The Mineral Resource Boom and the Economy of South West Queensland

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

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

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ISSN 0813-9474

The mineral resource boom and the economy of South West Queensland
Dr Ian Manning, Deputy Executive Director, NIEIR

Abstract
As outlined in the State of the Regions report for 2012–2013, the current national resource boom is patchily distributed, with some regions reporting frenetic activity and others depressed as a side-effect of the boom. South West Queensland lies on the margins of the boom: it is not involved in the booming iron ore and coal export industries but parts of it produce petroleum, natural gas and coal seam methane. To ensure that benefits continue, it is necessary to plan for what will happen after the boom has run its course. There are two main concerns. First, infrastructure should not be allowed to deteriorate as a result of boom usage or the diversion of resources to the boom. Second, the boom should not be allowed to detract from the productive capacity of the pastoral, tourism and other non-mineral resource industries in which the region has expertise. The present paper investigates several policy measures to optimise the benefits from the mining boom. Such measures include: ensuring that the mineral resources industry makes appropriate contributions to local infrastructure through a rural equivalent of the urban developer charge system; ensuring that the industry makes appropriate direct contributions to local government; increasing state royalties to fund a regional development trust, as pioneered in Western Australia; financial regulation to require appropriate financial intermediaries to insure housing values in the towns of the region; and investment to improve the quality of transportable homes. A further measure, a review of income tax zone rebates, is canvassed in a complementary paper.

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.

National resources and the economy
Geoffrey Blainey’s popular history of Australian mining is entitled The Rush That Never Ended. Despite this title, it is actually the history of a sequence of rushes, some small and local in their effects but a few of them major to the extent that they changed the course of national economic history. These major rushes (mining booms) were separated by decades when other industries took the lead in Australian economic development. Over much of the nineteenth century, before Australia became an integrated economy, the pastoral industry was in the lead in all six colonies, while farming provided a solid basis for development in most colonies in the late nineteenth and into the twentieth century. The prosperity of the post-war period in the mid-twentieth century was based on manufacturing. However, the late twentieth century saw a revival in the exploitation of mineral resources (mining is now something of a misnomer: underground mining has declined in favour of quarrying and oil and gas wells). The Poseidon boom was preceded by the first Pilbara boom, after which there was a lull followed by the present resources boom.

The national resources boom
The current Australian resources boom is a response to an unexpected increase in the international prices of three minerals. First, The US dollar price of iron ore rose more or less continuously from 2004 to peak in 2011 at nearly thirteen times its level in 2003, although it has since fallen to eight times its 2003 level. Second, the US dollar price of thermal coal rose from 2004, spiked in 2008 then fell, before recovering to four times its level in 2003. Finally, the US dollar price of liquefied natural gas (LNG) rose from 2004, spiked in 2008, fell, and then recovered to four times its level in 2003, although falls are expected given declining gas prices in the United States.

Although part of each of these increases reflects the fall in the value of the US dollar, the increases have been substantial whatever the currency used to measure them. Australia has resources of all three minerals and, once it was realised that prices were going up despite the Great Financial Crisis, investment boomed in increasing Australian production capacity. The reason for the high prices lies primarily in demand from China arising from rapid economic growth.

In describing the effects of a resources boom, it is important to keep an eye on the future. The very word ‘boom’ implies subsequent bust. There are some who believe that the current level of activity in the mineral resource industries is not a boom but can go on forever. However, the historical record is that peaks in mineral prices have been followed by periods of lower prices as international supply has caught up with demand. There is every reason to expect that this will occur in the present case, if only because the Chinese are investing heavily in expanding supply, partly in Australia but also in other mineral-rich countries. When prices fall the industry responds by reducing investment in capacity expansion and the boom ends. Regions which prospered during the boom are thrown back on other sources of employment.

The rush of the current resources boom is well measured by gross operating profits in the ‘mining’ industry, which, as defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, includes all mineral resource exploitation. In 2011 profits in the industry were running at the rate of approximately $A94 billion a year: nearly four times their level a decade previously. In 2011 profits in the mineral resource sector accounted for 32 per cent of all business operating profits (excluding the agricultural sector and most of the finance sector), a significant increase from their share of 19 per cent in 2001. This increase in profit share was largely at the expense of manufacturing, which had approximately the same share of non-agricultural, non-financial profits as mineral exploitation in 2001 but declined to 11 per cent in 2011 (ABS, 2012). There was a causal relationship at work here:

  • The Reserve Bank of Australia responded to the resources boom by raising interest rates. The currency market responded to this and to the increase in foreign investment in Australia by raising the Australian exchange rate, which reduced the Australian dollar prices of imported manufactured goods. The Australian manufacturing industry found itself unable to compete.
  • The rise in resource exploitation profits generated a boom in resource-related investment and, hence, in the demand for construction labour. Although there has been no general wage breakout during the boom, there has been competition for skilled labour, to the detriment of manufacturing.

Although the primary victim of the resource boom has been manufacturing, the high exchange rate has penalised export industries across the board, including resource exploitation itself. However, the penalty is of little concern to the mineral resource industry because it has been counterbalanced by booming prices. In addition, the industry is largely overseas-owned and thinks in terms of the US dollar, the euro, the yen or the yuan. The penalty has been severe for tourism and export education but because of the hazy definition of these industries in official statistics is not well documented.

The farming and pastoral industries are also trade-exposed, but have been relatively well placed to survive the high exchange rate, for three main reasons. First, the agricultural and pastoral industries have a long history of exposure to fluctuating world prices, including (since 1983) fluctuations due to the floating exchange rate. Through long and sometimes bitter experience they are better prepared to deal with fluctuating prices than manufacturing and service industries. Second, the agricultural and pastoral industries likewise have a long history of exposure to good and bad seasons, which has again forced resilience upon them. It has helped that in much of Australia seasonal conditions have been reasonably good in recent years so that increases in quantity sold have helped to counteract price reductions due to the spike in the exchange rate. Finally, international prices for a number of key pastoral and agricultural commodities have been reasonably favourable over the past few years. Thus, in 2011 the US dollar prices of beef and fine wool were sufficiently high to offset the exchange rate so that Australian dollar prices were comfortably above the low levels suffered in the 1990s and up to 2005. These factors have so far sheltered many agricultural and pastoral businesses from the adverse effects of the resources boom expressed in the high exchange rate and competition for labour.

A further potential adverse effect of resource exploitation, its environmental impact, can be important for the agricultural and pastoral industries, as well as for tourism, although it is not important for manufacturing or export education. For example, several decades ago the mining of beach sand in Queensland was curtailed because of its serious environmental effects, including the impact on tourism. More generally, resource exploitation can directly disrupt rural production. Mineral exploration can involve entry to farm properties, which affects the use of the properties, while mining and quarrying can debilitate farmland, pre-empt water supplies and pollute creeks and ground water. The various state mining acts provide for compensation but farm organisations argue that the compensation is insufficient. More fundamentally, they claim that it is not right that mining should have the automatic precedence over agriculture as a land use granted to it by the current state mining acts.

The rapid changes in relative industry competitiveness that have resulted from the resources boom have had pronounced regional effects. Activity has boomed in the mineral resource regions and slumped in regions based on manufacturing and tourism. The effects in the agricultural and pastoral regions are more complex, partly because the high exchange rate has been partially offset by increased international prices and partly because several agricultural and pastoral regions also host mineral resources.

The prospect of an end to the boom is of great importance in assessing its effects. If the increase in the profitability of mineral resource exploitation is permanent, it is rational to divert resources from less-profitable industries to the new high-profit industry. However, if the high profits are temporary, the diversion of resources may come to be regretted once the boom ends and the country has to depend on its established industries. Thus, a boom that weakens other industries, for example by raising wage costs so that routine maintenance is postponed, may turn out to be costly in the long term, because it will be difficult for the established regional industries to take up the slack when the boom ends. In contrast, it is possible for boom investment to strengthen the other industries, for instance, by improving general transport infrastructure. If this happens its long-term effect is likely to be positive.

South West Queensland: Geography and population
As an example of the effects of the resources boom in a largely pastoral region, part of which has been directly affected by the boom, we take South West Queensland, here defined as five local government areas (LGAs): Bulloo, Maranoa, Murweh, Paroo and Quilpie. This region lies north of the New South Wales border and forms a strip approximately 350 km wide, stretching roughly 800 km east from the South Australian border. Four of these LGAs are legally shires, while Maranoa is legally a regional council, but, with apologies to Maranoa, in this article we will use the term ‘shire’ to refer to each of them. Each shire is geographically large, typically 200 km east to west and 200 km north to south. At the 2011 Census the resident population of the region was 20,931. More than half these people (13,100) live in Maranoa. The largest town in Maranoa, and, indeed, in the region, is Roma, with a population of approximately 6,000. The next most populous shire is Murweh, which accounts for nearly one-quarter of the population of the region and has the second-largest town, Charleville, with a population of around 3,200. Paroo follows, with a shire population of 1,900, including the region’s third largest town, Cunnamulla (population 1,200). Quilpie Shire has a population of a little fewer than 1,000 and Bulloo Shire a resident population of 400. The region has one other town of around 1,000 population: Mitchell, in Maranoa shire. The largest town in Quilpie Shire is Quilpie, with the population around 560, while the largest (some would say only) town in Bulloo Shire is Thargomindah, with a population of 200.

Over the past two decades the population of the region has increased gently, although it is best described as stable.

The economy of South West Queensland
The market value of output produced in the region, excluding corporate profits, is estimated at $A918 million, of which roughly 60 per cent originates in Maranoa, 19 per cent in Murweh, 8 per cent each in Quilpie and Paroo, and 4 per cent in Bulloo. The value of output per person employed is highest in Paroo and Quilpie (approximately $A108,000 per worker). This is something of a statistical artefact, because output in these shires is dominated by the pastoral industry, much of which is run by family businesses whose profits are included in the value of production. The value of output per person is somewhat lower in Bulloo and Maranoa: between $A80,000 and $A90,000 per person employed. The gas industry is important in these shires, but its corporate profits are not included in the value of production because they are difficult to allocate geographically and do not generate incomes available for local distribution. Finally, Murweh has the lowest value of output per person employed, a little under $A70,000, due to its hosting low value-added industries, such as the abattoirs and various service industries.

