MYEFO, Telstra, economy, Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Disability Pension Scheme, Victorian election, black economy, housing

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OECD Expects Robust Economic Growth for Australia
November 21, 2002
Tax; Economy; Victorian Election; Drought; Telstra; Iraq; Dr Mahathir
November 28, 2002
OECD Expects Robust Economic Growth for Australia
November 21, 2002
Tax; Economy; Victorian Election; Drought; Telstra; Iraq; Dr Mahathir
November 28, 2002

MYEFO, Telstra, economy, Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Disability Pension Scheme, Victorian election, black economy, housing


Press Conference
Wednesday, 27 November 2002

SUBJECTS: MYEFO, Telstra, economy, Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Disability

Pension Scheme, Victorian election, black economy, housing


The Mid-Year Economic Review for 2002-03 released today demonstrates the continued

resilience of the Australian economy notwithstanding very difficult international

conditions and notwithstanding the severe drought.

The Government has today revised down its forecast for growth in 2002-03 to

3 per cent from a Budget forecast of 3 ¾ per cent. This is nearly all related

to the drought which is now gripping most of the country. And whereas at Budget

time we forecast farm product to grow by 3 ¾ per cent, in the Mid-Year

Review we forecast it to contract by 17 per cent. In fact, the contraction in

relation to crops is very much more significant. But, the 17 per cent contraction

is in relation to the farm sector overall.

In the non-farm economy, the economy continues to grow strongly. And as a consequence

of that our growth will be 3 per cent forecast through 2002-2003, again leading

the developed economies of the world. And, for the first time we put down a

forecast in this Mid-Year Review for the next financial year 2003-04 of 4 per

cent. That assumes a bounce-back from drought in the next financial year and

also a strengthening world economy.

The fiscal position in this Mid-Year Review for the current financial year

2002-2003 is essentially unchanged with a cash surplus forecast of around $2.1

billion. This is notwithstanding spending measures since the Budget, in particular,

for the victims of the Bali terrorist attacks, for enhancements to security

in the wake of Bali, for a large new program of immunisation in relation to

meningococcal C and for a medical indemnity insurance package.

We have also made provision in this Mid-Year Review for further drought assistance

under the Exceptional Circumstances program of $327 million over 3 years, that

is in addition to measures already announced, which amount to around $12 million

over 3 years, interim assistance for Bourke and Brewarrina, actual Exceptional

Circumstances for Bourke and Brewarrina, assistance to the Farmhand Foundation,

and the Prime Minister will be announcing some additional measures of around

$4 million in new expenses today. That is a decision which is being made today

so it won’t appear in this Mid-Year Review.

Notwithstanding those additional measures, the expenses have actually slightly

declined because of favourable parameters working in favour of the Government,

higher than forecast GST collections, which means that assistance to the States

is going to be some $170 million less, and a lower unemployment rate than we

forecast at Budget time which means savings of around $150 million on unemployment

benefits. So, there have been additional expenses since the Budget offset by

more favourable parameter changes in relation particularly to those two items.

Cash receipts have fallen, but fallen only slightly. So, you have had a slight

fall in tax cash receipts, a slight fall in expenses and a Budget outcome more

or less the same.

The Mid-Year Review forecasts some worsening in the current account deficit,

particularly as a consequence of the drought and reduced farm exports and additionally

a more difficult international climate. The Consumer Price Index is forecast

to be within our target band of 2 to 3 per cent over the coming year, and, as

I said earlier, we expect growth to rebound in 2003-04.

The risks which we see to the economy in the forthcoming year would be if the

drought should persist into 2003-04, that is, into the next financial year,

that would obviously affect the rebound which we’re forecasting, and if the

international economy should weaken. Our assessment is that the international

economy remains quite fragile. The United States recovery is slow and difficult,

Europe is revising its growth forecast down including the United Kingdom, Japan

continues to disappoint in terms of growth and the international climate is

in many respects as difficult as it has been for a very long period of time.

The Budget does incorporate the Government’s policy for the full privatisation

of Telstra, subject to the Government being satisfied as to rural and regional

services. For the purposes of the Budget, we have to make an assessment as to

when the likely sale will take place. The assessment that we have made for the

purposes of the Budget is that it will not take place before 2004-05. That is,

a year later than we assessed to be the case at Budget time. We assessed that

for a number of reasons. The first is obviously the Government has to respond

to the Estens Inquiry, after responding to the Estens Inquiry and meeting rural

and regional concerns, it will be necessary to prepare legislation, that legislation

has to pass the Senate. I don’t think that the Senate is showing itself in the

mood to pass that legislation with any great hurry. And we expect that it would

take some time to actually negotiate that. They are the two preconditions.

