profitability in all other local industries. These industries sack employees who promptly transfer to the industries serving the increased visitor demand. The net effect on employment and the total value of output depends on price responses, but it is normally claimed that they more or less balance out: the increase in production to meet the increase in visitor demand is countered by a decrease in local production. Thus, a subvention to an event, even when it increases income earned from outside the region, does not increase net income except perhaps marginally where the price responses fail to balance out.

In theory, similar reasoning could be applied to capital capacity. Neoclassical economics includes the concept of the ‘short run’, defined as a period in which capital capacity cannot be altered. Because events are ephemeral, this would appear to be the relevant assumption. If capital capacity is fully employed, no changes in real output can take place in the short run and the capital capacity required to service visitor expenditure can only be made available by shifting it from alternative production, the same result as for labour.

Realistic assumptions

The neoclassical analysis depends heavily on two assumptions:

  • labour supply is very nearly fixed, although labour can be found to service additional demand at the cost of transferring it from alternative production and/or from valued leisure; and
  • capital is fixed, although capital can be found to service additional demand at the cost of transferring it from alternative production (although this is the strict neoclassical position, some analysts assume that capital utilisation can vary and put the weight of their analysis on the labour supply assumption).

Whether or not capital capacity is assumed to be fixed, the operative assumption is that marginal costs are rising and translate into rising supply curves, not only in the industries serving visitor demand but generally. This assumption is made on purely theoretical grounds, without any investigation of labour market conditions applying in the area affected by the event at the time of the event. NIEIR does not contend that this assumption is always irrelevant: there can be times and places where additions to demand in one industry raise wage rates generally, and, more frequently, where they raise wage rates for particular skills; similarly, there can be times and places where additions to demand in one industry run slap into infrastructure or other capacity constraints. For example, mining booms raise wage rates generally in the remote mining regions and specifically for particular mining-related and construction skills, where they increase wage rates not only in the boom zones but across whole countries and, indeed, worldwide. Mining booms also crash against capital capacity constraints in the mining industry and for related transport, energy and water infrastructure. But is this universally true for events?

The obvious capacity constraint affecting events concerns venues. However, unlike mining booms, events are planned in advance with meticulous attention to venue availability. Only in the case of very large events, such as the Olympic Games, is venue availability a potentially limiting factor. Impact analysis for very large events is complicated by the need to evaluate the costs of the resulting planned construction program and to assess the benefits of the resulting assets after the event has taken place. Most events that NIEIR has been called upon to evaluate utilise existing venues. Where this is the case, the opportunity cost of the venue is reasonably represented by arm’s length venue hire charges. NIEIR includes these with the costs of staging the event.

Having dealt with venue and staging costs, the major question concerns the capacity of the local economy to service the addition to visitor expenditure, where visitors are defined as people coming from outside the region in which the venue is located. Judging by the composition of additions to demand revealed by the surveys conducted by NIEIR at events, these additions to demand chiefly concern accommodation, restaurants and other eateries, entertainment (not only the entertainment provided by the event itself) and transport. Except for the additions to transport demand, the additions are concentrated near the event venue.

The additions to expenditure on entertainment and private motor vehicle transport caused by a typical event (in size up to a Commonwealth Games or a papal visit) are minor in relation to total demand, even at the LGA level, and are likely to be within existing capacity: a few extra seats are sold and the average delay in the queue to pay the cashier at the petrol station increases by a minute or less.

Events can impose significant demand on local public transport. However, the transport authorities have the great advantage of fairly accurate estimates of likely demand and have shown themselves capable of marshalling their resources to meet the demand. Similarly, large events generate surges in air traffic, but the airlines have sophisticated demand management systems in place. If a surge in traffic is anticipated, their first step is to withdraw discount fares and the second is to schedule additional flights. If these flights require aircraft placement flights in the contrary direction the airlines may offer discounted fares to take people away from the event rather than to it. Additional flights are usually provided from reserve capacity in the existing fleet, including flying at unattractive times of day, and are manned from existing personnel resources. The increase in the demand for air transport that results from an event does not, therefore, withdraw labour from other industries. However, there may be an offset to the increase in demand from attendees at events from two sources:

Travellers who would have visited the event location in the absence of the event but who are put off by the increased fares (a group that also includes travellers who are put off by increased accommodation charges). Not all of these potential visitors are completely put off; some (helpfully) reschedule.

Residents of the event location who are persuaded to leave the area, either by discount airfares or simply to avoid being at home when the event is held. Once again, these departures may be opportunistic and merely rescheduled departures that would have taken place in any case.

For events significant enough to affect airfares, NIEIR estimates the offset to demand.

A stronger case can be made that events strain capacity in the hospitality industries: accommodation, restaurants and related services. Any event that is worth assessing will cause an increase in local demand for hospitality services sufficient to raise the demand for labour in these industries. The additional demand is met from two main sources:

  • the offer of additional hours of work, either to existing part-time employees or to persons otherwise not in employment, at standard rates of pay; and
  • the offer of additional hours of work at enhanced rates of pay.