Across the region as a whole, approximately 7 per cent of the value of production is not available for distribution within the region because it is claimed by workers who live elsewhere. The remaining income generated within the region is split more or less equally between wages/salaries and business income. In 2010– 2011 residents of the region paid approximately $A160 million in income tax but received approximately $A180 million in social security payments. The balance differed between the shires. Income tax payments by Murweh residents comfortably exceeded their social security receipts but it was the other way round in Paroo, with the position in the remaining shires being more or less balanced. Residents of the region also paid indirect taxes but benefited from the provision of government services that generated employment in public administration and police, education and health services. This employment accounted for nearly one-quarter of total jobs, and its location was determined largely by government policy on service provision and, in turn, by the location of people who required services. The underlying reason why people live in the region is the incomes generated by its economic base.

The economic base of South West Queensland
Residents of the region earn incomes from the export of the products and services of three main industries to people outside the region. These economic base industries account for approximately one-third of total employment in the region, with other support and service industries accounting for the remaining two-thirds. In what follows, the long-term economic mainstay of the region, the pastoral industry, is first considered. Tourism and support services are then discussed before turning to mineral resource exploitation.

The pastoral industry
The resident employed workforce comprises a little over 10,000 workers, of whom one-quarter are employed in agriculture and forestry: primarily in pastoral production, although dry-land crops are grown in favoured parts of Maranoa. There is also a small irrigation area based on the Warrego River at Cunnamulla. In addition, the wild honey of the bush is harvested by beekeepers and the forestry industry feeds several small sawmills. The principal export products are beef cattle, wool and sheep for meat. Producing all three requires careful management to ensure that the fluctuating carrying capacity of the country is utilised without overgrazing. Management techniques include rotation between paddocks, browsing, agistment and judicious timing of animal turn-off.

Several challenges face the pastoral industry. One such challenge is maintaining detailed local knowledge to underpin property management. This knowledge is not easily acquired because it takes decades to experience the full range of seasonal conditions. Another is developing pastoral products that meet specific market requirements and, hence, command premium prices. Controlling costs, particularly labour costs but also transport costs, is another issue. It is here that there is potential for conflict with the mining industry. Another issue is the control of pests, especially wild dogs and cats.

Two other meat animals, goats and kangaroos, offer potential for expanded production, but both are difficult to manage because neither species respects fences. So far, goats have been herded and then processed as for other meat animals while kangaroos have been culled in the field: a process that has led to problems of quality management. The future of these products depends on improvements in animal management.

For the region as a whole, employment in the pastoral industry declined by 20 per cent from 1991 to 2011. The decline was most severe in Quilpie and Bulloo and had two major causes. The first was the prolonged slump in wool prices during the 1990s and early 2000s, which generated a move out of wool. There was a magnified effect on regional employment, because wool production is more labour-intensive than beef cattle or meat sheep production, and even itinerant workers (such as shearers) tend to live locally. The second major cause was an unusually long drought, particularly in the western part of the region. Both the drought and the wool slump have ended, and over the past few years employment in the pastoral industry has been recovering. It should also be remembered that other elements in regional employment are directly linked to the industry. Roma has the largest cattle sale yard in Australia and Charleville has one of the few remaining inland abattoirs.

Pastoral production is an extensive land use that is not seriously disturbed by mineral exploration nor seriously compromised by oil or gas wells or pipelines. The main potential for environmental conflict concerns ground water, with potential for competition for ground water flows and potential for the mineral resource industry to pollute ground water flows as well as creeks and waterholes.

Tourism
Compared to the agricultural and mineral resource sectors, tourism is a relatively minor export industry for the region. Accommodation and food services account for less than 6 per cent of the resident workforce and many of these workers are employed to provide services for local people or for the mineral resource exploitation industry. However, the region has capitalised on its position astride the grey nomad route through inland Australia, an imaginative example being its investment in the Cosmos Centre at Charleville. The region does not attract many international visitors except for the backpackers who provide much of the hotel workforce in Roma. The mining boom has resulted in a shortage of tourist accommodation in Maranoa but not in the other shires.

Support industries
Apart from the export-oriented elements in its economic base, the region provides employment in necessary commercial support services in transport, construction and trade. These services account for approximately 40 per cent of total employment in the region.

Mineral resource industries
The region’s second most important export industry, measured by employment, is the exploitation of mineral resources, which employs a little over 5 per cent of the resident workforce. Because of the importance of fly-in fly-out in this industry, its contribution to total jobs located in the region is somewhat greater, at 8 per cent, and because it pays relatively high wages its contribution to wage incomes would be somewhat greater again, but still way short of the pastoral industry.

This industry comprises three distinct segments. First, in Quilpie and Bulloo Shires, opals are mined by fossickers and other small businessmen. These enterprises have none of the characteristics of the big mining companies and can be treated as an adjunct to the tourism industry.

Second, the western parts of Quilpie and Bulloo Shires lie within the Cooper Eromanga basin and have proved prospective for hydrocarbons. Local crude oil production supports the Eromanga oil refinery: a small but significant enterprise that supplies diesel, kerosene and specialist mining fuels to a large area of outback Australia. The Jackson oilfields in Bulloo shire have been producing since 1981, with crude oil piped out via Adelaide and Brisbane. More recently, the area has been developed for natural gas. Santos operates a processing facility at Ballera, from where gas can be piped west to the Moomba hub, north to Mount Isa or east to the hub at Wallumbilla. Exploration is under way to potentially extend gas production to Paroo and Murweh Shires, but these at present have no mineral production.

Finally, energy resources available in Maranoa include coal, oil, natural gas and coal seam gas. Coal was mined at Injune until the dieselisation of the Queensland Railways in the early 1960s. The oil and natural gas fields have a century-old history, much of it a history of disappointment. The natural gas hub at Wallumbilla, east of Roma, was not sited to serve local production but lies at the point where the natural gas pipeline from Ballera bifurcates to serve Brisbane and Gladstone. However, over the past decade, coal seam gas production has increased considerably in Maranoa and across the borders in Western Downs and Banana. These increases have generated investment in gas processing plants and an increase in the importance of Wallumbilla. Coal production has yet to resume in the shire but seems likely to do so as soon as the present limits on transport capacity to the coast can be overcome.

Resources boom in South West Queensland
The national resources boom has been based on iron ore, coal and gas. South West Queensland cannot produce iron ore and does not currently produce coal but has been well placed to participate in the gas boom. The pace of development in the gas industry in South West Queensland picked up in the early 2000s, well before the national resources boom was triggered in 2004 by the rise in world prices of iron ore and energy minerals. At the time there was no question of export markets and, indeed, there was a strong possibility that Queensland would be supplied with natural gas from Papua New Guinea. Three factors served to increase interest in local gas production. First, in 2000, the Queensland Government announced a cleaner air policy, which, with a long lead time, guaranteed a market for gas in electricity generation in Queensland. Second, at approximately the same time, investors were showing considerable interest in alumina production at Gladstone, again with potential to increase the demand for gas. Finally, developments in the technology of coal seam gas production lowered costs.

In response to these signals, investment in coal seam gas began in earnest in Maranoa and adjacent LGAs. The contribution of the national resources boom has been to confirm demand, including introducing the prospect of export demand by construction of LNG export terminals at Gladstone. Investment has continued, now mainly focused on export demand. Employment in the mining sector in Maranoa continues to increase but not at the rapid rate experienced in the first 5 years of the present century.

The timing of gas industry expansion was similar in Bulloo and Paroo, although to a considerable extent it reflected the completion of a pipeline investments committed in the late 1980s. The Ballera gas hub was constructed and connected by pipeline to the Moomba hub in 1994, which enabled wells in South West Queensland to supply the Adelaide market. The pipeline to Wallumbilla was added in 1997, providing access to markets in Brisbane and Gladstone, and the pipeline to Mount Isa was completed in 1998. These connections inaugurated a program of gas field development that peaked in the early 2000s but continues to this day, with the locus of activity moving northward into Quilpie Shire. As in Maranoa, the contribution of the natural resources boom has been indirect, by maintaining confidence that gas from the Cooper Eromanga basins will continue to find profitable markets.

Sequence of mineral resource development
The impact of mineral resource development on incomes and on other industries has to be understood in relation to the typical life of a gasfield. This has four phases: exploration, construction, production and remediation.

The exploration phase is carried out by a small mobile workforce spread over a large area. This workforce is highly skilled and depends on scientific support. It is inevitably based in major centres and its members frequently camp out when in the field. The chief limit to the duration of the exploration phase is the time limits that state governments impose on exploration licences to prevent ‘warehousing’. The exploration phase ends when sufficient reserves have been proved to justify the construction of processing and transport facilities.

During the construction phase the processing plant and transport pipelines are built and a relatively large workforce is brought in. Most of this labour requires general construction industry skills. Because serious capital expenditure is involved, it is in the investor’s interest that the construction phase should be as brief as possible, a few years at the most. The high wages paid in mineral resource sector construction are partly explained by the hurry.

For most minerals the production phase requires less labour than the construction phase. However, this is not necessarily true for onshore oil fields and gas fields where, as the field ages, exploration continues to pinpoint additional reserves and wells are drilled to exploit marginal reserves.

In the remediation phase the skills required revert to general construction industry skills. Revegetation can be quite labour-intensive, but the gas industry does not require the extensive surface earthworks typical of coal mining. The mining industry has a history of failure to provide for remediation but mine and petroleum tenements now require remediation and the major mining companies make reasonable provision, the costs being small relative to the damage to their reputations if remediation is not properly implemented.

The course of the resources boom in South West Queensland can be charted by its labour market effects.

The resources boom and the labour market
Between 2001 and 2011 employment in the mineral resource exploitation sector in Maranoa increased by 380 workers and in Bulloo/Quilpie by 220 workers. These increases followed a period of construction. Although its skill requirements are not outstanding compared with manufacturing or rural industries or, indeed, with local government services, the mineral resource sector is now renowned for the payment of high wages, at least during booms. It was not always thus: workers in the Maranoa colliery of the 1950s were paid much the same wages as other rural workers.

There are several reasons for the high wage rates currently paid. For example, the gas industry, like other major resource industries, is capital-intensive. Disruptions from labour shortages that involve leaving equipment idle are accordingly very costly and employers are willing to pay to avoid plant stoppages. The quid pro quo is that workers must submit to the discipline of working the required shifts. Another reason is that plant operators in the industry are frequently in charge of valuable equipment and mistakes in equipment operation can cost millions of dollars. High wages are, in part, compensation for being careful, the quid pro quo being that carelessness results in dismissal. High wages can also be seen as compensation for the personal disruptions that occur when people go to work in distant places in jobs that carry no guarantee of permanence.

