It’s a sad truth that treasurers and finance ministers almost never avoid using creative accounting to make their budgets look better – or less worse – than they really are. But this fudging often costs taxpayers a lot more.
Governments of both colours, federal and state, have been doing this forever, after the bureaucrats show them how. It’s one of the less honourable services public servants provide their honourable masters.
Tuesday night’s budget was affected by two relatively new forms of creative accounting.
One is the way the Turnbull government exaggerated its success in reducing the size and cost of the public service by giving people redundancy payouts, then hiring them back as “consultants” on greatly inflated salaries.
Then there’s the Abbott government’s invention of “zombie measures”. You announce cuts in spending, fail repeatedly to get them legislated, but leave them in the budget’s forward estimates, thus making the projected budget balance look better than it is.
But by far the biggest budget fiddle – one we’ll see more of as well – is the loophole Treasury built into the budget at the time of the laughably named Charter of Budget Honesty in 1996, when the focus of attention was switched to the “underlying cash budget balance”.
The ostensible purpose was to stop wicked Labor governments understating their deficits by counting the proceeds from asset sales as a reduction in the deficit rather than an alternative way of funding the deficit. Rather than sell a government bond, you sell some of the family silver.
Spending on an infrastructure project doesn’t have to be counted in the budget deficit provided you set it up as a new business
What this means in practice is that spending on an infrastructure project doesn’t have to be counted in the budget deficit provided you set it up as a new business which, once it’s profitable, you intend to sell off.
Great trick, which the Rudd-Gillard government was happy to use to hide the then-expected $49 billion cost of its National Broadband Network.
Trouble is, you can keep the spending out of your carefully fudged version of the budget deficit, but you can’t keep your additional borrowings out of the government’s accumulated debt.
Watch out for more fudging to try and balance the books.