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.

Editor: Kylie Moreland

©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 relevant Institute.ISSN 0813-9474

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

Abstract
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.

Introduction
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).

Capture

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.

Defence
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.

Tourism
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.

Conclusion
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.

References

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

Abstract

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.

Capture7

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.

Capture1

Capture2

Capture3 Capture4

 

Governing the Market: Threats to Australia’s Stability and Security

National Economic Review

National Institute of Economic and Industry Research

No. 64   July 2010

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 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 relevant Institute.

 

ISSN 0813-9474

Governing the market: Threats to Australia’s stability and security

Peter Brain, Executive Director, NIEIR

 

Abstract

This paper was presented as a lecture in the Senate Occasional Series at Parliament House, Canberra on 8 August and represents an update of ‘The Australian Federation 2001: Political structures and economic policy’, a 2001 Alfred Deakin Lecture. The basic message here is that unless Australia adopts a middle course between the highly successful corporatist state model of development and the extreme neoliberal model that Australia has selected as its development framework, Australia’s internal stability and national security could well be severely degraded over the next two decades. In short, Australia will have to relearn and reapply some strategies and instruments to govern the market.

 

This will involve some restoration of the practices and institutions that were swept away in the name of microeconomic reform over the past two decades. Australia will never be able to match the efficiency of the informal governance structures of corporatist states. For Australia, leadership will have to be provided by its governance institutions in general and parliament in particular.

Introduction

In my 2001 ‘Alfred Deakin Lecture’ I set out to:

(i)            explain why Australia in the 1980s had adopted the extreme neoliberal (or the economic rationalists) model as its development framework; and

(ii)           discuss some likely consequences of that choice.

Put simply, under the neoliberal model the state plays a largely passive role, with many of the key decisions determining the direction and quality of Australia’s economic development and its social consequences being left to the market. The explanation for why Australia adopted the model was, in part, attributed to the relatively weak state of Australia’s parliamentary institutions as a representative democracy and strong executive. This is not to say that the Australian system does not produce good outcomes for many decisions. The problem is that for some key strategic decisions the tendency is to select simple, easy to market solutions for economic and social problems that reflect the capacity, interests and vision of the political leadership group. More complex solutions that require the input of the broader political community and the design of new governance structures that may lie beyond the control of strongly established, including bureaucratic interests, tend to be eliminated at an early stage.

The likely consequences for the future noted in the 2001 lecture include:

(i)            increasing wealth/income inequalities;

(ii)           increasing foreign ownership and a narrow based economy;

(iii)          no solution to Australia’s high current account deficit and foreign debt;

(iv)         financial instability as a result of the capacity of the financial sector to expand debt to whatever level was in its interest; and

(v)          a vulnerability to negative economic shocks and a poor capacity to respond, which is now an important issue in the context of a likely carbon price shock.

The focus of this paper is to elaborate on the likely consequences of the adoption of the neoliberal model for Australia.

The Corporatist state model

The neoliberal approach focuses on market conduct and structures on the assumption that if market conduct and structure are appropriate then optimal outcomes will be achieved. Whatever outcomes are achieved through market forces will in the main, by definition, be optimal.

Corporatist states tend to approach development from the reverse direction. Objectives are specified in terms of social, political, security, export and industry output/cost targets. The means are then designed to mobilise whatever is necessary to achieve the defined objectives in the minimum time subject to global resource constraints and global as well as local market forces. The strategies of corporatist states to achieve objectives involve reducing the risks to the institutions (governance and commercial) charged with the responsibility of ensuring the objectives are achieved by:

(i)            building large scale enterprises to dominate markets and supply chains, reaping maximum economies of scale and scope, and reducing market risk to a minimum;

(iii)          ensuring that all necessary resources in terms of finance, skills and technology are available for the task;

(iv)         ensuring that any other domestic or foreign organisation cannot impede the performance of the chosen organisation(s) for the task; and

(v)          relying on regulation rather than the price mechanism.

An early Corporatist state, Germany grew by 12 per cent per annum between 1933 and 1937, with the unemployment rate cut from a third back to full employment, while most developed economies had an inferior performance though not necessarily by much. What is important is not whether a more neoliberal approach would have been more effective, but the approach was different and it seemed to work. It changed history.

The North Asian countries took note of the German strategies and applied them post war with astonishing results. One nation’s experience, South Korea’s, is miraculous. In 1961, South Korea had an annual income of US$82 per person or less than half that of

 

Ghana at the time. Today, it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It took the UK two centuries and the United States one and a half centuries to achieve a similar result (Chang, 2008). More importantly Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore continue to maintain per capita GDP growth rates well beyond the level achieved by other countries with a similar high level of per capita income.

In this context there are three categories of corporatist states:

(i)            The social market model of Western Europe with democratic institutions where policy institutions rely on codified statute and regulations with some reliance on non-parliamentary governance bodies representing stakeholder interests.

(ii)           The corporatist state model of Singapore, Korea, Japan and Taiwan which may or may not have effective democratic institutions but where the governance is non-transparent relying on networks between governments, bureaucracy and businesses with decisions made in the interests of the collective irrespective of codified statutes and regulations. The penalties for non-compliance are exclusion from social networks and business supply chains with severe consequences for social standing and material advancement.

(iii)        The extreme authoritarian models of Germany/Italy in the 1930s and Russia and China today, where along with social and commercial exclusion, violence (i.e. loss of property, liberty and in the extreme cases life) is a penalty for non-compliance. The extreme authoritarian model has an impenetrable informal governance structure.

 

The Germans showed in the 1930s that the arrest of an individual for economic treason when it was clearly understood that the real crime was the import of product instead of using the favoured domestic supplier was a very effective form of industry policy, which did away with the need for costly tariffs, subsidies or other financial inducements. In this context, it is interesting to note that the criteria applied in determining what foreign enterprises can and cannot currently do in China is expressed in terms of largely undefined parameters based on the concept of national economic security. Many countries aspire to the status of corporatist states. Few, however, have the capacity to reach the desired status. On this criteria the classification of Russia as a corporatist state is problematic.

China: Where to?

Of high importance to Australia’s national interest is how China will evolve. Neoliberals tend to assume that it will evolve into a market-based economy.

China is not going to be transformed into a neoliberal market economy. Instead, it may well transform itself into perhaps the most efficient corporatist state model of all time with, over the next two to three decades:

(i)            A large number of its state-owned (or indirectly controlled) enterprises (70 per cent of business assets are still under direct government control) becoming the largest companies in the world, dominating the control of capacity in many industries.

(ii)           A Communist Party that will grow rapidly and in influence on the basis of generating individual material advancement that will also provide an informal governance framework that will be simply impenetrable. No matter what the codified statutes, China will have a machinery of governance capable of doing the opposite on non-transparent command. In this context, who owns the enterprises will be irrelevant.