Although not all firms in the industry follow this policy, the industry has a reputation for high labour turnover and low expenditure on training. The industry relies on two main sources of labour: local labour is recruited, either from those previously unemployed or underemployed or by recruiting from those previously employed by other local industries; and labour is recruited from outside the region.

Local labour
The advantage in recruiting local people is that they are already accommodated, acclimatised and incorporated into the local community. However, not all local people take up the opportunity to work in mining. For instance, many are not willing to submit to the industry’s work discipline. In addition, production sites are frequently located away from established homes and many are not willing to put up with the resulting travel requirements. Another issue is local workers not meeting the industry’s skill requirements. Thus, it is normal for mineral resource jobs to be on offer but not taken up by the local unemployed. In many remote areas governments and some mining companies provide training programs that attempt to upgrade the work and social skills of local unemployed people, particularly Aboriginal people, and these, coupled sometimes with job redesign, have been credited with increasing local participation in the industry.

Therefore, a mining boom is no guarantee for an end to local unemployment, although by all measures unemployment rates in South West Queensland have been below the national average and significantly below the average in other rural areas that lack resource sector employment. (The exception is Paroo, which of all the five shires has been least affected by the resources boom.)

Despite the reluctance of many local workers to accept mining sector employment, the sector has succeeded in attracting locally resident workers away from employers who are not able to match resource industry pay rates. The pressure was reported as least in Paroo, which is the furthest of the five shires from developments in the gas industry: 500 km away is too far for comfortable drive-in drive-out, let alone commuting, and the supply of housing in Cunnamulla is sufficient to keep housing costs low for purchasers if not for tenants. Home owners are understandably reluctant to trade their present comforts for high housing costs in the boom areas.

At the other extreme, high rents in Roma are reported to have forced local residents into the industry just to get enough cash to pay the rent. The following were reported:

  • pastoral workers and even owners were transferring to the resource industry, often part-year in the off-season for pastoral activity. The downside of this was that non-urgent maintenance tasks on the properties were being deferred, with eventual run-down in production capacity;
  • contractors, transport businesses and councils other than Paroo were finding it hard to keep drivers and plant operators; and
  • the Charleville abattoirs now rely on 457 visa workers.

Two dangers arise if labour cannot be found at costs similar to those prevailing in the regions without mineral resource developments: government (particularly local government) assets will be run down, particularly roads; and industries will be run down or even closed. As regards roads and other local government services, the resource exploitation companies can be required to pay rates that not only cover a fair share of road costs but allow councils to pay competitive wages, even though councils are reluctant to lock in high wage rates which will continue to apply after the need for them is over. However, this opportunity is not available in shires without mineral production. As regards the pastoral industry, the effect of the resources boom seems to have been marginal. Immediately essential production tasks are being carried out but there is a concern that a maintenance backlog is building up.

In industries characterised by large employers who offer permanent career employment, the established method of staffing unpopular posts is to make service in them a condition of career advancement. Recent management fashions have deemphasised permanent employment but outback experience can still be a valuable item on a professional CV. Career promotion continues to be an important element in staffing schools, hospitals, banks, police stations and the like: broadly, in providing professional personnel. The resource exploitation industry does not, in general, directly compete for the services of remote-area professional personnel but can make it difficult to recruit such people by raising housing costs. Housing would seem to be the key to maintaining the attractiveness of non-resource jobs in the region, whether or not the jobs require skills attractive to the resource exploitation sector. This will be discussed below.

Tax incentives and Higher Education Contribution Scheme repayment incentives may also be valuable, and are discussed in a separate article.

Labour recruited outside the region
When labour cannot be found locally, the mineral resource industry recruits elsewhere, not only within Australia but overseas. The industry uses permanent visas for skilled professionals and 457 visas for other workers. When employing labour from outside the region the resource industry has used two markedly different recruitment strategies:

  • In Bulloo and Quilpie almost 90 per cent of the industry workforce has been recruited from outside the region and continues to reside elsewhere (generally Adelaide, from where they fly in and fly out). Significant numbers of support personnel in accommodation and transport also fly in and fly out.
  • In Maranoa the number of resident mineral resource industry employees very nearly balances against the number of employment positions. However, this is believed to understate the importance of drive-in drive-out for the local economy, some of the drive-in drive-out activity being internal to the shire and some of it involving cross-border traffic to and from neighbouring shires.

The obvious reason for this difference is that Maranoa is less remote than Bulloo and Quilpie. The gas fields and processing facilities of the Cooper Eromanga basin are too far from either Thargomindah or Quilpie to support daily commuting from these established towns, although drive-in drive-out is a possibility. If these fields were to be served by resident labour, it would be necessary to build new townships: probably several of them, in view of the dispersion of the fields. There are numerous arguments in favour of fly-in fly-out:

  • Nobody wants to develop settlements that become ghost towns within a decade or two. Fly-in fly-out is appropriate when a workforce has to bivouac in a remote area for the limited duration of a project, especially a construction project. Accommodation needs can be met by temporary dongas without the need to provide more than basic facilities.
  • Recent experience at Ravensthorpe (Western Australia) highlights the perils of investing in mine-site townships.
  • In some remote areas, although not as far as is known in the Bulloo and Quilpie shires, the Aboriginal Traditional Owners prefer that outside workforces are employed on a fly-in fly-out basis.
  • There are employers in the mineral resource industries who believe that fly-in fly-out workforces are easier to manage. They are less likely to unionise strongly and there is a potentially wide field of recruitment when workers are sacked for failures of discipline.

Fly-in fly-out accords well with the industry’s tolerance for high labour turnover.

  • The Cooper/Eromanga gasfields are so spread out that townships to serve them would be very small and have limited facilities.

The arguments against fly-in fly-out are as follows:

  • The fly-in fly-out lifestyle corrodes social and family life, although probably no more so than established ‘tour of duty’ occupations such as defence and seafaring.
  • Fly-in fly-out incurs high transport costs.
  • The pastoral and tourist industries in the same area rely on resident employment, so why not the resource exploitation industry?
  • Additional townships would help support the pastoral and tourist industries.
  • The Cooper/Eromanga oil and gas fields have turned yielded employment for two decades past and probably for two or three to come. Had townships been established when the fields were young they would have lasted long enough to be fully depreciated by the time their economic rationale disappears and they are abandoned and demolished.

Whatever the reasons for the long-term reliance on fly-in fly-out in the Cooper/Eromanga, the result has been that recruitment to the gas industry in Quilpie and Bulloo has placed very little pressure on local accommodation and has generated very little consumer expenditure in those shires: the fly-in fly-out workers do all their living and spending in their places of residence.

By contrast, many of the Maranoa gasfields are within daily commuting distance of Roma and other established towns and all are within drive-in drive-out distance. There has been strong pressure on all classes of accommodation in Maranoa, which, in turn, has fed back into the difficulty of recruiting employees for other industries. This applies not only to the pastoral and tourism industries (elements of the economic base) but to the service industries, which have opportunities to expand to service consumption expenditure given the increasing number of resident resource sector employees. We will return to the accommodation shortage when discussing housing.

The hospitality industry and agricultural enterprises with seasonal labour demands have made considerable use of backpackers while construction and manufacturing have made use of 457 visa workers. The question is why industries resort to immigrant labour when there are still large numbers of underemployed and unemployed Australians in other parts of the country and even within the region. One major reason is skill mismatches, many of which are as much social and behavioural as technical. More and better training and re-training are often recommended as answers. Another reason is the pressure on accommodation in the region coupled with the reluctance of Australian workers to leave their established houses in other regions and the metropolitan areas and the social networks that they have developed in those areas.

If immigrants are to be used to meet the local labour shortages created by the resource boom, there is something to be said for making work in the resource-booming areas a condition of their visas.

Transport effects
Gas and petroleum are most cheaply transported in bulk by pipeline. Once a pipeline is in place it makes no demands on the general transport system. However, the process of exploration, well drilling, processing plant construction and pipeline construction all require use of the general transport system, particularly roads, including many shire roads. The industry also uses road transport for product flows that are too small to justify pipeline construction.

Coal is a different matter. Export coal requires heavy haul transport as does domestic metallurgical coal and coal for electricity generation, except where the power station is located beside the mine. Although export coal is not, as yet, mined in the region, mines located in Western Downs and Toowoomba LGAs have contracted a high proportion of the limited rail capacity between Toowoomba and Brisbane and are also prominent generators of road traffic. The agricultural and pastoral industries complain that this is depriving them of high-capacity access to the abattoirs and Port of Brisbane: an especially serious matter for shippers who, for various reasons, do not have the alternative of export shipping through Newcastle via Moree. It is expected in the region that the construction of a rail connection to Gladstone and/or the bypassing of the Toowoomba Range by tunnel will allow a revival of low-cost bulk rail services. However, this is by no means certain, if only because the two main rail service companies active in Queensland have both decided to concentrate on bulk mineral and container traffic: there is no equivalent of the smaller operators who carry agricultural products from Moree to Newcastle. Under current prices and technologies it is arguable that the pastoral and farming industries can prosper without rail transport, but there is a strong argument for maintaining rail capacity against that day when the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions becomes a world and national priority.

Returning to roads, the Commonwealth remains the main source of roads funding for the South West, just as it is the main collector of road-related taxes. Its distributions are watched intently by local government and are more or less adequate: average road condition in the region is now substantially better than it was a couple of decades ago. The five shires also appear to have been reasonably satisfied with the distributions for flood damage repair made during 2011. However, resource-boom effects on local costs are not taken into account in the Commonwealth’s distributions. Again, some local roads bear mineral resource-related traffic, which is not taken into account in the Commonwealth’s distributions. However, the three shires directly affected (Bulloo, Quilpie and Maranoa) have moved to increase rates on the oil and gas industry to cover these costs. Shires have also negotiated with the gas companies to directly finance the construction of public roads required by the industry.

These arrangements do not cover road use during the exploration phase of mining development nor do they cover roads used in adjacent shires that have no mining tax base. However, apart from these deficiencies, the arrangements appear to be working.