We have said previously, I have said in the House, the Prime Minister has said,

that obviously before any sale, even after those two conditions, we would assess

the value for the taxpayer. So, essentially we have moved back our assessment

of when that is likely to happen by a year, the effect of Telstra in relation

to the forward estimates is essentially neutral, essentially neutral, so that

that doesn’t have an effect on the bottom line in a substantive or significant

way, either way.

But, all in all, notwithstanding a very difficult international climate, notwithstanding

a severe drought, the Australian economy continues to outperform the economies

of the developed world, and our fiscal position is strong and the Government

has been able to meet a couple of crises, both in Bali and with drought, and

still keep its fiscal strategy intact for the current financial year.


Mr Costello, do the new figures for Telstra incorporate a different price estimate

than the previous figures?


The price estimate has been revised down somewhat, but I want to make this

clear. The price estimates that we put are obviously what we consider reasonable

assumptions, but reasonable assumptions in 2004-05 and following. Now, don’t

take me as a sharemarket forecaster. I am not saying that I can tell you what

the price of Telstra is going to be in 2005 or 2006 or 2007. What we are saying

is we have taken advice on reasonable assumptions and the effect of that is

that essentially it is neutral over the Budget forward estimates.


Treasurer can you tell us what the revised estimates are on Telstra?


I prefer not to do that, because once I name a price, the markets might take

that as my assessment of fair value, and the sharp stockbrokers who we will

have to negotiate with for the sale, might try and hold me to it. So, as we

have always done in the past, and as always was done with Labor privatisations,

we retain our price assumptions as commercial-in-confidence.


Are we right to presume that the (inaudible) three equal sales as we’ve been…?


Yes. All we have done, we have allowed it as an assumption of three tranches

and moved it back a year.


(inaudible) there at all Mr Costello because there is no sign that the Senate

would pass it in a year which you are now assuming it would be able to be sold?


The reason we haven’t, Michelle, is once the Government has a policy, we factor

that policy into the Budget. And if I were to take that out of the Budget then

I would be open to another criticism, ie that the Government no longer believes

it is important for full equity in Telstra to be offered to the public. That

is our position subject to rural and regional services, and obviously subject

to the Senate. So, as we do with all of our decisions, for example, I still

have factored into this Budget the passing of our measures on Pharmaceutical

Benefits. Now, that has been defeated once in the Senate, the Government does

not accept that defeat. The Government will be rolling that up to the Senate

a second time. If by the end of the financial year that has not gone through,

the Labor Party will have forced us to spend additional money. The policy that

we have is, if it is a Government policy, it’s accounted for in the Budget.


But doesn’t this negate the advantage of these forecasts? Because, quite clearly

the Prime Minister is rolling back the whole Telstra thing further and further,

you’re not going to sell it in a election year?


Well, we believe Michelle, that we will argue our case in front of the Australian

Senate and we’ll proceed on the basis that they will accept our wisdom. At the

end of the day, can I make this point, Government has to produce a Budget, the

Senate has the luxury of not having to produce a Budget. And the Budget is always

produced on the basis on our assumptions and not on the basis of the …


This isn’t the Budget though, this is legislation (inaudible)…


I’m sorry, no, you are asking me about the Budget effect. This is our Budget

and our Mid-Year Review. Yes.


I noticed that you are forecasting a three per cent fall in housing investment

at the time of the Budget, now you’ve turned around to forecasting a nine per

cent rise. Isn’t that a little bit worrying and doesn’t it suggest that the

Reserve Bank’s failed in talking down the housing market and it’s not in for

a soft, gentle landing?


We expected that the housing market would come off at Budget time, and yet

it appears as if construction has still being continuing at a more subdued rate

in this financial year, but still continuing, not falling. And you’re quite

right, we’re forecasting that it will actually increase. That’s because we’ve

now got nearly the first five months of the financial year in and it has increased.

But it is a much slower rate of increase than we had in 2001 and 2002, so it’s

slowing, but it is not falling. And I’ve said earlier that particularly in the

medium density area, I think there’s now evidence of oversupply, but it appears

to me in the housing area and particularly in the renovations area, people are

still building, particularly in the renovations area.


Mr Costello, the outlook also says that rapid rises in housing prices, and

increasing household debt in some developed countries pose another emerging

threat? How much of a problem is that in Australia?