The Chinese see large-scale foreign investment in China mainly as a short-term strategy to:

(i)            introduce new technologies, management expertise and new skills generation; and

(ii)           construct distribution systems to the world economy,  in the shortest possible time.

It is likely as their own enterprises are built up to reach world competitiveness, the assets of foreign enterprises that directly compete with and are of no strategic value if left independent to a mandated Chinese enterprise will be taken over by a combination of intimidation (as per the Russian approach to BP and Shell assets in oil and gas sites), financial incentives and frustration, of which the recent creation of Communist Party control of Trade Union cells in foreign enterprises will be a useful tool. At worst foreign enterprises exiting China may find that they will lose a significant proportion of non-Chinese assets and intellectual property and, in the extreme, the entire enterprise.

The only major uncertainty about China is the extent to which extreme nationalism will become a hallmark of its external relations similar to what occurred in Germany in late 1930s. The recent signs in this regard are not encouraging. There are signs that strong nationalism is taking root among the young with the state having the capacity, like Germany, to manufacture outpourings of mass nationalism triggered by suitable incidents. The optimists assume that massive environmental problems and widening inequalities will trigger a move, at worst, towards the social market model. The pessimists contend that threats to the legitimacy of the elite in the context of severe resource and environmental constraints will result in the sustained administration of the drug of extreme nationalism and the rectification of past injustices at the hands of the West. To quote Robert Kagan (2008) in his recent assessment of China:

If East Asia today resembles late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century Europe, … a comparatively minor incident could infuriate the Chinese and lead them to choose war, despite their reluctance. It would be comforting to imagine that this will all dissipate as China grows richer and more confident, but history suggests that as China grows more confident it will grow less, not more, tolerant of the obstacles in its path. The Chinese themselves have few illusions on this score. They believe this great strategic rivalry will only ‘increase with the ascension of Chinese power.

All that has to be done is to assume, as is the case here, that China behaves no worse that the United States as a global power or no worse than the Western European powers behaved towards China in the 19th century to arrive at the conclusion that a difficult period for Australia lies ahead. This is returned too below.

The governance riddle

The riddle is that the leadership of corporatist states is even more politically exclusive and dominated by existing bureaucratic and commercial interests than is the case in Australia. Yet these states, because of a combination of history, culture, ethnic homogeneity, strength of nationalism, genes, a common view of economic competition as warfare by other means, requiring the nation to be on a permanent war footing, or whatever, are capable of delivering high performance sustainable outcomes on a long-term basis. My only answer to this riddle for Australia, based on observed Western European outcomes, is that the appropriate response to the corporatist states is not to emulate them in political structures and conduct, but to achieve similar outcomes by strengthening the institutions of representative democracy. That is, governance and the institutions of governance are important. This is in contrast to the neoliberal view that governance is relatively unimportant.

What  is  the  focus  here  is  in  regard  to  some  of Australia’s current and future economic problems, how would a corporatist state solution differ from the actual or likely neoliberal solution.

Monetary policy

The 2001 lecture I pointed to the Australian neoliberal ‘privatised’ monetary policy regime where no intermediate target for credit growth was set as is the case for the monetary policy of the European Union. Provided CPI inflation is within the desired bounds then debt accumulation could be at whatever level the market was willing to absorb. For the European Central Bank (ECB) inflation in the long run is a monetary phenomena and any credit growth on a sustained basis in excess of desired nominal GDP growth will result in undesirable inflation. In Australia credit growth in excess of desired nominal GDP growth is taken as a sign of a healthy economy. For the ECB monetary growth should be little more than desired nominal GDP growth.

 

As Table 1 indicates, the ECB has achieved its objective since 1996, while in Australia the growth in M3 relative to nominal GDP has been 28 per cent. This does not seem much but, as will be outlined below, the consequences for long-run economic and social stability will be very large.

Over the years I have criticised the Australian approach to money policy as irresponsible. That is, I have agreed with the ECB view provided inflation is defined as including established asset prices (shares, dwellings) as well as newly produced goods and services.

Therefore, sustained credit growth in excess of desired nominal GDP growth will:

 

(i)            increases the vulnerability of the economy to negative shocks by encouraging borrowing for

(ii)           create an increasing proportion of households in ‘serf’ status by forcing households to pay high debt service/rent payments as a proportion of income over an extensive period of their life cycle;

(iii)          lead to house prices (and rents) putting home ownership beyond the reach of an increasing proportion of the population and

(iv)         easy short-term growth diverting energy and attention from the constant resource mobilisation effort required for long-run sustainable growth.

Capture

The excess monetary growth for Australia drove the build-up in asset values (Figure 1) which encouraged households to borrow and spend (Figure 2). Figure 2 shows the precipice the Australian economy is now sitting on. Non-dwelling investment borrowings by households over the last half decade have increased from 5 per cent of income to currently around 15 per cent. If only a third of this is used to support consumption, then a repeat of the 1991 experience of household borrowings for non-dwelling investment turning negative would cause the household savings ratio increasing by 5–7 percentage points, plunging the economy into the severest recession since the depression. In the context of Figure 2, the current (August 2008) dilemma facing the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) is self evident. Although inflation is 1.5 per cent per annum above the 3 per cent upper bound of acceptable outcomes, the RBA can either maintain tight monetary control and risk a severe recession, or abandon tight monetary policy and risk the return of longer-term unsatisfactory inflation, thereby simply postponing the day of reckoning to greater pain down the track.

Capture2

Capture1

The RBA has only itself to blame for this as it is simply the result of a decade of irresponsible monetary policy. It knew of the ECB approach, but showed no intellectual leadership and simply went along with the short-term political objective of maintaining the financing of the new aspirational society. Indeed, a good case can be made that Australia’s low inflation rate over the decade to 2006 was in spite of, not because of, the RBA. Its only effective task over this period was to ensure that financial structural disequilibrium did not occur. It failed. Ultimately, Parliament will be held responsible for delegating without appropriate guidelines a core governance responsibility to unelected officials.

 

 

Towards debt serfdom

What if Australia escapes the current policy difficulty and interest rates start to come down within a year or so? The current undersupply of housing (a shortage of around 150,000 units by 2010) is increasing rents and when interest rates come down will trigger a rapid rise in dwelling prices as many try to escape rental status. In other words, the 2003–2007 cycle will be repeated with a further increase in the proportion of households that could be classified as ‘serfs’ risking longer-run social stability.

