As if Scott Morrison didn’t have enough problems on his plate, we learnt last week that government-administered prices are rising much faster than prices charged by the private sector.
Last week my colleague Shane Wright dug out figures from the bowels of the consumer price index showing that, over the almost six years since the election of the Abbott government in September 2013, the prices of all the goods and services in the CPI basket have risen by just 10.4 per cent, whereas the government-administered prices in the basket rose by 26 per cent.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison faces a challenge on costs.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
But what should Morrison do? At a glance, the problem's obvious: government prices rising much faster than market prices say governments are hopelessly wasteful and inefficient. So expose the government to competition and the waste will be competed away, to the benefit of all.
Sorry, the true story’s much more complicated. Indeed, part of the problem is the backfiring of governments’ earlier attempts to make the provision of government services "contestable".
Let’s look deeper. For a start, some of the increase in administered "prices" is actually increases in taxation. The doubling in cigarette prices is the result of the phased massive increase in tobacco excise begun by Malcolm Turnbull.
Local council rates work by applying a certain rate of tax to the unimproved land value of properties. State governments usually cap the extent to which the tax rate can be increased, but the base to which it’s applied soars every time there’s a housing boom.
Postal costs rise because we want to continue being able to post letters to anywhere in Australia at a uniform price, even though we're actually doing it less and less, thus sending economies of scale into reverse. Australia Post would have been privatised long ago if any business thought it could make a profit from the business without scrapping the letter service.
The doubling in the retail prices of the now largely privatised (but still heavily regulated) electricity industry over the past decade is the classic demonstration that attempts to introduce competition to monopoly industries are no simple matter and can easily backfire.
The cost of childcare has been rising over the years because governments have been raising quality standards – staff-child ratios, better educated and paid workers. Is that bad? This formerly community-owned sector has long been open to competition from for-profit providers without this showing any sign of helping to limit price increases.
Even so, childcare is heavily subsidised by the federal government. This government’s more generous subsidy scheme caused the net out-of-pocket cost to parents (which is what the CPI measures) to fall a little last financial year.
The modest suggested fees in government schools wouldn't have risen much over the past six years. If private school fees have risen strongly despite the heavy taxpayer subsidies going to Catholic and independent schools, it’s because the number of parents willing to pay them shows little sign of diminishing. Hardly the government’s problem.
Detailed figures show that the out-of-pocket costs for pharmaceuticals rose by less than 6 per cent (thanks to reforms in the pharmaceutical benefits scheme) and for therapeutic goods fell a few per cent, while for dental services they kept pace with the overall CPI, leaving the out-of-pocket costs of hospital and medical services up by a cool 36 per cent.
That tells you private health insurance is falling apart. Add the continuing problems with needs-based funding of schools, and electricity and gas prices, and the scope for further efficiency improvements in healthcare and you see the Morrison government has plenty to be going on with.
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