Payments by resource extraction companies to governments
In addition to general taxes, such as corporation tax and payroll tax, there are two main classes of payment that governments may require from companies that extract non-renewable resources. The first is compensation for costs imposed on the community, notably road costs but also other items such as the cost of site rectification and pollutant management when these are left to governments rather than done by the business itself. The second is compensation for the loss of non-renewable resources. In the Australian states, these resources are owned by the states and compensation is known as royalties. The resource exploitation industries like to refer to royalties as taxes, but this is not correct.

Royalties are the price that the resource industries pay to gain ownership of the minerals they extract.

Because subsoil minerals in the region are the property of the state, neither local government nor the Commonwealth have the right to levy royalties. Therefore, local government has concentrated on cost recovery.

Payments to local government
The principal source of local government revenue, other than grants, is the rate on land. As landowners and lessees the mineral resource industries are liable to pay rates.

Queensland legislation requires rating to be on unimproved values, which have considerable merit as means of spreading the rate burden across ratepayers. However, a strict unimproved value rate generates notoriously small revenue from town allotments in rural shires. The legislation allows differential rating and it has become customary to impose a higher rate in the dollar for urban allotments than for rural allotments, the differential being determined by an estimate of the value of services provided to town ratepayers as compared to rural ratepayers. Rating on strict unimproved values also yields very low revenue from mineral resource exploitation properties: the unimproved values of these properties are low because the state-owned mineral resources lying under the property are not taken into account in valuing them. Local government has accordingly extended the established practice of differential rates for urban properties to impose differential rates on the mineral resource industry.

We may take the example of Bulloo Council, which has defined four areas occupied by mineral extractive businesses, each of which, ‘by virtue of its operation impacts significantly on the economic, environmental and social welfare aspects of the local community’.

Two of these areas are large consumers of council services, particularly roads. Land in these four areas attracts a considerably higher rate in the dollar unimproved capital value than rural land. These rates were determined by negotiation between council and the industry, and reflect estimates of: road maintenance costs occasioned by resource industry traffic; depreciation of relevant roads, which is fully funded; waste management; a contribution towards other shire services; compensation for the increase in wage costs due to the local presence of the mineral extraction industry; and a contribution towards the sustainability reserve which is being accumulated with an eye to maintaining services (particularly roads) when direct contributions from the resource industry cease due to the exhaustion of non-renewable resources.

By means of differential rating, Bulloo Shire Council raises nearly three-quarters of its total rate revenue from the oil and gas industry, but because grants and recoverable works are major sources of council funds this represents only 16 per cent of operating revenue. (Recoverable works are mainly road works at the behest of the state and Commonwealth governments but can include works negotiated with the resource companies to further their operations.) At less than $A3 million, the rate payment is also a minor expense in the books of the oil and gas companies.

Quilpie follows similar differential rating policies, and in 2011–2012 expects to raise nearly half its rate revenue from the oil and gas industry. After imposing differential rates on the industry it has abandoned a former road maintenance contribution levied on oil haulage. In rating the oil and gas industry Quilpie keeps an eye on the value of mineral production in the shire as reported by the Department of Mines and Energy.

Maranoa has likewise defined six resource-related areas on which it imposes differential rates: four areas of extractive industry plus petroleum leases and land ‘that is identified as having a gas refinery established on it’.

Although all shires host pipelines these are not rated. This policy concords with the general rate exemption for transport facilities. Mineral exploration licences are similarly rate exempt, presumably because they do not grant ownership or leasehold of land for which an unimproved value can be assessed. However, given their legal status as tenements they are potentially rateable, particularly if a fair value could be determined vis-à-vis other land titles.

The differential rating approach appears, so far, to have yielded revenue reasonably proportional to the increase in operational costs occasioned by resource extraction.

Two approaches have been noted: the ‘Bulloo’ approach, based on a broad assessment of the costs occasioned by resource extraction, including contributions to a sustainability fund; and the ‘Quilpie’ approach, based on the value of production. These two approaches frequently occur in public finance, the former reflecting the benefit principle and the latter the ability-to-pay principle. In the local government context the cost-based approach is on firm ground, but the negotiated nature of the settlements could prove a weakness in the case of councils that underestimate costs or that encounter resource extraction companies that are determined to strike a hard bargain, irrespective of the costs they impose. There may also be potential for dispute as the profitability of mineral extraction declines. If arguments develop, the parties are likely to appeal to costs, and councils should be prepared to provide a careful and accurate account of the costs occasioned for them by resource exploitation. The ability-to-pay approach is riskier for the council: it avoids the difficulty of trying to recover costs from unprofitable mineral extraction ventures and is likely to raise greater revenue from bonanzas. It is open to the objection that it is effectively a royalty and, hence, open only to the state (see below), but there are precedents in indigenous mining agreements and in the conditions under which mining leases are bought and sold. Given that state royalty rates on gas are 10 per cent of wellhead value, a local government addition of approximately 2 per cent would not be an excessive burden on the producers.

The two principles are not mutually exclusive, and it could be appropriate to combine them, with a basic rate related to direct costs occasioned by resource exploitation and a value-related addition, which would come into play only when the basic rate yielded less than (say) 2 per cent of wellhead value. The additional revenue could then be credited to a sustainability reserve.

A second area where there may be scope for formalisation of current practice is the once-only capital contributions made by resource extraction companies as part of bringing resources into production. An analogy may be made with the contributions made by developers of urban housing estates. Contributions by resource companies may appropriately include capital roadworks, water supply, sewerage, water pollution control and drainage works required for the project to proceed.

An important aspect of urban developer contributions is compliance with town planning. This cannot so easily be imposed on mineral resource developments, because the resource determines the location of the development. However, there is scope for negotiation over the location of supporting developments: roads, pipelines, processing facilities, campsites and townships. It makes sense to locate these so that, as far as possible, they will be generally useful both during and after resource extraction. For example, some of the remote area roads in Bulloo Shire have been routed to be useful to grey nomads as well as to the gas industry. Maranoa is seeking to ensure that facilities are subsequently useful for rural residential areas.

A more contentious matter is the question of industry contributions to housing and urban development. It is accepted practice that where the mineral resource industry (or the pastoral industry for that matter) employs people in remote areas it should provide accommodation. Such accommodation is either exempt from fringe benefits tax (FBT) or is assessed for FBT at

50 per cent of ‘market rates’. In towns where there are dwellings for private rental, FBT becomes unavoidable. There is a case for review of the incidence of FBT to ensure that it does not constitute a subtle incentive favouring fly-in fly-out.

A question of incentives also arises where councils require that resource companies should pay developer charges towards the provision of housing in existing towns which are to be extended to accommodate resource industry workers. The companies may then calculate that it is cheaper for them to use drive-in drive-out or fly-in fly-out. Despite the possible adverse incentives, there is a case that developments other than short-term construction should include a contribution to local government urban infrastructure. There may also be scope for measures to assist in the provision of actual housing, for example a requirement that resource exploitation companies, as part of the price of their permission to exploit, should provide bank guarantees for mortgages raised on new owner-occupied or rental housing owned by third parties in urban areas expected to house personnel employed at the resource development, with the number of dwellings covered depending on the size of the resource development.

Payments to the state government: Royalties
The administration of mineral wealth would be a relatively simple matter if all resources were known, complete with the cost of extraction. The fundamental problem of resource management would then be seen as one of resource allocation between the current and future generations. Having made a decision about this, the state could call tenders for the extraction of particular resources. It would receive, as sales revenue, the difference between the tender price and the resource sale price. However, neither the true extent of resources nor the cost of their extraction are known. Weighing up the risks and incentives, the state may be expected to maximise the return from its resources if it exacts a price that rises as the final sale price of the mineral goes up but falls as extraction costs increase. A price so determined becomes a form of profit sharing and can easily be mistaken for a tax: an emotive misidentification which the mining industry played for all it was worth in opposing recent Commonwealth mining tax proposals. In fairness to the industry, the Commonwealth proposal was, indeed, a tax, because the Commonwealth has no right to levy royalties (if a state had required a similar payment, it would have been a royalty). The Commonwealth saw an opportunity to raise revenue because the states had failed to raise their royalties in line with the resources boom. The upshot is that the right of the states to levy royalties has been vindicated and they have the opportunity to raise their mineral prices to claim a larger share of the current boom.

The history of royalty payments in Australia begins with the nineteenth century gold rushes, during which the colonial governments were reluctant to levy royalties because the diggers were numerous, vociferous and had many ways to evade payment. To this day, fossicking minerals are largely exempt from royalties, in Queensland and elsewhere. However, most of the mineral extraction industry is now large-scale and capital-intensive and there are no technical problems in the calculation of royalties provided the formula is clear. In Queensland royalties are mostly charged ad valorem, varying by mineral, as follows: gemstones are free of royalty up to $A100,000 sale value, after which the state claims 2.5 per cent of their sale price; petroleum (including natural gas and coal seam gas) is sold for 10 per cent of its wellhead value; and coal is sold for 7 per cent of its value up to $A100 a tonne and 10 per cent thereafter, with the calculation performed separately for domestic and export sales.

Because this revenue is derived from the sale of non-renewable assets, there are strong arguments for hypothecation of the revenue to investment in replacement assets. Western Australia has set a precedent with its Royalties for Regions fund, which feeds the Western Australian Regional Development Trust. Queensland faces many of the same problems of development of remote regions as Western Australia, so the Western precedent is especially relevant and should be investigated.

One of the hopes of the Western Australian government is that it will be able to develop industries to process its resources before they are exported. People in South West Queensland also wonder whether manufacturing industries can be built on the basis of its gas and coal supplies. The present oil refinery at Eromanga provides a small-scale precedent, but it is sheltered by transport costs from world competition in a way that a larger-scale industry would not be. Even so, the region should be alert to opportunities, which could arise in conjunction with that other energy resource which the region has in abundance: sunlight.

Housing
At the 2006 Census, approximately one-third of the occupied dwellings in the region were rented with the remaining two-thirds occupied by owners or purchasers. The individual shires varied from the overall pattern as follows:

  • In Bulloo, the proportion renting was relatively high, due largely to state-owned houses, many of which were presumably occupied by personnel providing state services. In addition, the council was an important landlord. Few houses were being purchased but a substantial proportion was wholly-owned. Very few new dwellings were being built.
  • The pattern in Paroo and Quilpie was broadly similar, although with a little less emphasis on state ownership and a few more home buyers. New dwellings were under construction despite the gradual fall in population in Paroo.
  • In Maranoa and Murweh, approximately one-quarter of dwellings were being purchased, balanced by a smaller proportion of outright ownership. New dwellings were under construction but not at a particularly rapid rate and in Maranoa a shortage of accommodation was developing.

