Industrial disputes – including a spate of on and off again strikes at national carrier Qantas – are becoming once again a frequent feature of the Australian media. Unions are pushing for wage rises in the face of the falling buying power of the fixed wage (as costs of living rise). Those wage push pressures are being resisted by businesses trying to stay afloat in a very ordinary domestic economy and amidst rising global competition.
But instead of a conflict between labor and business, perhaps we may consider lower living costs as a solution which benefits both? Fundamentally, this boils down to addressing our biggest cost burden: housing.
The rapid escalation of housing costs have occurred under the aegis of Labor dominated state governments. Whether in Queensland, New South Wales or Victoria – Australia’s three largest states – their imposition of artificial growth boundaries that limited land supply, the introduction of upfront taxes on new development, and ever more complex planning and development regulation have driven housing prices to unsustainable levels.
This is ironic since the worst impacts of those policies have been most felt by the very working class constituency which Labor traditionally sought to represent. Having presided over and championed policy mechanisms which have driven up housing costs for workers, these same governments then resist attempts to recover that standard of living through wage growth.
Now before you think I’ve gone all Marxian militant on you all (trust me, I haven’t), here’s an example of what I’m driving at.
Much has been said about housing affordability and what it will mean to lock an entire generation out of the housing market. Recently this story documents yet another report attesting to falling home ownership and the rise of a renting class. Particularly hard hit are the people who are trying to buy a first home in which to raise a family. They could typically be around their mid to late 20s, biologically in their prime for having and raising children. At this stage of life, you are probably below the average income for your career or profession so the reality of the affordability problem is most acute.
In Queensland, this might be a teacher in their mid 20s, with two or three years of training, married to a constable who together earn after tax income around $87,500 per annum. (This combined income would be much less of course if, for example, one of our young couple was a child care or retail worker).
Now, take a modest new family home in an outer suburb like North Lakes or Springfield. Let’s assume they’ve saved a small deposit, and with a loan of $400,000, they buy something for around $450,000. That’s hardly McMansion territory. But that loan, over 30 years at 7.8%, will cost them close to $35,000 per annum in repayments, or 40% of their combined after tax incomes.
This, of course, is before they even think about children, and the prospect (despite generous maternity and paternity pay and leave provisions) of enduring a significant household income reduction while one of them isn’t working. Even on returning to work, there would then be child care fees, which quickly erode their pre-child household budget.
Buying a home and starting a family have become a huge financial consideration, instead of a fairly normal and unremarkable pattern of generational and social growth. And it is now absolutely dependent on a dual income family, with both of them preferably good incomes.
This is a profound change over the last decade. As a result, fewer people are buying homes, people are postponing children (until they can afford them) and when they do, they’re having fewer children. A countless stream of statistical and demographic reports are now underlining this change on an all too frequent basis. Although some greens may celebrate it, this is very bad news long-term for the economy, for society and the community as a whole.
So is it any wonder we’re seeing wage push pressures?
Consider the cost of the $450,000 modest home they’ve bought. Within that price is roughly a $50,000 up-front ‘developer levy’ (better called a new home buyer tax). There’s probably a similar cost of in inflated land costs, brought on by artificial land supply constraints in a country of abundant land. There would also be a raft of minor additional building costs introduced under the guise of ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ building guidelines, in order ‘to prevent the sea from rising’. Plus there’s a hard-to-quantify compliance cost because getting the approval to develop the land for new homes now takes 10 years instead of a few months, engaging teams of town planners, lawyers, and other hangers on.
The total cost of all of these additions to the price paid by our young couple could easily be well over $100,000. If you don’t believe me, check out this old report which I commissioned some years ago.
A quick bit of math’s now follows. That extra $100,000 (conservatively) has been funded via our young couple’s mortgage. That’s an extra hundred large they’ve borrowed, to cover the costs of additional taxes, fees and compliance introduced under the watch of a State Labor Government. That $100,000 is worth an extra $8,640 per annum out of their pockets. If their repayments fell by that amount, their mortgage costs would be around $26,000 per annum in total, or just under 30% of their combined household income – not 40% of it.
There you have it. At 30% of household income, not only the home becomes more affordable, but so do children. But at 40%, it’s proving to be touch and go.
There are two ways, simply put, to improve the cost of living equation faced by younger workers on largely fixed incomes. You can increase their wages (which the unions want and which businesses and governments resist), or you can reduce their costs of living.
This has somehow eluded people working in state treasuries and planning departments. I haven’t even commented on the insanity of the carbon tax, which is only going to exacerbate basic costs for energy further and likely weaken Australian exports.
The simple economics of what we’re talking about was summed up beautifully over 160 years ago, in Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield, when Mr Micawber lectured the young Copperfield on the perils of exceeding budgets:
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."
Mr Micawber, you’ll note, wasn’t implying the need for more income, he was highlighting the important role played by expenses.
In the Australia (and Queensland) of 2011, the same still applies. Rather than push for more income, unions could do better to lobby their Labor Parties to reduce their living costs. Reducing the housing infrastructure levies, relaxing the rigidity and ideology of urban growth boundaries, reducing compliance costs, cutting green taxes would drive down the costs of housing.
In this era of globalization, fighting pitched industrial battles with employers for a few extra dollars a week in income seems futile compared to pressuring governments over the induced inflation associated with the providing a family home you can afford and raise a new generation of Australians.
Ross Elliott has more than 20 years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog The Pulse.