‘No economic case for it’: latest NSW voucher scheme criticised as pure politics

Economists have criticised the Nueva Gales del Sur government’s latest use of vouchers to stimulate economic activity amid rising inflation, questioning whether their ongoing use has more to do with “retail politics” than sound public policy.

In one of the only surprises announced in last Tuesday’s NSW budget, the treasurer, Matt Kean, revelado families would be handed $150 vouchers for every child enrolled in school, just months out from the state election.

The $193m scheme is the latest in a series of voucher programs introduced by the Coalition government in recent years, covering everything from children’s sport and art classes to the millions spent after Covid lockdowns to encourage people to spend up at restaurants, cultural experiences and on trips to the country.

Existen eight voucher programs running in NSW, with another two yet to begin. Dine and Discover vouchers expire on Thursday.

Asked about last week’s school vouchers, which are expected to cover things like uniforms and stationery, the Grattan Institute’s economic policy director, Brendan Coates, said it was “very strange” to be handing consumers more purchasing power when inflation was rising and the state was in record debt.

“In a world where the economy is at full potential, we’ve got inflation running potentially to 7%, it doesn’t seem like a smart move to put more money into the pockets of consumers," él dijo.

“That runs counter to what the Reserve Bank is trying to do."

Coates said he could, sin emabargo, see the political appeal in reminding people every time they used a voucher that it was the government providing the funds.

"[Vouchers] are very good retail politics," él dijo.

“It’s just a much more salient way people will be reminded of that support that’s been given to them than if they put another half a billion dollars into the childcare system.”

En el 2017 budget then treasurer Dominic Perrottet introduced $100 vouchers for every school-age child to reduce the cost of sport registration or membership fees. Desde entonces, 5.1m of those vouchers have been issued and 4.2m have been redeemed. The most recent budget included another $116.5m for the scheme to continue.

Subsequent programs have included Creative Kids vouchers, Before After School Care vouchers and First Lap swimming vouchers. The swimming vouchers were introduced in December, pero menos de 140,000 de 540,000 eligible families have used the scheme, according to data released to the Guardian just days before the first round was due to close. A second round will begin on 1 mes de julio.

There were more than 12m unspent Dine and Discover vouchers – totalling $300m – still to be spent as of last Friday. The government noted the average spend for each $25 voucher was $42.

The chief economist at the Australia Institute, Richard Denniss, said he suspected a forecast underspend was built into every scheme.

“It gives you the appearance of generosity, knowing that a whole bunch of people will be too busy or too confused or too overwhelmed to actually take up the opportunity,” Denniss said.

He said the schemes were often hard to access for some multicultural communities and handing out cash, rather than vouchers, would have better take-up.

“There’s no economic case for it," él dijo. “It’s a purely political case.

“If you really wanted to target disadvantaged groups, I’d suggest a complicated voucher is far less efficient and far less equitable than a simple cash grant.”

Many industry groups have come out in support of vouchers, including the Dine and Discover scheme, saying it has contributed to their viability and boosted consumer confidence during the pandemic.

Tourism Accommodation Australia’s chief executive, Michael Johnson, said earlier this month that the vouchers had generated a lot of business.

“You’ve got that extra money in your pocket to spend on things like dinner or breakfast or other items to ensure that you have a good holiday," él dijo.

The NSW opposition leader, Chris Minns, has urged the government to look critically at the schemes, while also encouraging people to get out and spend their vouchers before they expired.

“There’s a bit of a pattern here when it comes to some of these grant programs that have been rolled out by the NSW government, it’s a big-spending media release but in the back of their minds they seem to know that there’ll be a huge undersubscription,” he said last week.

The NSW customer service minister, Victor Dominello, said vouchers provided households “hip pocket relief”.

“The government’s various voucher programs have [been] well received by the community with satisfaction rates for both customers and providers well above 95%,” he said.

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