All shires reported that they were trying to promote low accommodation costs as a way of retaining workers for industries that could not afford to pay resource industry wage rates. A primary element in the strategy was low land costs, well below metropolitan levels. However, both lot servicing costs and dwelling construction costs were higher than in the metropolitan areas for three reasons: the transport costs for materials; the need to accommodate out-of-town skilled labour; and the lack of economies of scale in construction.

In Thargomindah the impact on costs was estimated at between 25 and 30 per cent over costs in Toowoomba, raising the cost of a $A300,000 dwelling to $A380,000. The impact in Charleville would be less because of the availability of local tradespeople, but in Roma would reflect direct competition from resource-related construction for the services of local tradespeople.

In Australia the preferred low-cost tenure is home ownership. The low costs derive in part from tax favours, particularly the lack of taxation of capital gains made on owner-occupied dwellings. However, the benefits of owner-occupancy can be offset by the costs of buying and selling houses. For people who are obliged to change residence in the course of their careers, home ownership is not necessarily the lowest-cost housing option, particularly when they live in regions where capital gains are far from guaranteed. In South West Queensland towns home ownership is likely to be the lowest-cost housing option for people who stay put for at least a decade, perhaps less, but there is likely to be a healthy demand for rental accommodation not only from people who cannot surmount the financial barriers to home ownership but from people who expect to be stationed in the town for less than a decade.

Two particular barriers to entry into home ownership were reported in the towns of South West Queensland: bank requirements for relatively high down payments, reported to be due to an assessment that employment continuity is risky in towns with a narrow economic base; and fear on the part of potential buyers that they might be landed with capital losses, again reflecting an estimate that the economic base is narrow and the risk of downturns is serious. These two barriers also affected investment by private landlords: hence the heavy reliance on employer-provided housing, including housing provided by the shires. Several of the shires have become active traders on the housing market in the attempt to keep house prices down in their towns.

The two barriers have a common cause: the risks that derive from a narrow economic base. However, pool together all the remote towns of Australia and one no longer has a narrow economic base. This is the classic basis for insurance. It is surprising that the finance sector, which so prides itself on its capacity to innovate, has not offered insurance against the risk of falling dwelling values in defined locations. Essentially the risk concerned is that of falling unimproved values, although it could also be based on average improved values for the town concerned. There is a case for Commonwealth government action to ensure that the finance sector provides such insurance, at least in remote areas (but possibly generally) at a reasonable price. If this risk can be specified and insured against, it should become easier to gain funds for investment in housing in remote areas. (A similar proposal is developed in R. Shiller, 2004, p. 118.)

Another suggestion is to invest in the upgrading of removable homes. Historically, a high proportion of the dwellings in South West Queensland have been wooden, designed so that, if they are no longer needed on a particular site, they can be uplifted from their stumps and re-erected elsewhere. In view of the uncertain prospects for employment based on mineral resources, there is a case for a continuation of this tradition, with opportunities to use prefabrication and modern materials. Such techniques are already in general use for temporary camp dongas and the challenge is to move them upmarket. There is also a challenge to local government to ensure provision of adequate sites for such homes, not in caravan parks but urban lots so that the resident families can integrate into the town population without stigma. Such land developments should include plans for re-use of the sites should this become necessary.

As noted above, the only industry in the region with the capacity to pay developer charges to councils to assist with new housing construction is the resource exploitation industry, where such charges may be required as part of the price of the resource. Many factors enter into the decision as to whether a given mining licensee should be required to contribute to housing development, particularly the permanence of the development and its location vis-à-vis employee source towns. However, councils should not be shy of arguing for such contributions.

Gender balance in employment
It is now accepted Australian practice that both men and women wish to be in paid employment while they are of workforce age. Therefore, if families are to be attracted to live in country towns suitable paid work must be available for both husbands and wives. Second-earner work does not necessarily have to be full-time (many second-earners prefer part-time work), but it does have to be available, along with complementary services, particularly child care.

The labour market in the towns of South West Queensland has proved reasonably accommodating in supplying work for married couples. The service industries are adept at creating part-time positions, the gender stereotyping of jobs has broken down and the TAFE network assists in providing necessary skills. However, there is still a responsibility for councils and other public institutions, in their role as employers, to watch the local labour market and endeavour in their employment policies to ensure that couples can find satisfactory work for both partners.

Tax concessions and government services in remote areas
In this article the consequences of the resources boom for South West Queensland have been reviewed. The region has participated in the boom, although not fully: mineral resource exploitation has not become its dominant economic activity. On the assumption that booms do not last forever, we have considered ways in which the pastoral, tourism and other industries can be sustained, not only for the sake of their current economic contribution but even more in anticipation of their continued contribution once the resources boom has subsided.

The discussion has not been exhaustive and, in particular, two groups of policies have not been mentioned. First, the Commonwealth offers tax incentives to work in remote areas. These can be helpful in recruitment and payment of personnel. Second, both the Commonwealth and state governments pursue policies on service provision which can be helpful in recruiting personnel to work in South West Queensland. These topics (which are related) are discussed in a companion article.

Conclusion
On balance, South West Queensland is benefiting from the mineral resources boom: some shires more than others. However, to ensure that benefits continue, it is necessary to plan for what will happen after the boom has run its course. There are two main concerns. First, infrastructure should not be allowed to deteriorate as a result of boom usage. Similarly, infrastructure put in place as a result of the boom (including transport, water management and urban development) should be designed for maximum value after as well as during the boom. Second, the boom should not be allowed to detract from the productive capacity of the pastoral, tourism and other non-mineral resource industries in which the region has expertise. Even during the boom these industries continue to dominate the region’s economic and employment base, and the region will once again turn to them when the resource boom subsides.

Numerous measures have been canvassed in this paper. One such measure is ensuring that the mineral resources industry makes appropriate contributions to local infrastructure through a rural equivalent of the urban developer charge system. (The local governments of the region are already doing this but there may be room for systematisation.) Another is ensuring that the mineral resources industry makes appropriate direct contributions to local government. (The local governments of the region are already doing this through differential rating but there may be room for underpinning what are essentially now negotiated contributions.) In addition, state royalties could be increased to fund a regional development trust, as pioneered in Western Australia. Financial regulations should require appropriate financial intermediaries to insure housing values in the towns of the region. Finally, investment is necessary to improve the quality of transportable homes.

References

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012, ‘Business Indicators, Australia, Mar 2012’, cat. no. 5676.0, ABS, Canberra.

Shiller, R., 2004, The New Financial Order, Scribe, Melbourne.

Blainey, G., The Rush That Never Ended, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Net Benefits of Mining Expansion

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

Net benefits of mining expansion
Dr Peter Brain, Executive Director, NIEIR

Abstract
The present study examines the net benefits to the Australian economy of a mining boom. In light of the changed circumstances that are likely to prevail over the coming years, extrapolation of past responses to mining expansion into the future suggests that there may be little headline net per capita additional benefit. The resource claims to meet the infrastructure and service demands of the increased population induced by the current episode of mining expansion will be presented in full, creating very difficult political and economic constraints, adding to those from climate change. The situation will be compounded by the national productivity growth tending to remain below historical trend levels. However, the resource expansion could be managed differently, to maximise its net additionality. Such management would include increased harvesting of resource rents and measures to increase the domestic content of mining investment.

Introduction
In a previous article we argued that, because the mining industry produces standardised commodity products, the drivers of expansion in the industry are very different from those in industries which develop and market differentiated and branded products (Brain, 2012). The commodity-production nature of the industry means that bursts of expansion generally occur as a response to unexpectedly high mineral prices, although they can also take place as a response to the discovery of new low-cost resources.

The current Australian episode of high investment in additional capacity to produce iron ore and energy minerals was generated by a burst of high prices. Past experience is that such episodes induce sufficient capacity expansion to increase world supply and so bring prices back towards costs of production, ending the investment boom. An episode of mining expansion thus has several phases: an initial phase of normal production; a phase of investment and high construction activity induced by high prices; a phase of increasing output as additional capacity comes on stream; and, finally, the stabilisation of production, generally at a higher level of output but not necessarily at higher prices than during the first phase.

During the construction phase the mining industry makes major demands on the construction industry in the country where the investment takes place. In particular, the demand for labour is high during the construction phase but falls during the enhanced output phase, a characteristic which is generally true of investment–output sequences. This demand for skilled construction workers can be met in four ways:

  • the existing workforce could be used more intensively, so that other construction activity is unaffected;
  • labour could be diverted from other construction to mining investment;
  • guest workers could be used from overseas, with workers obliged to return home after completion of the investment campaign; and
  • immigration of workers with the appropriate skills could be increased.

Each method has its disadvantages.

  • If mining investment is limited to that which can be undertaken by available labour, even working intensively, the amount of investment will be limited, perhaps to less than that desired by investors.
  • If labour is diverted, other construction programs will have to be curtailed. The question is then whether the mining investment has higher priority than the curtailed investment.
  • Guest workers have a habit of becoming permanent migrants, in which case the disadvantages of the immigration solution become relevant.
  • Increased immigration raises the question of how to find work for the immigrants (or for the established residents they have displaced) once the construction boom is over and the demand for labour has subsided.

The demand for construction materials also rises during periods of enhanced mining investment, but this demand can readily be met from imports if for any reason there is a shortage of local supply. Indeed, the global strategies of mining investors often favour overseas sourcing, because this adds to demand in their home countries. It is mainly in regard to labour that an important analytical question arises. From a country’s point of view, who are to be regarded as the potential beneficiaries of a period of mining expansion: the population of the country as at the beginning of the expansion plus its descendants or the population as augmented by any induced migration?

Not only is it important to be clear as to the population relevant to assessment of the benefits of mining investment, it is important to be clear as to the metric of assessment.

Indicators of national economic welfare
National economic benefit or welfare can be measured by a variety of indicators. The most often used indicators are employment, preferably full-time equivalent employment, and gross domestic product (GDP). The two are used together because there will be times when employment will increase but productivity measured by GDP per person employed will fall. An unambiguous increase in national economic welfare will only occur if GDP and employment both increase and productivity does not fall.

