Fiscal Accountability Matters

Insights Newsletter
10 December, 2021

US President Herbert Hoover once stated, “Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt.”

Right now, young people have a reason to be concerned. Since Covid-19 arrived 18 months ago, New Zealand’s net public debt has nearly doubled. Government net debt rose from 19% of GDP – Gross Domestic Product – in 2019 to 34% this year.

This is the highest ratio since 1996.

The bulk of debt increase was from the wage subsidies – around $18 billion. Other business support programmes were supplementary. These fiscal responses were intended to enable faster economic recovery.

New Zealanders were seared by the 1984 debt crisis. That experience produced a broad bipartisan consensus in favour of fiscal responsibility rules. Budget surpluses were achieved by the mid-1990s and sustained, albeit with reducing spending discipline, to 2008.

Those surpluses helped New Zealand weather the storms of the 2007-08 GFC and the Christchurch earthquake. But it took seven years of fiscal slog and expenditure restraint to restore fiscal surpluses after the GFC.

Big spending increases from 2017 preceded Covid-19 and now the challenge of turning ongoing fiscal deficits into surpluses has arisen anew.

Are current arrangements up to the task? Not in our opinion. In 2014, the New Zealand Initiative proposed a Parliamentary fiscal council to help Parliament better scrutinise government spending and fiscal prudence.

This was not out of the blue. In 2011, the OECD found that “independent fiscal institutions can buttress a government’s capacity to comply with a numerical rule.” These institutions exist in 28 of the 38 countries in the OECD.

In 2017, the-then opposition parties – Labour and the Greens – endorsed a Fiscal Council of an unclear design. The advent of Covid has stilled work on this, and there are no indications that fiscal discipline and constraint will be the heart of the Government’s priorities.

A global pandemic understandably opens the fiscal taps, but that only heightens the need for a subsequent return to fiscal discipline and accountability. That determination is not yet evident.  

To fail to restore discipline in spending quality and current financing is to do future generations a disservice. It is fine for the young to inherit debt backed by assets of equivalent value, but not otherwise. Herbert Hoover’s remark is best seen as a humorous aside that would be irresponsible if put into practice.

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