The origins of serfdom in Russia were based on the need to keep labour fixed in place because of the excess supply of land relative to labour, with high marginal physical product of labour resulting from the large territorial gains from conquest with small populations. Market forces would have driven wages to very high levels. Various tactics were tried to constrain labour mobility, such as finding replacement labour before a peasant could move. One tactic was for the landlord (the farmer of the day) to willingly lend to peasants all that was needed and more (e.g. implements, livestock and fencing): another unfortunate linking of readily available finance with an emerging aspirational society. Droughts, wars and plagues would force more lending until peasants were hopelessly in debt. This debt serfdom facilitated legislated serfdom, with the peasant tied to the land with the requirement of up to 3 days a week work for the landlord. As other family members could work on the serf’s allocated land or in the cash economy, modern serfdom ‘status’ will be taken here to arise when households pay over 35 per cent of income in debt service and rent.

The recent Australian history of the more than doubling of the household debt to income ratio since the mid-1990s is well known. However, there is little recognition of what this might mean at the micro level. Both Tables 2 and 3 clearly spell this out. It means less homes in fully-owned status and more households paying more than 35 per cent of income in rent and debt service costs. In terms of mortgage households, the 2008 estimate of the share of households paying more than 35 per cent of income in debt service costs is 23 per cent due to interest rate rises since June 2006. It should be kept in mind that from the 2006 Census, those households paying more than 35 per cent of income in debt service costs were paying an average debt service cost of just under 50 per cent of income. That is, the living standard of a household with no debt would, on average, be twice that of the average household of serf status, despite both households having the same income.

By 2018, on current conservative trends (an increase in the household debt to income of 30 per cent from current levels and interest rates declining from current levels), it is estimated that at least 22 per cent of households will be paying more than 35 per cent of income in debt service and rent costs, or a doubling since 1996 levels. This excludes the high debt of fully-owned households. It might be claimed that the use of the concept of ‘serf’ status in the modern context is over the top as households can eventually escape debt status and Russian serfdom was intergenerational. I would counter argue that, in fact, the intergenerational aspect of serfdom is de facto also emerging in modern times.

Capture3

Capture4

The movement towards neoliberal solutions in education and health means that access to quality services is determined by household circumstances. The greater the number of households in serf status, the more likely the serf status will be passed on to their children as a result of underinvestment in social capital complemented by increasing resort to reverse mortgages, allowing a lifetime of high debt service costs with little or no inheritance for children. This is consistent with findings from the United States vis-à-vis Sweden. For the United States, the correlation coefficient between status of parents and children is approximately 0.5, while for high taxing equal opportunity education/health service across Sweden, it is 0.2 (Bjorklund and M. Jantti, 1997). The irony is that the United States is a society that is approaching as rigid an intergenerational class structure as what prevailed in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries which, in part, forced the migration to the United States.

The likelihood is that if something radical is not done, there will be a high degree of intergenerational correlation in serf status. This will leave Australia with an unenviable choice around 2030 of either a severe one-off tax on wealth to ‘emancipate’ the serfs, or suppression of the serf class to maintain social stability. In any case, a society in 2018, characterised by the results given in Table 3, will be a very grumpy place. Economists have discovered that after national per capita income is greater than US$20,000, happiness is a function of relative incomes not absolute incomes. The greater the serf class, the greater the inequality of discretionary income and the greater the unhappiness.

Housing affordability

One of the core solutions to arrest the march towards a serf society is to significantly increase housing affordability for first home buyers. In this regard, the case of Germany is important because German house prices in nominal terms are only a little more than what was the case a decade earlier and have fallen in real terms. In other parts of Europe, such as Italy, house prices have doubled, so that although ECB tight monetary policy has helped, it is a necessary not a sufficient condition for maintaining high levels of housing affordability. For Australia, over the same period the increase in house prices has been a little under 180 per cent. You would think that current German housing market policies would be at the top of the agenda for all Australian governments.

Corporatist state-type housing solutions have been followed in Austria and Germany for decades. These are called social partnerships. These policies are aimed at coordinating and accommodating conflicting interests between landlords, tenants, financial institutions and government. One core feature is risk shifting from the private sector to the state.

In terms of the rental market, the features of the German housing market are:

(i)            long-term contracts of 3–10 years for tenants;

(ii)           defined rules for rent increases (e.g. consumer price indexing);

(iii)          housing benefit support based on monthly income for both renters and owner-occupiers;

(iv)         strong public sector housing construction with municipal housing construction providing approximately 10–15 per cent of housing stock.

In terms of dwelling construction and the supply of housing, direct subsidisation of housing construction at the state level takes into account the regional housing market situation. Construction support is allocated to housing companies, housing associations and individual builders on application, via, for example, preferential interest loans, grants, guarantees/securities and provision of land.

Direct financial support comes from Federal Government/state financial institutions. The focus of loans is on:

(i)            housing stock renovation;

(ii)           CO2 reduction retrofitting;

(iii)          rental new housing construction; and

(iv)         low interest loans for the construction or purchase of owner-occupier housing.

The CO2 Building Renovation Program of 25 billion Euro was introduced in 2008 for the modernising of heating systems and the energy efficiency optimisation of building shells for both renters and owner-occupiers. In addition, regulation makes it difficult to borrow more than 60 per cent of house value, with German lenders reluctant to allow mortgage top ups if a home increases in value. The overarching German objective is to ensure that the supply of houses runs well ahead of demand.

In an unequal society, increasing housing affordability and equal opportunity for housing affordability can only come from one strategy; namely, through rationing of opportunities by rationing of finance and a very targeted list of incentives. This is how the market was governed to allow Australia to solve its last major housing crisis after World War II. Each state had different strategies. Victoria rationed credit via the State Savings Bank, while New South Wales (which lost its Saving Bank in the Depression) focussed on public sector housing construction. There were many other niche instruments that have been swept away over the past 20 years under the mantra that the market will solve everything. However, the Federal Government has introduced new supply-side measures. What is clear about housing policies is that they have to be comprehensive to stop ‘leakage’ into house prices if they are to achieve the delivery of affordable housing to those who need it.

Telecommunications

If the corporatist states are as good as I am inferring in economic development, then it would be expected that they would be well ahead in the provision of quality telecommunications infrastructure. This is the case. By mid-2008, the average download speed was 61 Mbps in Japan, 45 Mbps in South Korea, 18 Mbps in Sweden, 17 Mbps in France and 1.9 Mbps in the United States.

Eighty per cent of households in Japan can connect to a fibre network at a speed of 100 mlps, 30 times the average speed in the United States. Australia is 30–50 per cent below United States levels. Australia has announced a supply-side initiative to improve the situation, but the past delay in trying to incorporate market forces into the process will mean that like electricity to Timbucktoo, Australia will get there but only when quality telecommunications is a competitive necessity and no longer a competitive advantage. The image of Australia being a technological laggard is not a good one in terms of attracting investment. The same approach in many other economic aspects has and will cost Australia dearly.