The use of the GDP measure, especially in the case of mining expansion, is open to the criticism that it does not distinguish between foreign-owned product and product owned by domestic residents. The important consideration here is the distribution of gross product generated by overseas-owned enterprises. If 90 per cent of the gross product is distributed to domestic employees and in tax payments, foreign ownership is of little relevance. However, in mining approximately 60 per cent of value added accrues to foreigners in the form of interest payments, depreciation cash flow, dividends and retained earnings in the enterprise. These do not add to domestic incomes. An indicator which excludes foreign payments for interest, dividends and retained earnings is gross national product (GNP).

The other distinguishing feature of mining is its high level of capital intensity. Relatively large increments in investment are required to increase output. In turn, this means that there will need to be large deductions from GDP in the form of replacement investment appropriately financed from depreciation, if the output is to be sustained. A measure which deducts depreciation, or at least depreciation undertaken on behalf of domestic residents and foreign distributions out of value added, is net national product (NNP). This concept is akin to the concept of national net disposable income in the Australian National Accounts and measures the benefits to domestic residents in terms of household consumption expenditures and government finances.

Finally, it is argued that the prime measure of welfare is consumption expenditure. Hence, the relevant welfare indicator is the flow-on implications for household consumption expenditure plus net additional taxation receipts. Tax receipts are included because they determine further potential flow-on benefits for household consumption expenditure (tax rate reductions) or public consumption expenditure increases.

Gross benefits of the construction phase
The extent to which an episode of mining expansion benefits the prior-resident population of the country in which it takes place is strongly influenced by two factors:

  1. the extent to which mining investment in the construction phase increases demand and so increases employment; and
  2. the extent to which labour demands during the construction phase are met by immigration.

The first step in calculating the significance of the increase in demand is to assess the impact of mining investment under full additionality; that is, where the increase is met in a way which does not diminish other demands including other investment. This estimate can then be modified according to the extent to which the increase in mining investment reduces other investment.

The most practical and transparent analytical framework to estimate the demand effect under full additionality is to utilise a set of input–output tables that reflects the structure of the economy at the time the investment takes place. For this study, this was provided by a set of tables updated from the 2005– 2006 table to 2008–2009 with the distribution of value added reflecting the impact of foreign ownership. The algebra underlying the calculations is given at the end of the article.

From the 2008–2009 updated tables, the structure of the economy reflects the commodity price relativities which are likely to prevail, at least until 2014. Earlier input–output tables do not reflect current price relativities. If there are no capacity constraints on production, the increase in demand due to mining construction is measured by Type II multipliers; that is, the total of intermediate plus private consumption flow-on. These are given in Table 1, which is based on a flow of $A33 billion average annual net additional mining investment during the construction phase.

The modelling indicates that total imports grow by $A17 billion, which limits the increase in headline GDP to $A23.3 billion. If indirect taxes are added this gives a traditional multiplier of 0.74. If a Type III multiplier analysis had been employed, including induced non-mining investment flow-on, the multiplier would have been closer to unity.

A key variable of interest is the employment impact. The answer from Table 1 is that just under 200,000 additional workers will be required. The other key variable is the flow-on orders to manufacturing. From more detailed work, the total increase in gross output of the MM sector (from iron and steel to other machinery and equipment) comes to just under $A4 billion or a local content for the industry relative to total expenditure of 12 per cent.

Capture

These calculations provide an outside estimate of the value to the economy of the increase in demand due to mining expansion. The actual value is likely to be less, for two main reasons. First, the construction boom may directly attract labour and capital from other activities. Second, price effects associated with the boom may reduce the utilisation of both labour and capacity in other industries without transfer to the booming sector.

The first of these effects is expected and, indeed, welcomed by the neoclassical economists who dominate Australian policy formation; the latter, colloquially the ‘Dutch disease’ effect, they prefer to assume away.

Migration and mining expansion
Prima facie, there is little reason to expect major reductions in capacity utilisation in the non-resource industries as a result of the mining boom. On the capital side, much of the capital is supplied from overseas, both financially and physically. Indeed, the complaint is not that demand in the mining and construction industries is stretching capacity in the Australian capital goods industries but rather the reverse: that insufficient demand is flowing to these industries to offset the Dutch disease effect. On the labour side, the increase of less than 2 per cent in total labour demand is a lot less than the current unemployment rate, especially when Australia’s low labour-force participation rate (compared at least to some European countries) is taken into account.

However, it is no simple matter to shift underemployed labour into the jobs created by a mining boom. There are several reasons.

  • Many of the jobs call for specialised skills. Here there is something of an impasse: Australian governments (Commonwealth and state) expect either that private individuals will see the opportunities and acquire the necessary skills, or that the mining and construction industries will provide the necessary training. For their part, and with occasional exceptions, the mining and construction companies expect that individuals and/or governments will ensure that the necessary skills are available. The result is that skill-specific labour shortages can easily occur.
  • A significant minority of the jobs generated are located in remote areas where housing is poor but expensive and social opportunities are limited. Once again, there is an impasse: with honourable exceptions now mainly past, neither governments nor mining companies are willing to invest in remote mining towns which may lose their raison d’être within decades, and even when the physical infrastructure is provided the settlements often remain unattractive due to their isolation. The fly-in fly-out alternative gets round some of these difficulties at the cost of creating difficulties of its own, particularly for families.
  • Mining and construction involve the operation of valuable equipment. The companies accordingly impose tight labour discipline and are quick to sack workers who breach discipline. Poor labour relations do nothing to assist recruitment.

The mining and construction companies attempt to overcome these disadvantages with high pay. They also call for immigration as a way of meeting their recruitment problems. If recruitment were purely on a guest-worker basis, this would parallel their attitude to the supply of capital and ensure that the mining expansion was essentially an offshore matter. However, Australia has no tradition of guest-worker migration, preferring permanent migration. This may be a realistic attitude in view of experience elsewhere (that guest workers become permanent) but may also reflect folk memories of the high transport costs once associated with migration to Australia and the resulting difficulties in attracting migrants. The result is that considerable migration is required to satisfy the limited and specialised labour demands of the boom, given that only a small minority among migrants is directly suited to fulfilling these demands. Therefore, we take a macroeconomic approach to assessing the immigration requirements of a mining expansion.

Given the strong employment impact of the construction phase, the expectation would be for net Australian migration to be correlated with mining investment. From Figure 1, typically Australia has responded to each episode of elevated mining expansion with increases in net immigration. As Figure 1 indicates, for the years 1980 to 1989 the level of net immigration averaged 105,000 a year compared to 60,000 for the 4 years before 1980. At the end of the 1990s there was another spike in net immigration, partly as a lagged response to the second construction phase.

Before the third mining construction episode the average was 150,000. However, from 2006 to 2010 the average was 260,000 a year, or a total cumulative increase in population of 550,000 compared to trends before the current episode of mining expansion.

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If mi in the equation is set at zero and compared against the actual outcome, the estimate of the increase in population due to the mining boom falls to an additional 400,000 population between 2006 and 2010. This is lower than the 500,000 estimate given above from Figure 1 because of the influence of the trend term in the estimated equation.

If the average worker to immigrant population rate is between 0.3 and 0.4 (allowing for children and the basic male demands of the construction industry) immigration would have yielded approximately 150,000 workers towards the labour requirements of the construction phase. Therefore, between 60 and 80 per cent of the employment required by the current episode of mining expansion construction phase has been supplied by imported labour.

This dynamic is ignored in most assessments of the impact of elevated mining expansion. However, it is critical to the evaluation of economic benefits. The figure shows that a net 950,000 persons (rounded up to one million to allow for very modest net natural increase after migrant arrival) have been added to Australia because of the employment opportunities created by the three episodes of mining expansion since the late 1970s.

Significance of mining for the balance of payments
Where businesses are overseas-owned, employ little local labour and exist purely to supply overseas markets, a case can be made that they should be excluded from the national accounts of the host country and, instead, covered as offshore extensions of the owning economy. The case for this is particularly strong where labour is also supplied from overseas. Such enterprises were common in the 19th-century and early 20th-century empires and were often called enclave-export industries. Given that they frequently depended on franchises awarded by the colonial government, it is no surprise that with the end of colonialism they frequently found themselves nationalised.

The effect of excluding enclave-export enterprises from the national accounts of their host country would be to reduce the reported values for a number of variables, chiefly the following:

  • the inflow of overseas investment, particularly during the construction phase of the enterprise;
  • the stock of overseas investment;
  • the outflow of funds to service overseas investment, both profits and capital repatriation; and
  • the level of exports. (Sales by the excluded businesses would no longer be counted as export revenues of the host economy. Instead, resource rents collected by host-country resource owners (both governments and private owners) would be shown as exports, as well as labour supplied and any other sales by domestic businesses to the enclave-export industry.)

The net effect would be a major diminution in the importance of the excluded industries as measured by GDP or the national balance sheet, although as already remarked above there would be no effect in their importance as measured by NNP. The mining companies are strongly opposed to being defined as enclave-export industries, and equally to the use of measures such as NNP, because they wish to be regarded as pillars of the Australian economy. Their aversion to being regarded as overseas operators who just happen to be extracting resources in Australia is easy to understand given the history of nationalisation of mineral resources in countries where exploitation has been completely in overseas hands.

The decision to define mining operations as domestic rather than enclave-export industries has major effects on the headline economic indicators of host countries during periods of mining expansion. In particular:

  • commentators focus on the growth rate of GDP rather than the relatively low growth rate of NNP;
  • the growth rate of gross exports is emphasised at the expense of the lower growth rate of net export earnings after servicing overseas investment; and
  • the terms of trade are calculated on the basis of the price of exported products rather than the price of services to the enclave-export industry.

In a rational world these effects would not matter much, but in the harried world of finance it is likely that they contribute to the Dutch disease. In what follows, the indirect effects of periods of mining expansion on resource allocation are considered.

Dutch disease
As noted above, an episode of mining expansion requires a burst of capital investment. The benefit of the episode will be greatest if it uses otherwise unemployed resources, but it is more likely that resources will be transferred from less promising investments, or from less productive activities, into the construction effort required to expand mining. There is a double danger in this process.

  • The price mechanisms which assist this transfer may themselves create offsetting unemployment. This can happen when they dampen demand for non-mining products and services without affecting the transfer of resources into the expanding sector. Instead these resources become unemployed.
  • It produces a lingering shadow, in that investment foregone in the non-mining industries during the construction phase permanently affects their competitiveness. This mechanism was discussed in a previous article and its significance will be assessed below (Brain, 2012).

