Mr Frydenberg has unequivocally done the right thing in abandoning any rigid timetable for a return to surplus. After the economy contracting a record 7 per cent in the June quarter, business groups, most economists and the Reserve Bank of Australia all agree that it is still far too weak to be worrying about the deficit.
Yet the budget will reveal whether Mr Frydenberg has chosen a pragmatic approach to the next round of stimulus spending.
The package must be fair and also designed to put cash in the pockets of those most likely to spend it. It should also set Australia up for long-term recovery.
The pre-budget speculation is that Mr Frydenberg will announce income tax cuts, which are popular with many voters, not just Liberal Party supporters, and appeal to groups such as the Business Council of Australia, which argue that a flatter tax scale has long-term economic benefits.
Yet the design of the tax cuts will be crucial. Mr Frydenberg will be on solid ground bringing forward the stage two tax cuts for taxpayers earning more than $41,000, that are due to take effect in July 2021. But there are questions about the wisdom of bringing forward the stage three tax cuts for middle- to high-income earners that are not due to start until July 2024.
Mr Frydenberg should consider significant support in the form of additional tax credits or one-off payments to low- and middle-income earners too. Not only do they need it but they are likely to spend a much bigger share of the extra cash in their pockets.
The Herald believes, for example, there is a strong case for increasing the JobSeeker payment for the unemployed on a permanent basis beyond January 1, when it is due to drop back to its pre-March level below the poverty line. This is a move supported by a broad range of interest groups, from the Business Council of Australia to ACOSS.
Mr Frydenberg will also have been evaluating whether to continue the Liberal Party’s traditional opposition to direct government spending as a form of job creation.
Conservative doctrine favors offering tax breaks to encourage businesses to invest and hire but, at a time when businesses are cautious, tax breaks might not be enough to convince them to take the plunge. Mr Frydenberg should also look to increase government spending on areas such as social housing, training programs and the underfunded aged care sector.
In the medium term, once the economy recovers Mr Frydenberg will have to outline his path back to a balanced budget. But for now, Mr Frydenberg’s priority must be a budget that gets the economy back on track as effectively and fairly as possible.
The Herald editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.
Since the Herald was first published in 1831, the editorial team has believed it important to express a considered view on the issues of the day for readers, always putting the public interest first. Elsewhere, we strive to cover a diversity of views without endorsing any of them.
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