Greenhouse gas abatement policies

There is no better example of this than the approach to greenhouse gas abatement policies (GGAP). The design of GGAP regimes currently being undertaken in Australia is proceeding along strict neoliberal lines. The central touchstone is that the market is the most efficient platform for engineering the appropriate changes. All the government has to do is to set an emissions cap and the resulting price changes will miraculously allow the emissions objective to be achieved. Quoting from the ‘Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Green Paper’ (2008, p. 12):

There are two distinct elements of a cap and trade scheme – the cap itself and the ability to trade. The cap achieves the environmental outcome of reducing greenhouse gas pollution. The act of capping emissions creates a carbon price. The ability to trade ensures that emissions are reduced at the lowest possible cost.

Let’s consider by illustration a segment of the adjustment effort, mainly the electricity sector. Assume that a target is set to reduce total emissions by 20 per cent below 2005 levels, which would represent a (EU 2020 target) 223 million tonne reduction from a 2020 business-as-usual level in 2020. Of the 223 million tonnes, a large part of the reduction would need to come from the electricity sector. Around 91 million tonnes would need to come from replacing approximately 11,000 MW from coal fired plants. To do this, the price of carbon would need to (on NIEIR and ACIL-Tasman estimates) quickly ramp up to around $55/tonne by 2020, based on the long-run marginal cost of alternative supply in order to achieve the long-run marginal costs of a combined cycle gas turbine plant in combination with the mandated Federal renewables target.

A corporatist state would immediately conclude that the Australian market of independent generators independently bidding for supply would not be successful, even if the $55 CO2 price were achieved. The market will not react because to achieve the target, approximately $50 billion would have to be spent on generators, gas development, pipeline and transmission investment. In an unfettered market environment, the risks would simply be too great.

The risks would include:

(i)            Existing supplier risk. Yes, the asset value of existing brown and black coal plant would be reduced by over 90 per cent. However, bankruptcy would merely mean that the new owners would be willing to supply some of the market at short-run marginal cost, which might require an additional $20–25 a tonne in CO2 price (i.e. $80/tonne) to reduce the risk. If they continued their pre-emissions trading scheme output, the cap would not be attained.

(ii)           Technology risk. Electricity generation technologies are rapidly changing. At any point in time, technological change may well reduce the real long-run marginal cost by 20–50 per cent in 10 year’s time. Few are going to build a $2 billion plant today that could become obsolete shortly after it becomes operational.

(iii)          Regulatory risk. If a $60–80/tonne CO2 price results in excessive economic damage, the CO2 price will be lowered and cap attainment strictly regulated, for example, by applying a mandatory gas target, as is now applied in Queensland. Without a compensation guarantee of future prices, few will risk large investment funds.

(iv)         Gas supply risk. Yes, long-term contracts for gas supply will be negotiated with existing suppliers. However, at any time, gas discoveries could result in suppliers willing to supply long-term gas at a fraction of current prices, especially if the location were remote from existing gas distribution infrastructure or the global LNG market were oversupplied.

One option a corporatist state would readily implement would be to combine all the generators into a single body. The arithmetic is simple. Under the present structure of independent suppliers, a $55/tonne carbon price would result in costs per megawatt hour increasing from $45–$50 to approximately $90, or around 80 per cent of the wholesale price. If these costs could be spread over the entire capacity, as would be the case under a single entity, then the wholesale price increase could be limited to 20 per cent, or approximately 7 per cent for the price increase at the retail level, which would represent a minor irritant.

However, there would be further short-term savings. The price increases would be phased in as plants were completed. In terms of cost savings, the strict neoliberal approach to the current Australian situation would result in cumulative CO2 price costs of anywhere between a minimum of $110 billion and $150 billion being imposed on the economy between now and 2020 to allow for market instability and required risk margins, without any guarantee that much of the required capacity would be completed by 2020.

The corporatist state would allow a guaranteed outcome for total cumulative electricity costs increases of between $15 billion and $20 billion. All other risks are reduced to zero by allowing a monopoly. It is this logic that explains why the electricity sector was nationalised in Australia in the first half of the 20th century as state after state gave up trying to induce the required supply response at the right price from an albeit regulated private electricity sector.

A good corporatist state that did not want to renationalise the generating industry in Australia would sit down with the generators and hammer out an agreement for ownership change, exit arrangements on reasonable terms, and a regulatory environment that delivered an outcome in line with the old nationalised model where the private sector could still play a part. The current Queensland model for encouraging the use of gas in electricity generation would be a good place to start. The ultimate model would probably resemble this model and the model used by Victoria to run its train system.

The Garnaut recommendation to ignore private sector losses is not the right way to go. Governments are going to have to rely on the private sector (albeit with substantial risk shifting to the public sector) to undertake a substantial portion of the hundreds of billions of expenditures needed for greenhouse gas reduction.

Any rational corporatist state approach to CO2 reduction would place the emissions trading system at the end point, not at the beginning, in policy design. It would work out all the possible regulatory, technology and mandatory market incentives (by directly paying tradesmen to retrofit dwellings with insulation, solar panels, gas etc.), with the carbon price then set in terms of financing requirements and long-term strategic direction. A corporatist state would laugh off the suggestions of the neoliberals that Australia needs a high CO2 price for energy efficiency. Yes, there is some low lying fruit, but this isn’t the main game. Australia makes little equipment, so energy efficiency gains will depend on how overseas suppliers respond to the world carbon price. Accelerated depreciation allowances, tied investment allowances and energy efficiency performance regulation would be far more efficient in encouraging speedy adjustment. High carbon prices by themselves would simply result, in many cases, in plant shutdowns when they reached the end of their commercial life.

If the Treasury modelling into carbon prices simply assumes that the market operates optimally with ‘near perfect’ substitution between factors of production, then it should be immediately thrown into the bin. In this context, one of the best things the Federal Parliament could do for climate change is to give back to the states their income tax base set in line with their responsibilities so they can build the necessary transport infrastructure and urban design to minimise the CO2 content of connectiveness. The situation is now reaching an extreme position, where an increasing number of households in major metropolitan areas will not have the time and/or financial incomes to reach their place of work on a regular basis. The Federal Parliament must stop the practice of spending what should be State resources on income tax cuts to enhance its short-term election prospects.

Finally, in relation to climate change, if the implication of Figure 3 is correct, then by 2012 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may well revise the sea level rise up by 2100 to 10–20 metres in the same way that predictions of an ice free summer Arctic have been quickly brought forward from 100 years time to the near term. The 2–4°C predicted rise in global temperatures, even with substantial emission reduction success, would still result in rises in the sea level of tens of metres. This would require a response to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere back to the 1990 level of 350 parts per million, which would, in turn, require a near zero emissions target by 2050. This would necessitate drastic action, but the tools of the corporatist state could enable it to be done, albeit with no increase in living standards (consumption per capita) for decades.