Where additional employment is taken, at standard rates of pay, by people who would otherwise be in paid work there is no reason why rates of pay in other industries should be affected or that labour should be withdrawn from these industries. Whether or not labour can be recruited to an event on this basis is a matter of practical observation. The evidence that it can be includes the following:

The hospitality industries rely heavily on part-time workers. There is ABS evidence that, for most Australian locations and for most times since the end of full employment in the 1970s, many part-time workers desire additional hours at the going rate of pay.

The hospitality industries also rely quite heavily on low-skilled and semi-skilled workers. There is ABS evidence that, for most Australian locations and for most times since the end of full employment in the 1970s, many persons are available who would be happy to work at the going rate of pay were more jobs available at these levels of skill. Such workers include many more than those who are unemployed as officially defined. The surveys confirm the presence of significant numbers of people who do not meet the official definition of unemployment in terms of work search but who would, nevertheless, happily take on paid employment were it offered to them. We may also note that Australian labour-force participation rates are below those of many OECD countries, which would indicate the presence of potential employees to take jobs made available.

This said, some employers may prefer to meet the extra demand by raising wage rates. The obvious strategy is to employ existing staff on overtime, which raises costs in the hospitality industries but does not threaten to withdraw labour from other industries. If the increased costs are passed on in terms of increased prices there may, however, be a small offset to real demand in the form of reduced patronage by local residents who have to pay more to eat out.

Finally, demand may be met by the neoclassical mechanism of offering higher wage rates to attract workers who are already employed. In view of the excess supply of low and medium skill workers, increased wage rates are likely to be offered only to skilled personnel such as chefs. The point here is that hospitality skills are industry-specific; an increase in wage rates for skilled hospitality personnel cannot be guaranteed to generalise across all industry as required by the neoclassical hypothesis. However, as with overtime, there is a possibility of increased prices in hospitality reducing the real incomes of local residents and, hence, their real expenditures.

It can be concluded that an increased demand for labour in hospitality is unlikely to generalise to general increases in wages affecting all industries unless the region concerned is closer to full employment than has been the case in most Australian regions over the past three decades.

The position is similar with capital capacity. Event organisers generally organise hospitality at the same time as they organise the event and hospitality providers have shown themselves capable of a flexible response, much like the public transport providers and airlines. Hospitality providers customarily work with a level of excess capacity and also use flexible pricing. This means that a lack of discount accommodation reduces casual visitation during the event, although some of this is rescheduled. NIEIR makes an allowance for visitors who would have visited but for the event, deducting their estimated expenditures from those of the visitors who come because of the event.

For significant events occurring in the capital cities, it is possible to check whether an event was associated with price increases in the hospitality sector. The relevant indicator is the relationship between the price index for hospitality and the consumer price index in general. For several reasons it is expected that hospitality prices will trend upwards more rapidly than consumer prices: productivity increases in services are generally less than in manufactured goods; there is no competition from low-priced merchandise imports; and the hedonic price adjustment for information technology slows the rate of increase of the general index. Given these expectations, price increases for hospitality have been low and have not corresponded with surges in the demand for hospitality: indeed, the reverse has been the case, and periods of high increase in demand have tended to be associated with low increases in prices, as would occur if hospitality were an industry subject to increasing returns to scale.

It is argued by NIEIR that the supply of labour and capital to the hospitality industry in response to events has been cordoned off from the supply to other industries in most Australian locations at most times during the past three decades. This conclusion applies even in places like seasonal tourist resorts because the resorts draw on labour from the nearby cities or from sources such as young overseas tourists with 2-year work permits. If this is the case, additions to demand translate directly into increases in income. The offsets that neoclassical analysis assumes are, indeed, possible, but under typical conditions do not apply.


Multiplier effects

The stage is then set for multiplier effects. In traditional Keynesian fashion, an increase in demand generates an increase in incomes, the spending of which generates a further round of increased demand. The process continues subject to ‘leakages’, in the form of savings and capacity constraints, although we have checked the hospitality industry and noted that these are unlikely, and in conditions of generally less than full employment they are not particularly likely in other industries. However, it is admitted that skill supply and capital capacity constraints apply in some places at certain times, and when they do they limit multiplier effects as surely as leakage into imports.

NIEIR models these multiplier effects using:

  • input–output tables, concentrating first on income generation in industries that supply the hospitality industry and then in second and subsequent rounds being more general;
  • data on industry employee characteristics, to determine the kinds of household into which the additional incomes will flow, again concentrating on the hospitality industry in the first round;
  • data on the characteristics of households receiving capital incomes;
  • household expenditure patterns, to determine the directions of spending of households with increased incomes; and
  • data on commuting patterns and trade matrices, to determine the locations of spending.