A particular case of these problems, referred to as the Dutch disease (because it was first recognised in the Netherlands during the North Sea oil boom) has two parts:

  • During the construction phase the exchange rate is overvalued, in the sense that it renders industries uncompetitive when they would be competitive at the exchange rates which obtain both before and after the period of mining expansion. This reduces non-mining exports, a matter of some concern when mining commodity prices fall back towards pre-boom levels. Because investment in product development has been curtailed, the reduction in non-mining investment during a period of resource expansion carries the risk that production in non-mining trade-exposed industries will be reduced more or less permanently.
  • The possibility of further episodes of overvaluation increases the riskiness of investment in non-commodity trade-exposed industries, so further reducing exports and import-competing capacity in these industries.

But why should the exchange rate be overvalued during the construction phase? In neoclassical theory the exchange rate cannot be overvalued or undervalued, because the foreign exchange markets are believed to take into account all relevant factors, focusing on the balance of trade and, hence, the ability of each debtor country to service its debts. Sufficient to say that during the era of fluctuating exchange rates (broadly since the mid-1980s) the Australian exchange rate has failed to behave as theoretically predicted. Reasons for the current overvaluation of the Australian dollar which relate to the decision to treat enclave-export industries as integral parts of the Australian economy include the following:

  • an apparent high level of capital inflow;
  • an apparent prospect of high growth in export revenues; and
  • a high terms of trade.

In addition, other factors may be important, including the option exercised by a number of trade-surplus countries to maintain their exchange rates at ‘competitive’ levels by accumulating the financial assets of the indebted world (including Australia). It is also relevant that Australian real interest rates are higher than in the rest of the world, partly to restrain the level of economic activity (and, hence, assist in the transfer of resources to mining investment) but also because of the need to finance the high level of foreign debt.

For the purposes of the present study we now require a practical assessment of the severity of the Dutch disease as it currently affects Australia. The assessment requires comparison of a base case in which the mining industry continues its 1998–2005 growth rate through the period 2006 to 2012 and the actual case in which mining expansion occurred. The National Institute of Economic and Industry Review (NIEIR) has used its modelling system to make this comparison and published the results in the State of the Regions Report 2012–13 (Chapter 10). In brief, during the construction phase to date the mining expansion has, through mining investment and its multiplier effects, generated an increase of just under 7 per cent in Australian GDP. However, there have been offsetting reductions in activity in the non-mining industries which reduce the net benefit to date to approximately 3.1 per cent. This falls further, to 2.7 per cent, if the calculations are converted to a NNP basis. Taking into account the increase in population due to additional migration induced by the increase in mining activity, this further reduces to an increase of approximately 1 per cent in NNP per capita.

The State of the Regions Report further points out that all regions in Western Australia have unambiguously benefited from the mining boom. The regional pattern of benefit in the other states is patchy at best. The same goes for industry patterns, with strong increases of activity flowing from mining investment into construction while import-competing and non-mining export industries do less well than they would have in the absence of the boom. Among the industries which, on balance, do badly metal and machinery manufacturing is prominent. Given the importance of metal and machinery inputs to mining investment, this is an unexpected result, and raises the question as to why the linkage from mining investment to domestic demand for MM is so weak.

Local content of mining activity
Using NIEIR’s input–output table, the local content of mining activity for 2009 can be estimated. The direct demand from mining is defined as operational demands for goods and services plus investment requirements, including replacement investment. The operational demands are simply the intermediate industry demand column sums from the estimated input–output tables for all mining industries. This comes to a total demand for the mining sector of $A85.7 billion, of which $A75.8 billion is supplied by local industry. The bulk of the imports come from the metals and machinery (MM) sectors of overseas economies. Total MM demand for operations is $A11 billion, of which $A4.4 billion is supplied locally.

More importantly, from the investment data which is included in the totals in Table 2, it can be calculated that the investment component has a much higher import content. The import content is approximately half, with imports of $A26 billion. This includes replacement investment. Of the total imports, 60 per cent come in the form of products from the MM sector overseas.

These averages will change from year to year as the industry/project mix changes. For example, as the share of liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects in total mining investment increases over the next 2 years the MM sector’s share can be expected to increase.

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Effects beyond the construction phase
These calculations place us in the position to assess the impact, not only of the construction phase but of the production phase which follows. The more the increase in mining capacity is bought at the expense of capacity in other industries, the less these industries will be able to respond to increases in demand during the production phase. We investigate these possibilities on the basis of the two extreme sets of assumptions (full additionality and full displacement) and also consider the consequences of the resource requirements to support the induced population increase.

Mining expansion: Full additionality
Full additionality occurs when impact of both the construction and production phases on the economy is close to the Type II multiplier estimates from the latest input–output table. This calculation shows what would happen if no capacity is lost in the non-mining industries during the construction phase.

Given the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES’s) benchmark for forecast mining production over the next 5 years, Table 3 shows the impact of each annual increment in production. ABARE’s projection implies an annual average increase of $A12.6 billion in gross mining output, or $A63 billion between 2010 and 2015.

From Table 3, the increase in GDP is $A12 billion, of which $A6.8 billion is mining gross product. Thus, the total mining gross product multiplier would be 1.76 under full additionality. Much of this is overseas-owned, and GNP increases by $A7 billion. What is important, however, is the increase in real NNP, or what the Australian Bureau of Statistics now calls real net national disposable income. This increases by $A8 billion, or 1.18 times the increase in mining gross product. The increase in real net national disposable income is two thirds of the GDP increase because depreciation and foreign transfers from the mining industry (which include repayment of foreign loans, interest, dividends and retained earnings) reduce mining NNP to 53 per cent of mining gross product.

Government revenues increase by $A2.8 billion while total employment increases by 57,200. This means that over the next 5 years a total of 286,500 employment positions will be created by the projected mining output expansion. If full additionality applies there is every reason to welcome a mining expansion.

Mining expansion: Full displacement
Gross full displacement is defined as the Type II multiplier that results when the increase in mining exports is neutralised completely by an increase in imports and a reduction in non-mining exports. This adjustment is modelled by applying the same percentage adjustment to all import penetration ratios and non-mining exports. In this case GDP falls by $A8.8 billion and NNP by $A7.2 billion. Employment falls by 78,100, reflecting the relatively high labour intensity of the sectors displaced. This is further reflected in the near $A5 billion fall in wages and salaries.

Net full displacement can be estimated by subtracting the second from the first column in Tables 4 and 5. Compared to the full additionality case, displacement considerably reduces the benefits of a mining boom, but in Australia’s case does not completely take them away. The numbers indicate that, except for employment, policy-makers can be indifferent to a mining expansion which results in full net displacement because, on this basis, there would be a key benefit of an increase in national productivity. Government revenue is also positive with net full displacement.

The issue of government revenue
A first caveat to this reasonably positive result is that the tax revenue for new mining projects may take 5 to 10 years to peak because of the high write-offs in the early stage of production for, for example, preliminary expenses, depreciation and exploration expenditure. Second, for highly capital-intensive projects, resource rent tax may not be levied for 8 to 10 years from the commencement of production. The taxation results in the tables assume immediate payment of resource rent tax based on the industry averages. For the full additionality case, the increase in direct tax revenue from the mining sector equals $A1 billion. In the early years at least the estimate of nearly $A3 billion government revenue from mining should be reduced significantly.

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Costs of additional population
The second adjustment that must be made is that the gross and full displacement analysis indicates that 78,000 jobs are lost from industries that are, in the main, located in established regions with adequate infrastructure and community services.

The mining expansion case, in contrast, involves the necessity to increase national population in regions where, in the main, the infrastructure and resource requirements have not been provided. These costs need to be taken into account.

It is argued above that an additional 400,000 people will be induced to migrate into Australia to resource construction to allow mining production to increase as analysed in the tables. Given the rigours of life in many of the regions where mining investment is taking place, the workers imported to support the mining expansion will, by attrition, shift to industries and regions that are unrelated to the mining construction and production supply chain. If inflationary pressures are to be avoided, part of this attrition will have to be replaced by additional migration over the next few years. It will be assumed that the additional immigration will average out at 50,000 a year for the duration of the expansion, which is likely to continue to 2015 at least, and later for LNG if not for metallic minerals. Therefore, a notional 10 year construction phase will be assumed.

The annual and once-off expenditures that will be required over the next decade to support each 50,000 increment are given, by component, in Table 6 and come to a total of between $A5.0 billion and $A6.0 billion (to give a range rather than a point estimate). Given these resource claims from mining expansion either directly on government or in terms of resource claims on society as a whole (as is the case with housing), in order for Government and society to be indifferent between resource expansion and leaving the minerals in the ground the net Government revenue from resource expansion would have to be at least $A1.5 billion to $A2.0 billion greater on an annual basis than what is likely to be generated. If the balance is not to tip decisively away from net benefits to net costs there will have to be higher mining taxes, both in the short term and the long term and/or low levels of displacement of domestic non-mining production.

Three different tests can now be applied to assess the realism of these calculations. The first will examine the statistical relationship between real net national disposable income and mining product, the second will examine the relationship between state capacity and mining investment, and the third will examine the evidence of crowding out in the MM manufacturing sector. The three tests corroborate the reasoning in general, although they also suggest additional lines of investigation.

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Link between mining and net national income
One simple way to test for the link between mining gross product and net national product/net national income is to run a regression of real net national income (less mining and construction gross product) per capita against time and real mining gross product. To remove the terms of trade effect, nominal mining gross product is deflated by the Australian National Accounts’ gross national income implicit deflator rather than by mining prices. The mining variable is expressed in per capita terms.

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The zero coefficient for the mining gross product variable indicates that in both real and price terms mining has had no impact on non-mining and construction national net disposable income. At this level of abstraction, mining seems to add to income overall, although without any positive multiplier effects into other industries.

The results suggest a degree of additionality. In the full additionality model run considered above the ratio of the increase in NNP to the increase in mining gross product was 1.18. However, the equation just estimated indicates that full additionality does not apply and the mining production phase has contributed no more than mining’s direct contribution to NNP. The contribution from the full additionality sensitivity analysis is 0.53 per dollar of gross product, or an increase of $A3.6 billion a year between 2010 and 2015. Therefore, taking the ratio of $A3.6 billion to the $A8.0 billion increase in NNP from Table 3 suggests an average net additionality factor of 45 per cent, suggesting that while Australia has not avoided the Dutch disease it has at least managed to gain some net benefit from the construction phase. This case is referred to elsewhere in this study as the 50 per cent gross crowding-out case or the 50 cents in the dollar crowding-out case.