 

National security

In the 2001 lecture I gently suggested that to protect the national interest and economic sovereignty it was desirable to bring foreign investment decisions under more parliamentary control and not leave them to an effectively unaccountable body. This course of action has become more urgent. There is no national interest in allowing major customers (i.e. Chinese enterprises) to control Australian resources. The objective here is simply to transfer value from Australia to China to enhance international competitiveness and real incomes. The concept of sending tax inspectors to Beijing to politely ask to see the books of what will be the biggest companies in the world owned by a potentially hostile country to try and recoup billions of lost tax revenue is laughable.

A good case can be made that Australia is heading towards a classic ‘banana republic’ status. The phrase ‘banana republic’ was invented to describe a country like Honduras, where foreign interests (United States) controlled the region producing the principle Honduras exports (bananas) and all supporting infrastructure. The region was run like a private chiefdom in which companies kept order, and crushed labour dissent using their own security forces or, when necessary, by calling in United States troops, who then established military bases in the country. The irony is that the aim of preventing Australia from becoming a banana republic (Paul Keating, 1986) was one reason for adopting the extreme neoliberal model. It wouldn’t be the first time that a policy shift achieved the reverse of what was intended. In this context, for Parliament not to take back control of foreign investment decisions could well be seen from the hindsight of 2030 as pure treason. The immediate task is to reduce Chinese foreign investment in Australian mineral resources to zero.

When doing this, Parliament could usefully abolish the Productivity Commission and replace it with a body directly under Parliamentary control, focussed on protecting Australia’s economic and political sovereignty. The Productivity Commission can do good work but, unfortunately, its ideological blinkers can result in it unintentionally operating as a fifth column within government, reinforcing those private and foreign messages and demands that have and will undermine the national interest. This is an intolerable situation.

Capture7

United States and Australian security

Whether the above can occur depends in part on the speed of the relative decline of the United States relative to China. Over the next decades, Australian security very much depends on the relative decline in political economy strength of the United States being as slow as possible so as to allow the region to develop balanced multipolar counterweight power centres in which Australia can enhance its security. Unfortunately, trends in this regard are not optimistic. The United States seems to have gotten itself into an unstable political cycle, where the Republicans have been hell bent on exhausting the Federal treasury (largely for the benefit of their own constituency) so there are few resources available to correct some of the United States fundamental problems (not all that dissimilar to Australia). This, when coupled with established interests being able to influence both parties for changed regulation, removal of regulation and less regulatory oversight for the enormous benefit of a few and the eventual misery of many does not bode well for a political response that will arrest the United States’ relative decline.

In this context, not surprising, is the outcome that during the Bush administration three-quarters of the economic gains went to the top 1 per cent of taxpayers (The Economist, 2008). To sustain its economic strength and to combat climate change, the United States, like Australia, requires a redistribution of resources from consumption to investment. The magnitude of such a change can probably only be done with very strong political leadership that, in relatively normal times, would only effectively come from a leader from the right; that is, a Republican such as Teddy Roosevelt. This avoids the charge of class warfare. For a Democrat leader to engineer this outcome would require a massive economic or security crisis, as per Franklin Roosevelt. This might, of course, occur, but the probability is that the United States will continue to experience destabilising political cycles that will sap its economic and political strength.

The point may well be reached sooner than any of us think when the United States will have to decide, as Britain had to in 1902 with the Anglo–Japanese treaty, what its strategic interests were and what had to be let go. That is, the United States will have to decide what will remain in its sphere of interest and what will have to be conceded to, for example, China and India. As Australia becomes more vital to the Chinese economy, and the greater the Chinese investment in Australia, the more likely, irrespective of history, culture and tradition, that the United States will have to decide that Australia can no longer be justified as being a member of its sphere of influence.

From this perspective, the faster Australia can diversify its trade and the stake of countries in Australia, the greater the ability Australia will have to protect its effective sovereignty. This gives industry policy a strategic security status, which is common to most corporatist states.

Industry policy

The record of Australian industry policy has been appalling. As Table 4 indicates, the relative fall in Australia’s non-mining merchandise exports has accelerated over the past decade, which would be expected given the Coalition Government’s downgrading of industry policy. Australian service exports in real terms have been virtually stagnant since 2000. The resort to trade agreements will not be successful. NIEIR investigated the impact of the trade agreements to the end of 2007, including the United States Free Trade Agreement, and found the effect to be small, in terms of manufacturing (NIEIR, 2008). They might have been successful 20 years ago, but now

Australia’s trading relationships are being massively overshadowed by the growth of Asia and Latin America. The neoliberal policy focus is largely irrelevant. The concept of an Australia–China free trade agreement is an oxymoron.

To succeed in the future, Australia will have to integrate itself into the informal networks of Asia, using whatever levers it has to lift the glass ceiling applying to Australia as set by informal governance structures. These levers would include defence relationships, foreign investment in Australia, ethnic networks operating from Australia, cultural affinity and the strategic foreign investment in selected countries. For success, this requires a coordinated effort from many.

Capture6

Conclusion

The outlook over the next 20 years has to be approached with a sense of pessimism. Left unabated, current trends suggest that Australia will be facing increasing external pressure, coupled with internal economic malaise and a growing feeling that political institutions are not working. The most recent period that is likely to be similar to the future is the mid-1970s. The mid-1970s was characterised by a combination of intense Cold War pressure and economic meltdown from an energy crisis. The mid-1970s was a strange time, with coups, quasi coups and attempted coups in a number of places, including the UK, where the early stages of an attempted coup centred on Lord Mountbatten. The attempted coup was terminated by the resignation of the British Prime Minister of the day, Harold Wilson (Freedland, 2006).

To avoid similar circumstances prevailing, Parliament’s role is clear. It must put in place institutions and policies that will govern the market in such a way that the current and future challenges are controlled, stemmed and defeated. A large percentage of the population could have a very poor long-term expectation of the future, and this time around Australia could be without powerful friends. To effectively combat the three challenges of climate change, external security and internal stability, the requirement is for the adoption and maintenance of a semi-wartime footing in policy focus and implementation.

 

 

References

Australian Government  (2008),  Carbon  Pollution Reduction      Scheme   Green   Paper,   July,   p.   12, Department of Climate Change.

Bjorklund A., and M. Jantti (1997), Intergenerational mobility in Sweden compared to the United States,

American Economic Review, Volume 87 See Also The Economist, Even higher society even harder to ascend, 29 December 2004.

Chang, H-J. (2008), Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and   the   Recent   History   of   Capitalism, Bloomsberg Press, NY.

Freedland, J.  (2006),  The  Wilson  Plot  was  our Watergate, The Guardian, 15 March 2006.

Kagan, R. (2008), The Return of History and the End of Dreams, Alfred A. Knopp, New York.

NIEIR (2008), An Evaluation of the Impact of Australian Free Trade Agreements to the End of 2007, for the AMWU, 9 April.

The Economist (2008), 1 August, p. 43.

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.

Editor: Kylie Moreland

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

Income tax zone rebates

 Dr Ian Manning, Deputy Executive Director, NIEIR

Abstract

 

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.