Well I think when we’re talking about other developed countries, we’d probably

be talking about the United Kingdom there. I think in the United Kingdom in

the last year, house prices have gone up 30 per cent. In fact, I was at a G20

meeting over the weekend and I had the chance to discuss the UK housing market

with the Governor of the Bank of England and by comparison with the UK the Australian

housing market looks the model of sanity. So, that’s what we’re referring to

there, and it’s obviously something that’s on the minds of UK policy makers.


Mr Costello, you said the international economy remains quite fragile and the

drought has obviously, could make conditions worse in Australia when it comes

to GDP. In terms of next year’s Budget, is it shaping as one of the toughest

Budgets in years, and what’s your message to some of the spending Ministers

like Brendan Nelson and Joe Hockey, who will be bringing forward big reform

programs over the next few months and be hoping that you and Senator Minchin

would be prepared to give them lots of money for those reform programs.


Well I know Senator Minchin is one of the most searching Finance Ministers

that you could imagine, so he will be giving them a searching time, that I am

sure in the Expenditure Review Committee. Look, 2003-2004 depends to some degree

on whether or not the drought breaks. This has been a very severe drought and

if the drought breaks then we’ll have good growth. If it doesn’t break, then

we’d be winding back these forecasts for 2003-2004. But even on the assumption

that the drought breaks, we still have what I would call a moderate surplus

forecast and certainly not a moderate surplus that would withstand any large

new spending. My expectation is that as we go down to the Expenditure Review

Committee, there will be some demands coming out of Defence and they will have

priority over everything else and once they are taken into account, I don’t

believe that there will be much room. Now the other factor to bear in mind here

is of course is what the Senate does. Bear in mind, the Senate is still holding

up Budget measures from May. And if the program of Senate obstructionism is

successful, that will make things tighter again.




Sorry, Mr Bongiorno, sir.


Thank you very much Treasurer. Are you saying in the last couple of answers

that you’ve given, that you as Treasurer are committed to maintaining fiscal

policy in such a way as to keep delivering cash surpluses?


Our policy is whilst the economy grows and grows strongly, yes we should deliver

surpluses. Now, that’s been the policy that I instituted in 1996 and certainly

if the economy was growing at four per cent at 2003-2004, we should deliver

a surplus. Yes.


Mr Costello, at this stage can you rule out any additional revenue raising

measures such as new taxes, levies, surcharges?


We don’t have any plans in relation to any of those matters because as you

can see we are coming through a difficult year. Perhaps the international economy

is not as tough as it was in 2001 in the sense that the US is now out of recession,

but a difficult international environment and a drought, and we’re budgeting

for a surplus. So we’re starting to see the benefits of some economic policy.

We managed to keep the economy out of recession in 2001 when all the economies

of the region went into recession. That will give us a growth opportunity I

hope in the next financial year as long as the drought breaks. And we’ll be

budgeting for a surplus. Now, now, I know what you’re going to say to me, because

it’s been asked before: what happens if Australia goes to war or what happens

if there’s a substantial military engagement. These are matters you don’t budget

for because you hope they don’t occur, but Dennis, if we’re engaged, if we were

to engage in military action, you ask me then, but we are not engaged in a substantial

military action at the moment and we hope that the Iraqi regime complies with

weapons inspections, and disarms. And like all Australians we’d be glad if Australia’s

military contribution can be considered in that light, in a successful outcome

of UN resolutions. Yes?


Mr Costello, just going to the accuracy of these figures again, if you assume

the way the revenue affects the Government legislation in the Senate, what is

the cash surplus position?


Well we…


Access Economics say’s it’s about a billion, assuming that these things are

passed already?


No, we don’t have any revenue measures in the Senate. What we have in the Senate

are some savings measures, particularly in relation to the Pharmaceutical Benefits

Scheme. That is a saving measure of $300 million per annum of which we have

already lost $150 million. Right.


Welfare reform?


Welfare reform is a net expense. That is, in the early years the additional

investment in training places exceeds the savings from having tighter disability.

Now, we have had the Australian Labor Party complain for years that the Disability

Pension is hiding unemployment. You put the acid on them and you say we will

reform the Disability Pensions Scheme and they block it. It’s breathtaking,

it is absolutely breathtaking. Now, we are interested in long term reform in

this country. We don’t want the Disability Pension to hide the unemployment

rate. We don’t want people who are capable of part time work to be locked out

of the labour market for the rest of their life. So we are trying to reform

the disability system. It actually, in early years, costs money and delivers

savings as you progressively give people the opportunity to re-enter the workforce.


So the pharmaceuticals legislation is the only legislation which is going to

affect revenue?