The results of this analysis are directly contrary to the neoclassical analysis. Instead of the initial increase in export demand being whittled away by reductions in production in other industries, it is expanded by increases in demand for the products of those industries. The result is that public subventions to events that attract visitor expenditure from outside a region generally benefit the region, the exception being where they hit capacity constraints. The returns to public expenditure can be attractively high, although there is no guarantee: NIEIR has come across events that have failed to attract non-local visitors and where the economic impact has been negative. Subventions to such events may still be justified on cultural or other grounds, but not on grounds that the events generate income or employment.
Should generally positive returns guarantee priority in public budgets?

The finding that, under present circumstances of less than full employment, events are often effective means of translating public funds into employment increases is good news for event organisers but less to the taste of those in Treasuries whose unenviable but worthy task is to balance the public budget and to ensure that public spending yields value for money. Rather than rely on spurious neoclassical arguments that event subsidies cannot, by assumption, yield positive economic impacts, Treasuries would do better to rely on the following arguments.

First, the assessment that a subvention to an event yields increases in income and employment does not give the event an absolute claim on government funds. Technically speaking, the rate of return on each event should be compared with the rates of return on the following: subventions to other events; other government expenditures; tax cuts; and increasing government saving. These comparisons depend on the macroeconomic circumstances of the day and also rely on similar assessments being available for alternative government expenditures. Needless to say, this is a rather tall order, but the principle remains that governments have the unenviable task of deciding the relative urgency of different expenditures. Although rates of return are helpful in determining priorities, they do not do away with the necessity to choose.

A second argument sees event promotion as a zero-sum competitive game between the Australian states. According to this view, event promotion is as pernicious as local preference in awarding manufacturing contracts and it simply encourages inefficiency. This argument is incomplete in that it fails to recognise that events increase national exports as well as interstate exports; competition by states to stage events is not a zero-sum game. Competition between places goes beyond competition for the tourist dollar; it is, in part, competition for identity and recognition. Success in such competition brings intangible benefits to residents, which have not so far been mentioned in the analysis. Turning to a visitor point of view, competition between cities and towns increases the range of visitor experiences available: efficiency arguments that assume that events are homogenous miss the point of this type of competition. Also note that the Australian states not only compete for interstate tourism, but combine to promote international tourism. There may be a point where competitive tourism promotion by the Australian incurs diminishing returns but it is unlikely that this point lies at zero expenditure.

Third, events are not the only ‘industry’ to benefit from public support. For example, subventions for events and capital investment in venues are small compared to government expenditures on road construction and maintenance. Both provide direct consumption benefits to citizens and both generate benefits to private businesses. This is the exact point of calculating the income generation benefits from different forms of public expenditure. Instead of assuming benefits away, as they do when they adopt the neoclassical assumptions, Treasuries should compare the benefits of alternative spending patterns and adjust their spending accordingly.

Fourth, the benefits from event subventions need to be placed in the context of general macroeconomic policy, which in Australia for several decades has favoured the generation of demand by the encouragement of bank lending, and, more specifically, the encouragement of mortgage lending to households. The Commonwealth was so anxious to pursue this policy that it was unwilling to increase real taxes and limited government borrowing, thus limiting the flow of funds available for event subventions and for all other forms of government spending. The tragedy pointed out in recent State of the Regions reports was that the policy of high mortgage lending has failed to generate either full employment or affordable housing, the ultimate culprit being the constrained supply of accessible urban land, which is partly due to the constraints to government investment required to create an enhanced supply.

This brings us back to the question of constraints more generally. While it is argued here that there are no constraints that prevent the operation of income multipliers arising from visitor expenditure, there may be constraints at a more general macroeconomic level.

As described in the National Economic Review as far back as June 1987, Australia suffers from a number of serious macroeconomic constraints:

  • a public sector constraint – broadly, the unwillingness to pay sufficient taxes to finance desirable public expenditure, particularly public investment;
  • various capital capacity constraints, including shortages of highly specialised skills and an inability to make the public investments required to alleviate these shortages, and various infrastructure inadequacies arising again from low public investment; and
  • a balance of payments constraint, arising from reliance on an exchange rate that has failed to settle at rates justified by the economic fundamentals coupled with industry policies that pay insufficient attention to investment in export industries – not merely the mining industry, but industries that are capable of generating jobs that match the skills available.

In view of these constraints, the high benefit–cost ratios commonly observed for subventions to events should be assessed in the context of a long-term strategy for Australian economic development. Event assessments are but a tiny part of the analysis required to develop and implement such a strategy.


Neoclassical economics purports to show that economic policy should concentrate on leaving decisions to markets. As applied to the analysis of events, the neoclassical policy recommendation is for reliance on user charges except where there are non-economic reasons for free or subsidised provision.

NIEIR’s analysis of event provision shows that this recommendation relies on assumptions that have not applied in most parts of Australia over the past 30 years. Instead, subventions to events that increase tourist visitation can increase incomes and employment. Thus, the case for subventions becomes one of priority against other expenditures, preferably exercised in the context of a coherent strategy for the future.