Introduction

 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 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
  • 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 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 of Statistics (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).

 Table 1   Outback employment by industry, 2006

 Capture

 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 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 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.

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.

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 wages subsidies to outback resident workers as a way of lessening the advantages of fly-in fly-out to employers.

 Defence

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.

Tourism

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.

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 EducationContribution 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.

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 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:

  1. Bundling trips: Visits to service outlets, other than emergency visits, can be bundled together and satisfied in a single ‘trip to town’.
  2. 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:

  1. 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).
  2. The accessibility of services also differs systematically with distance from the major metropolitan areas. This differential is particularly marked if emphasis is placed on 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: the Australian 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 of Mitchell 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

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 the ABS. 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.

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 dependants 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 since

1993, 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.

Conclusion

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 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

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

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2001), ‘Outcomes of ABS Views on Remoteness Consultation, Australia’, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.

Australian   Bureau   of   Statistics   (2003),   ‘ASGC Remoteness Classification: Purpose and Use’, Census Paper  No.  03/01,  Australian  Bureau  of  Statistics, Canberra.

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

 

The Macro Melbourne Initiative Discussion Paper

National Economic Review

National Institute of Economic and Industry Research

No. 61 March 2008

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

The Macro Melbourne Initiative Discussion Paper – a response

Ian Manning, Deputy Executive Director, NIEIR

Abstract

In responding to the Macro Melbourne Initiative Discussion Paper, Ian Manning does not take dispute with it, but rather considers some of the same issues from a slightly different direction.

The professed purpose of the Paper, as indicated in its sub -title, is to develop strategic responses to disadvantage. Despite this, the Paper itself is less ambitious, aiming to describe disadvantage in a way which will “stimulate new thinking on strategic giving and point to possible strategic investments by philanthropic trusts and corporate organizations that would address disadvantage and help prevent social problems arising”. Local Government may be added to the list of interested parties, but neither State nor Commonwealth Governments, whose policies are taken as background.

This Initiative comes 23 years after the Commonwealth adopted broadly economic rationalist policies. Despite two bursts of economic growth in that time, punctuated by severe recession, Ian Manning concludes that such growth has redistributed, rather than alleviated, poverty while generating two new discontents – those arising from over commitment and the more subtle dangers of workaholism. Alarmingly, although there has been a decade of continuous economic growth, Ian manning concludes that the balance sheet has indications that this cannot continue forever.

Professor Henderson’s legacy

The study is firmly in the intellectual tradition of established in Australia by Professor Henderson in his studies of poverty three to four decades ago. It equates disadvantage with poverty broadly defined, and notes the association between disadvantage and membership of disability groups – using the word disability in a broader sense than is common today. The importance of disability groups is twofold. First, the opportunities for poverty reduction vary between disability groups. Different policies will be appropriate for each group, particularly as regards services. Second, disability group membership provides a proximate reason for people being poor, and hence a reason why they should be assisted through public policy and not left to their own devices.

The disability groups mentioned in the Macro Melbourne study follow much the same list as that established by Professor Henderson, though there has been some updating of euphemisms and considerable change in the relative size of the groups. Going back to Henderson’s disability groups, we find the following.

• Indigenous poverty remains as intractable as ever.

• The aged are growing in numbers and still have relatively low incomes, but in relation to the poverty line pension rates are a little more generous than they were in Henderson’s day.

• There are fewer large intact families than there were thirty years ago, and the financial position of large families has improved due to increased social security assistance.

• Recent migrants are much more strongly divided into a skilled group, who are prospering, and an unskilled, mainly refugee group, who face considerable difficulties in establishing themselves in Australia.

• The transition from childhood to adulthood has not become any easier, and significant numbers of young people are poor.

• The number of single parent families has increased, and there is still a high incidence of poverty among them.

• Deinstitutionalisation has increased the number of people with disabilities living in the community. To this group may be added the many who have acquired physical and mental disabilities due to prolonged unemployment.

• The number of unemployed workers has burgeoned. This group tends to have low cognitive and/or social skills, and overlaps with a new group of working poor, whose earnings are low and precarious.

In summary, compared to the era of full employment, much more trouble is being caused by unemployment and underemployment, most of which is associated with low skill and/or physical or mental incapacity. On the other hand, large families are no longer a major disability group.

Disadvantaged aspirationals?

Though the Macro Melbourne Initiative for the most part equates disadvantage with poverty, there has been a tendency to add two further disability groups to the list. Both of these are groups whose incomes place them well above the poverty line however updated, but who are in trouble despite this.

• People whose financial affairs are in disarray due to over indebtedness (usually on mortgage) and/or addictive spending (such as heavy gambling or expensive recreational drugs). Let us call these the financially over committed. The perceived needs of this group have received considerable political attention.

• A group which is less obviously in trouble – indeed, which is often held up for public admiration – comprises the workaholics. These are people who devote such long hours to paid work that other aspects of their lives suffer. Sometimes the consequences are born solely by the workaholic – he reaches retirement age and realises that he’s never lived. They become more serious when they are borne by others, particularly the workaholic’s small children. In Henderson’s time it was believed a neglected childhood was usually the result of poverty, but it is now argued that in addition to children neglected due to the stresses of poverty there are a troubling number of rich families in which workaholic parents fail to provide a stable and loving home. This group is likely to have considerable overlap with the financially over committed.

There is considerable prima facie evidence for growth in the numbers of both these groups. Household indebtedness in relation to incomes has risen to unprecedented levels, as has the proportion of the workforce working longer than standard hours and the proportion of married women in paid work. Much less is known about the significance of these phenomena, including

• What has been the relative importance of home purchase, purchase of other consumer durables, education expenses and purchase of current consumables in the generation of over indebtedness?

• What are the associations between over indebtedness and marital instability?

• What scope is there for households to manage over indebtedness?

And, on the much more sensitive issue of workaholics:

• In how many households is the priority given to paid work having negative effects on children? (We must acknowledge that there is lively debate on employer responsibility for the wellbeing of employees’ children, and on the effectiveness and adequacy of child care services.)

Answers to these questions would assist in determining the significance of the two proposed new disability groups. They would also assist in addressing their problems. Since they are not poor, raising incomes further is unlikely to provide much of a solution. It is more likely that their problems can be addressed though better management of resources, particularly time: efficiency in consumption, if you like, as distinct from the present emphasis on efficiency in production. In this context at least some poor people have much to contribute, since they are shining if enforced examples of efficiency in consumption.

 

Economic rationalism and the political incorrectness of poverty

Mention of efficiency in production introduces a further major change since Henderson’s time: the rise of economic rationalism, which has mounted a head-on challenge to Henderson’s strategy of using redistribution to direct portion of the benefits of economic growth to the abolition of poverty. Put baldly, the claim is that economic growth cannot occur without free play for market incentives, including the incentive to work provided by the reality of poverty.