However, the conclusion does not adjust for the increase in population to support mining expansion. This is done in Table 7.

The conclusion from Table 7 is less optimistic than the conclusion derived in the section above on the Dutch disease, where it was found that the mining construction boom from 2006 to 2012 added approximately 1 per cent to NNP per capita. Table 7 relates to a longer time period which includes both periods of mining expansion and periods when the mining industry has been producing but not expanding. The conclusion for this longer period is that the annual mining contribution to net national income has been a little less than the per capita net national income attributed to the one million population increase to support mining construction phases since 1979. In other words, there has been no net additionality in terms of benefits to the original population, defined as the population that would have existed if net mining investment since 1979 had been zero. This means that, on a per capita basis, Australia has been subject to the resource curse, if not in terms of headline outcomes, and suggests that the main impact of the mining expansion since 1979 has been to expand population without loss of per capita net national income but no doubt at a cost of housing shortages and decline in infrastructure quality.

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Resource expansion: Impact on non-primary GDP capacity
Our discussion in a previous article of the difference in investment drivers between commodity producers (now chiefly miners) and producers of differentiated and branded goods and services indicates that a major driver of displacement is foregone non-mining capacity that results from the pressures of the construction phase (Brain, 2012). Time-series estimates of non-agricultural capacity utilisation are available at the state level from National Australia Bank surveys on a quarterly basis and can be readily adjusted to exclude mining.

To test for the crowding out of non-mining activity during the construction phase the following model was estimated for the five main Australian states (estimation from the fourth quarter of 1989 to 2010):

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Because of the interaction between import share and capacity it is not possible to interpret outcomes directly from equation coefficients. However, simulations suggest that for a $33 billion annual mining investment, the decline in MM gross output will be around $12 billion if the previous peak import share is exceeded or approximately $8 billion if this is not the case. Given the gross product to gross output ratio, this suggests a loss of output in terms of gross product of between $3 and $4.2 billion directly and perhaps double this after inter-industry flow-ons. This, in turn, would represent a plausible one third to one half of the reduction in aggregate displaced capacity estimated in the previous section.

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Household debt and net additionality
We now have an apparent contradiction. It would appear that there has been headline net additionality, if not on an adjusted per capita basis. The results from the last two sections suggest a situation close to zero net additionality. The two can be reconciled by the recognition of the role of household debt in driving Australian economic growth since the early 1990s.

The accumulation of household debt stimulated growth through equity withdrawal by the household sector, including an increase in debt above the levels required to finance housing and other household investment. The net additional stimulus to growth is measured by the change in household equity withdrawal as a percentage of GDP. This series is given in Figure 2. Between 1992 and the middle of 2008 the average annual stimulus from the change in equity withdrawal was 0.5 percentage points, so that the growth in household debt contributed at least half a percentage point to annual growth. This was a powerful mechanism for producing headline positive net additionality which coincided with the construction phase of resource expansion – and was related to that phase by overseas willingness to lend to the Australian banks. The inference is that without the growth of household debt, mining expansion over the past two decades may well have produced headline zero net additionality. Under these circumstances it is likely that population growth would have been less. However, significant negative per capita additionality may well still have occurred.

The problem is that with the ratio of household debt to net disposable income now at 200 per cent there is only limited further stimulus to economic growth available from this source. It follows that it is likely that the economic stimulus from the current episode of elevated mining expansion over the next few years is will fall well short of expectations based on the last decade.

Macroeconomic policy and crowding out
An important link in all of these effects is the overvaluation of the exchange rate. We therefore revisit the question of why the exchange rate appreciated as it did.

One suggestion is that the appreciation could have been avoided by tighter economic policies. If, at the macroeconomic level, the objective is to protect the domestic non-resource sector an appropriate response to ensure internal/external balance would be to introduce contractionary fiscal policies to prevent the exchange rate appreciating and release sufficient labour resources to resource both mining construction and the maintenance of the non-mining sector activity at pre-mining boom levels. However, Australia took a less painful alternative, at least in the short-term, which was to increase the supply of labour by immigration so that both domestic supply and demand could be expanded and upward pressure on the current account balance neutralised. Australia imported 400,000 additional people which would have been more than enough to prevent crowding out of the non-resource sector and should have been more than enough to prevent upward appreciation of the currency. However, the estimated equations suggest that crowding out was not prevented. Despite a significant deterioration in the current account deficit (Figure 3) the exchange rate appreciated significantly between September 2004 and June 2008. The economic textbooks suggest that this should not have happened – the exchange rate should not have appreciated either due to the increase in the current account deficit or because of the additional population.

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What then drives the exchange rate? The latest theory of financial sector analysis is that the high Australian exchange rate is being driven by the Australian currency being a ‘proxy’ for the Chinese currency. The Chinese currency is not fully convertible and is a non-market driven, controlled currency. The Australian currency is market driven. Therefore, international investors are reluctant to invest directly in Chinese financial assets to capture the benefits of China’s economic growth. They reason that the safest next best strategy is to invest in Australian dollar-denominated assets which, because of the dependency of the Australian economy on the Chinese economy, should in value ‘shadow’ the free market outcome for the Chinese economy. The inference is clear. Australia has no ability to control crowding out by macroeconomic policy instruments. The only solution is direct intervention to increase the direct benefits to the Australian economy from elevated periods of mining expansion.

This is not to suggest that increasing the migration rate has not lessened the degree of crowding out from what would otherwise have been the case. What is clear is that textbook policies are necessary, but not sufficient factors, to reduce the degree of crowding out. The textbook policies being insufficient, direct action is required if to crowding out direct action is required if crowding out is to be minimised.

Mining expansion and the national productivity slowdown
The central argument of this article is that the mining boom, by crowding out non-resource activity, has created unutilised resources which can be exploited to increase the direct benefits from the current mining expansion. This argument applies not only to capital and labour resources but also to the potential impact of mining expansion on the rate of productivity growth. This potential stems from the relationship between the rate of growth of productivity and the rate of growth of economic activity. For this to be correct, the evidence must suggest that the current productivity slowdown is related to the slowdown in the rate of growth in the economy. As is indicated below in this section, this is the case. From the December quarter 2011 National Accounts, the rate of growth of productivity measured by GDP per hour worked has fallen from between 0.5 to 0.8 per cent, depending on whether the September or December quarter of 2010 is selected compared to the corresponding quarter a year earlier. Figures 4 and 5 leave out the poor recent quarters and run to the June quarter 2010. Even so, productivity growth was still trending down. What is important here is not so much what the recent rate of growth of productivity has been, but the extent to which the slowdown in productivity growth was due to the changes in the pattern of economic activity.

Figures 4 and 5 indicate such a relationship. In Figure 4, in general the higher the rate of growth of GDP the higher the rate of growth of productivity. This finding is expressed in Figure 5 by a larger gap between the rate of growth of total hours worked and GDP. This gap is larger the higher the rate of growth of GDP.

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The sample period is the first quarter of 1989 to the second quarter of 2010.

The two key coefficients are the sum of gdpg coefficients and the cute coefficient. The cute coefficient indicates that the lower the capacity utilisation rate in the economy the lower the (labour) productivity growth rate, no doubt in part due to the underutilisation of overhead hours. The sum of the gdpg coefficients is 0.68, indicating that a 1-per cent growth rate of gdpg is associated with an additional labour productivity growth rate of 0.32 per cent.

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To demonstrate this impact of economic activity on GDP growth, the 2007 calendar year will be compared with the 2010 calendar year. The 2007 calendar year was the last year of sustained high productivity growth over all four quarters. The average GDP growth rate for 2007 over the four quarters was 4.6 per cent, compared to 2.7 for 2010. The difference  in  growth was 1.9 per cent,  suggesting that the growth difference would explain a productivity growth decline of 0.6 per cent per annum.

However, productivity growth has also declined because of a fall in capacity utilisation rates between 2007 and 2010. The average non-farm capacity utilisation rate over 2007 was 83.8, compared to 81.6 for 2010. The lower capacity utilisation rate explains another 0.6-per cent decline in productivity. The average labour productivity growth rate in terms of hours worked in 2007 was 1.9 per cent, compared to 0.3 for 2010. Therefore, the slowdown in economic activity between 2007 and 2010 explains 1.2/1.6, or three-quarters of the decline in productivity.

The crowding-out effects of mining expansion would have contributed to the decline in national productivity over the last year. However, to date, the largest contribution to falling productivity would have come from the unwinding of the fiscal stimulus (Brain, 2010).

In the years ahead, however, the cumulative effects of the Dutch disease, if allowed to continue, can be expected to reduce national productivity growth rates from levels that would have been expected given longer-term historical trends.

The important point is that the crowding-out effects of mining expansion are likely to have a larger negative impact on national productivity growth compared to recent past crowdings-out. It follows that the impact of measures to increase the direct benefits from mining expansion will have a positive impact on national productivity and, therefore, will be mildly anti-inflationary, because they will enable existing employed resources to be used more effectively.

Conclusion
Given the changed circumstances that are likely to prevail over the next few years, extrapolation of past responses to mining expansion into the future suggests that there may be little headline net per capita additional benefit. This will come at a time when the resource claims to meet the infrastructure and service demands of the increased population induced by the current episode of mining expansion will be presented in full, creating very difficult political and economic constraints, and adding to those from climate change. This will be compounded by the national productivity growth remaining below historical trend levels other than occasionally, such as in 2011–2012.

The alternative is to change the way resource expansion is managed to maximise its net additionality. As discussed in a previous article, such management would include increased harvesting of resource rents and measures to increase the domestic content of mining investment.

 

References

ABS (Australian   Bureau   of   Statistics), 2010, ‘Australian  System  of  National  Accounts,  2009–10’, ABS Cat. No. 5204.

Brain, P. J. ‘Australia and the Global Financial Crisis: A Highly Efficient Policy Response at the Cost of Locking in Structural Imbalances’, National Economic Review, 65, pp. 1–22.

Brain,  P.  J.,  2012,  ‘The  Mining  Boom  in  Context’,

National Economic Review, 67, pp. 1–18.

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.

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.