Finance Finance News Ridiculous budget oversight could only be a baby bonus … or a mistake

Ridiculous budget oversight could only be a baby bonus … or a mistake

Scott Morrison superimposed over a group of babies in their prams.
Australia's fertility rate will need to reverse its downward trend to make the budget's population growth figures work.
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Of all the things that don’t quite add up about the election budget, the most intriguing is the forecast that the decade-long decline in our birth rate will reverse next year.

Could Scott Morrison be planning a new “baby bonus” as one of his yet-to-be-announced election stunts?

As Abul Rizvi has highlighted, making the budget’s “brave” growth forecasts work depends on the assumption that our population growth will rise to more than 1.7 per cent in the new financial year from the present 1.6 per cent.

Part of that rise comes from higher net overseas migration – despite the stunt of trimming permanent visa numbers and rhetoric about “congestion busting”. 

Of greater speculative interest is the other part of the forecast rise: It comes from assuming our fertility rate will jump from 1.7 births per woman in 2017 to 1.9 in 2021 and stay there ever more. 

That flies in the face of our birth rate’s trend since 2008, never mind OECD averages and the possibility of a higher female workforce participation. 

But there is historical precedent for a quick lift in the birth rate.

Peter Costello’s call on Australian women to “have one for Mum, one for Dad, and one for the country” certainly did the trick – or maybe it was the baby bonus he introduced with that quote in the 2002 budget. 

Our birth rate had dropped to its lowest level ever of 1.7 in 2001. With the baby bonus – initially a $2500 tax break that evolved into $5000 cash – the fall was indeed reversed. 

While nowhere near 1961’s record 3.5, the birth rate did jump to 2 in 2008. 

Australia's fertility rates from 1937-2017.
A graph tabling Australia’s fertility rates from 1937 to 2017. Source: ABS

The bonus was dropped in March 2014.

The birth rate was 1.9 in 2013 and falling, but Treasury has chosen to ignore the fall and assume that 1.9 will again be the rate.

Leaving out the baby bonus period, our birth rate hasn’t been 1.9 for 27 years.  

Treasury’s excuse for this extraordinary assumption is to blame the 2015 Intergenerational Report, which used the 2013 birth rate as the norm. Appendix A of budget paper 3 blandly justifies the budget’s figures by stating: “These assumptions are consistent with those in the 2015 Intergenerational Report.”

And I could assume what tomorrow’s weather will be by using the Bureau of Meteorology’s forecast for April 2013 – but I’m not that stupid.

I would be better off looking at the window than using a six-year-old weather report. Treasury could try doing the same with birth rate assumptions.

Using a six-year-old statistic that is at odds with reality appears to be either incompetent or deliberately misleading in an attempt to polish the GDP growth numbers that flow from it.

Unless, unless … there’s a third option: Is “Stunt” Morrison planning a new baby bonus? 

Within the budget papers, he has several billion dollars marked “not to be opened until the official election campaign”.  

Reviving Pete “Have One” Costello’s baby bonus would fit in with doing something for Mr Morrison’s beloved “Mums and Dads”, has an element of “if you have a go, you’ll get a go”, and references a former leader in the hope that people will remember something about budget surpluses. 

And Treasury is now run by Philip Gaetjens, who served as chief-of-staff for Peter Costello from 1997 to 2007 – prime baby bonus time.

He reprised the treasurer’s chief-of-staff role when Scott Morrison had the job. 

So, is Mr Gaetjens running an incompetent Treasury, or is there another stunt in the offing? We’ll find out soon enough. 

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