Though it can be traced back to nineteenth century British utilitarianism and developments in economic theory in Britain and continental Europe a hundred years ago, the current main source of economic rationalism is the USA. Its current prominence in Australia has been assisted by American ownership of the media, and much of its attractiveness arises from the perception of the USA as the world’s most successful and powerful country. The Macro Melbourne study does not, however, deal with this big picture; it instead considers economic rationalism through an extended discussion of the definition and measurement of disadvantage, reflecting the debates over poverty measurement of the past three decades. These debates arose because economic rationalists, who extol free markets and deprecate government intervention, wished to counter the argument that poor people should be assisted by social security payments and government financed services. What better way to counter than with the argument that poverty is voluntary, the result of individual choice? They also argue that much poverty is bearable because it is temporary, and that poverty can even be attractive because poor people now are better off materially than the average citizen was a couple of generations ago.

It is a very small step from these arguments to the age old discussion of whether poverty is deserved or not; which also entails whether riches are deserved or not. Questions of the deservedness of riches and poverty have been the stuff of religious debate for millennia, with each religious system developing its own sophisticated account. However, these accounts have limited influence in Australian public debate, since Australia prides itself on being a secular country. Instead, with the adoption by the Commonwealth and, by and large, the state governments of economic rationalism as their guiding ideology, the view that whatever the market delivers is optimal has gained great currency. Both religious people and philosophers point out that economic rationalism has very shallow foundations as a moral theory, but that does not prevent its being used to justify two propositions: all riches gained by competition in the market place are deserved, and equally all poverty generated by unsuccessful competition in the market place is likewise deserved.

The economic rationalists’ stress on individual responsibility for poverty has an undeniable plausibility, at least in some cases. Charity workers have long known that people who aren’t good money managers can easily get themselves into financial difficulties, and that addiction, whether to alcohol, drugs or gambling, makes money management impossible. Direct financial assistance to such people can be problematic. The economic rationalists, living as they do in a world of incentives, go further and argue that people should never receive something for nothing, for to give is to encourage laziness and dependence on handouts. The traditional reply to this is that people can find themselves members of disability groups through no fault of their own, or through understandable fault (there, but for the grace of God, go I). This reply, and the benefits of adjusting assistance to the needs and opportunities of people in their disability groups, accounts for the prominence of such groups in social policy.

Moving outside the traditional disability groups, what is to be said about people who are in financial hardship due to over commitment? The economic rationalist answer is that their over commitment is the result of their free choice to borrow and buy, and that they should work harder and meet their commitments, or, if this is impossible, take advantage of the law of bankruptcy. However, what if over commitment results from people succumbing to the blandishments of sophisticated advertising to spend and to borrow, much of it cleverly designed to exploit common psychological weaknesses, and none of it countered by equally persuasive advertising in favour of saving? This claim strikes at a founding assumption of economic rationalism, which is that consumer desires are autonomous, and consumers accordingly know when to stop. Economic growth, which economic rationalism claims to maximise, is a poor bargain if in the process of pursuing it we develop insatiable desires, and so make ourselves miserable.

Another test case for economic rationalism is the neglected child of workaholic parents. Economic rationalism places high value on paid work, almost to the point where it claims that nothing bad can result from hours spent earning. Further, in the name of freedom it places great emphasis on the importance of personal choice in the labour market: if a parent chooses to work long hours, this is his or her valid choice. Unfortunately, this choice has the potential to result in failure to provide children, particularly small children, with the security and love that they need, with the consequence that the children become socially, and economically, incompetent adults. When people turn out to be unemployable, perhaps this is due to their being the victims of parental, or community, neglect when they were children. Once again the autonomous individual of economic rationalism turns out to be a chimera.

None of these critical observations on economic rationalism denies that people respond to incentives – both gross material incentives and incentives of a more subtle social kind. Kept within its limits by people whose values and priorities do not derive from it, economic rationalism can work wonders in fulfilling needs; but adopted as a primary value system by people who allow it to generate their wants, economic rationalism can result in a downward spiral into misery.

This raises the interesting question of the role of philanthropy in a country committed to economic rationalism. It is worth noting the mainstream economic rationalist view that individual decisions to be generous are legitimate exercises of choice. This is modified by advice that individuals should be careful in their giving, lest they undermine the self reliance of the recipients of their charity. This is good advice, and the disagreements do not begin to arise until the economic rationalists claim that any interference with the pattern of market rewards constitutes an unacceptable incentive.

The Macro Melbourne initiative can be interpreted as aligning philanthropy with the priorities of the prevailing ideology: there is a strong flavour of the economic rationalist pursuit of efficiency in the survey of disadvantage followed by the allocation of assistance to the groups where it can most speedily reduce disadvantage, or even followed by its allocation to the neediest groups. The initiative seeks to increase the efficiency of giving both in targeting and in the selection of strategic projects which will yield high returns in disadvantage allayed. However, there is an aspect to giving which is not economically rational. That occurs where the giver heeds traditional morality and does not count the cost, and certainly does not count the benefits. There is a contradiction between the gift which expects no reward – let not your right hand know what your left hand is doing – and the economically rational mind, with its self centredness and its obsession with a quid pro quo for every transaction. It could well be that the chief value of philanthropy lies in its witness to values other than the self seeking exchange values of economic rationalism.

We have so far covered some fairly fundamental criticisms of the prevailing ideology. There is also a rich vein of criticism based on market failure, and we will now take two examples from the Macro Melbourne Initiative, poor accessibility and the (in)affordability of housing. The Initiative treats these as two dimensions of disadvantage, but does not make a strong connection between the two.

Accessibility and housing affordability

From a geographic point of view, accessibility is best defined as the ease with which one can reach a specific kind of destination from a specific place of origin. The usual place of origin is home, and the usual destinations are workplaces, shops, schools, health services and the like. Sometimes the nearest destination is the most important – say the nearest hospital emergency department – but more often it is important to have access to a variety of similar destinations: a variety of shops, different schools and health services. Variety of possible destinations is most important when one is looking for work: the greater the number of accessible jobs the better. Following these two approaches, accessibility is sometimes measured by distance to the nearest opportunity (this house is 200 metres from a playground; it is 500 metres from a convenience store, and so on), but it can also be measured by the number of possible destinations within a convenient travel time or distance (a house in a trendy suburb may have ten latte bars within walking distance, and, more important, is likely to have several hundred thousand potential workplaces within half an hour’s drive).

In this context, it does not make much sense to speak, as the study does, of the accessibility of public transport. Public transport is not a destination in itself. Rather, in combination with walking, it is a means of transport. Because public transport involves walking and waiting, it is necessarily slower than motoring for all trips bar those where motoring is slowed by severe congestion and parking difficulties. When one measures accessibility by counting potential destinations which can be reached within a given time, the walking and public transport version is inevitably less. It reduces even further if the streets are not perceived as safe for pedestrians. At the limit, nothing is accessible by walking or public transport when one is unwilling to venture beyond the front gate without the protection of a car. This is, perhaps, the position of quite a few children and some old people.