Well the pharmaceutical, as I said, pharmaceuticals are, was a saving of the

order $300 million of which, due to come in on 1 July, which the Labor Party

has already defeated 6 months worth.


Treasurer, the big increases in company tax collections and other individuals’

tax collections, what is your assessment of what is happening there, and how

much of the increase in other tax, other individuals’ tax collections, is the

black economy effect?


The income tax take from wage and salary earners is less than we forecast at

Budget time. The company tax is greater and our experience is there are long

lead times on company tax. That could be reflecting substantial profits as long

ago as 2001, 2002. “Other income” is the category of the self-employed,

and not wage and salary earners, but other individuals self-employed. There

could be a factor in there of GST. I think as time develops the GST system is

becoming more and more robust and there could be a factor in there.


Treasurer, do you see just, still see using the accrual method as a reform?

There have been reports from people (inaudible) than me, that the Government

is sliding away from this?


Paul, we think that accruals helps agencies budget. It allows them to Budget

for things like depreciation. But in terms of what the Commonwealth actually

pays what it takes out of the economy, what it puts into the economy, the cash

is really the best measure. But so that we don’t get criticised either way,

we do it on both. We now, you know, the problem here is not a lack of information,

if I may say so, the problem here is a surfeit of information. We have got so

many measures out there that you can take whichever one you like and nobody

can ever criticise us for not having the measures out there. And it is basically

like trying to run every transaction according to two sets of rules. Personally

I think that the cash tells you a lot more about the economy, whether you are

getting a fiscal stimulus or whether you are not. Whether you are putting money

in, whether you are taking it out. The cash is also the GFS. It has been developed

by the IMF, it is what the IMF demands countries around the world follow. The

accrual is a kind of measure you would use in a company. But lest anybody say

that, you know, I am having it one way or the other, we do both.

Two more questions.


Mr Costello, your colleague Robert Hill says the Government is not afraid of

having a double dissolution election. Given the Senate is holding large slabs

of your Budget hostage and indeed the Telstra sale, are we moving closer, is

the Government moving closer to having a double dissolution election? And would

you be happy to fight on the basis of full privatisation of Telstra and the

PBS changes that you have introduced?


Look, Steve, our policy is if we think something is important for the long

term future of Australia, like for example, re-basing the Pharmaceutical Benefits

Scheme, with an ageing population and scientific advances, no area of Commonwealth

expenditure is growing faster. And re-basing that is important to the sustainability

of the scheme. Now, because the Labor Party has nothing else to stand for it

thinks that opposing those sorts of measures might get it back in the game.

Our attitude is, having had defeated these things because they are important

we will roll them up again to the Senate. We will ask the Senate to reconsider.

I am not going past that. I hope the Senate reconsiders. These are Budget measures,

these are Budget measures, they are factored into the bottom line. We ask the

Senate to pass them. I can’t even understand the rationale why it won’t, you

know, other than as I said complete and naked opportunism. Now, if the Senate

rejects it a second time, well, we will have to deal with that when it happens.

But we have not had that rejected a second time, we are going to ask the Senate

to reconsider its position.




Well now, we will take two last ones, Philip and Dennis.


What would be an acceptable result for the Victorian Liberals in the election?


Look, let me make this point. The Victorian Liberal Party is in the Victorian

election to win Government. It is in it to win Government, that is what it is

running for. The fact of the matter is that Labor is a front runner and is now

starting to get complacent, believes that it can win overwhelming majorities

and control both Houses. And that is the opportunity for the Victorian Liberal

Party to punch home that message that that would be a bad thing for Victoria.

And I will say this, I think Robert Doyle as the Leader of the Opposition has

performed outstandingly through this campaign. In the face of a number of setbacks

I think he has shown true grit. And I know him pretty well and I think he will

be eking out every last vote to 6.01 on Saturday night.



Mr Costello, just on your comments on the sale of Telstra, when would be the

earliest under these new assumptions that we would see legislation presented

to the Parliament for the full sale of Telstra?


Look, we have got to respond to the Estens Inquiry first and we will be looking

at that this year. And subject to that, legislation I imagine, would go into

the Parliament early next year. Now, the Senate might surprise me and it might

sail it through and then everything could be advanced. But judging from what

Senator Lees and others have been saying, I, you know, it doesn’t look very

likely. I hope they do surprise. Nobody would be happier than me Dennis, but

I have got to make a realistic assumption as to how long that is going to take

and it just doesn’t look, notwithstanding the changes in the composition of

the Senate, it just doesn’t look imminent. That’s all I can say.

Thank you all very much for your time, thanks.