Setting aside such cases of fear, the continuing importance of walking and public transport derives from the following.

• There are people who cannot, or should not, drive. Such people are disadvantaged if they are unable to access important destinations by walking and public transport.

• Motoring is costly, though for decades its cost has fallen relative to average earnings and relative to the social security pension, and it has for many years been included on the list of Australian necessities. However, with indications that fuel costs are beginning to rise, households which can access employment and services by walking and public transport are likely to be increasingly advantaged.

• Walking is healthy. Households are advantaged when they can access destinations on foot, with or without a little help from public transport. By contrast, motoring is dangerous and has a poor crash record.

• En masse, motor vehicles cause congestion. The public costs of providing road space to ease congestion are considerable, as are the public costs of providing car parks. In addition, it has become very difficult to build major activity centres served solely by motor vehicles. An important argument for public transport is that it can support activity centres which are larger and more diversified, yet more compact, than the typical suburban shopping mall, technology park or campus university.

Accessibility from residential areas to various kinds of destination can be enhanced by the following means.

• Shifting to faster transport. The obvious way is by buying a car, but even if one sticks with public transport improvements are possible through more frequent, more direct and more connective services.

• Making sure destinations are near residential areas. The retail sector has been adept at this, though it tends to assume that the only worthwhile customers are those who travel by car. Service administrations have also been conscious of the need to provide outlets that cover Melbourne.

• Conversely, making sure homes are near destinations.

A particular problem area has been the relationship between residential areas and employment opportunities. In the 1950s and 1960s Melbourne added both housing and jobs to its outer suburbs. Many of the jobs were in manufacturing and warehousing, attracted to the outer suburbs by low cost land and good truck roads. The resulting jobs were accessible only by car, but provided valued work opportunities within acceptable time distance for many outer suburban residents. From about 1975 the trend reversed. The emphasis on the knowledge economy resulted in job growth in the CBD and the inner suburbs. Despite the effort to decentralise universities, no significant knowledge hubs have been created in the middle or outer suburbs – a failure which is perhaps related to the policy, noticeable particularly at Commonwealth level, that public investment in transport should concentrate on roads with public transport reduced to a ‘social service minimum’ level. This prevented its being used in the promotion of employment centres. The result was that the difference in job accessibility between the outer and inner suburbs became more acute.

This failure of urban strategy was exacerbated by the deregulated financial sector, which in the 1990s found itself with unlimited funds for lending on residential mortgages. The banks borrowed overseas in Australian dollars at rates which compensated the lenders for the risk of devaluation and were accordingly high by world standards. They were on-lent to Australian households plus a profit margin. Households borrowed willingly, partly because the rates seemed low to people who had been paying two digit interest rates less than a decade before. One result of debt financed demand was a house construction boom, which as usual extended the perimeters of Melbourne. However, poor accessibility to jobs, particularly from the outer suburbs, directed much of this boom into redeveloping the inner and middle suburbs. The result was a classic land boom. One need only add that the land boom was an essential element in the Commonwealth’s economic strategy in the late 1990s. It was the only way in which deregulated markets could deliver economic growth.

The Macro Melbourne Initiative has much to say on housing affordability, but does not trace it to the land boom. Indeed, productivity improvements in house construction have reduced the cost of the built component of housing. The increases in house size which was a public response to this reduction in cost contributed a little to the rise in house prices, but the main component was the cost of land. As always when there is a rise in the price of an asset in widespread ownership, there was a complex pattern of capital gains, all at the expense of new entrants to the market. There is a long tradition in economics that landowners do not deserve the capital gains they make from changes in accessibility patterns.

The result of this double failure – a failure of accessibility planning compounded by macroeconomic policies focused on the short run – is now ensconced in household balance sheets across Melbourne. Some households have achieved capital gains, which they can potentially cash in by retirement migration to some place where housing is cheaper – though demand from people Sydney and Melbourne has raised house values in many of the favoured destinations. Other households have achieved high debt to income ratios, making them vulnerable to even the slightest increase in interest rates or decline in earnings. Again, were there to be a downwards correction in the urban land market, some of these households will find themselves with negative net worth. Their best hope is for a burst of inflation, such as benefited the post war generation of home buyers. Needless to say, inflation is not in fashion at the moment, though it is quite probable that Australia will suffer from it as its dollar slides in value in order to correct the balance of payments deficit.

Given present imbalances, a relatively benign macroeconomic scenario would be one in which nominal Melbourne urban land values are maintained while inflation reduces real household indebtedness. Household consumption is likely to be restrained while people save to repay their debts, but overseas demand, from people seeking property ownership in what remains a liveable city, could be important. A much less pleasant scenario would have interest rates rising, which could lead to a classic recession complete with non-performing loans and the resulting financial institution instability.

From the point of view of young people seeking affordable housing, the second of these scenarios would have the benefit of undoing some of the 1990s increase in land prices. For a while this would be offset by higher interest rates – there could even be a return to the 1980s housing affordability problem, which arose out of deposit gaps and high repayments in the early years of borrowing. Higher unemployment would also make life unpleasant, but the eventual result would be land prices no longer out of kilter with household incomes. The alternative is more of a ‘soft landing’ scenario, where the necessary realignment of prices takes longer. Over this longer period, there would be more scope for government policy on urban development to start affecting relative accessibility, with possible reductions in the location rents so prominent in the recent land boom.

The examples of accessibility and house affordability both contain elements of market failure. The inability of the land market to carry out strategic town planning complements the tendency of financial markets to create financial assets and liabilities which are out of kilter with the underlying ‘real’ position. Both land and financial markets perform well in the allocation of resources at the microeconomic level, but can generate great trouble at the macroeconomic level.

Conclusion 

The Macro Melbourne Initiative comes 25 years after Mr Keating’s conversion to economic rationalism. During that period Australia has experienced two bursts of economic growth, punctuated by a severe recession. This growth has redistributed rather than alleviated poverty, and has generated at least two new discontents: the discontent arising from over commitment, and the more subtle danger of workaholism. Despite these discontents, economic rationalist polices are being pursued with vigour, in the belief that they guarantee steady economic growth. A more sober judgement is that the trade cycle is too fundamental a feature of capitalist economies to claim that it has been eliminated on the basis of a ten year absence.

Even if the trade cycle stays its hand, in the 22 years to 2030, the Melbourne Community Foundation is likely to have no shortage of disadvantages to address. These include both the traditional disadvantages of poverty and the newer discontents which have arisen where economic rationalism has exceeded its boundaries. The Macro Melbourne Initiative is to be commended for charting the territory.