What exactly is the point of a Coalition government if it offers the same sort of tax increases as voters expect from Labor and the Greens?
It’s disturbing how quickly the Abbott government has turned its attention to boosting government revenue rather than reducing government spending. It’s only been in power 18 months.
First, there’s the planned deposit tax, a levy imposed on all our bank accounts purportedly to pay for the deposit insurance introduced by Labor during the global financial crisis.
When Kevin Rudd proposed the deposit tax in August 2013, Joe Hockey, then shadow treasurer, said it showed how “Australians end up paying for Labor’s waste and mismanagement”. So what does it say now the tax is being mooted by the Coalition?
Then there are all the possible changes to the GST. The GST-free import threshold of $1000 might be lowered. The government is drawing up legislation to impose GST on digital downloads – the so-called Netflix tax. There’s even been discussion of broadening the GST base to include things like fresh food, health and education.
There’s also a Google tax on the horizon. Hockey said last month companies that do not pay the “legitimate level” of tax are “thieves”. But tax minimisation is perfectly lawful. We all do it when we fill out our tax forms. In fact, firms have an obligation to their shareholders to minimise tax.
To change corporate tax law as Hockey wants wouldn’t be recouping money that is rightfully the Treasury’s. It would be increasing the corporate tax burden, and increasing investment uncertainty while it’s at it.
Likewise, the government wants to tackle what is described as the superannuation tax “concession”. Here it is on a virtual unity ticket with Labor.
Don’t be fooled by the word concession. It is a euphemism. The issue here is that while income is taxed progressively – rich people pay proportionally more than poor – superannuation is taxed at a flat rate of 15 per cent. The government thinks wealthy people are putting too much money into super, avoiding high marginal income tax rates, and depriving Treasury of money. Let’s be blunt: to eliminate superannuation concessions would be just another tax increase.
But there is a more fundamental point. Superannuation is taxed at a lower rate to counterbalance the income tax system’s bias against savers. All those so-called loopholes and thresholds and concessions exist for a reason. Many of them exist to prevent perverse and unfair taxation, to treat different assets equally, to avoid double taxation, to encourage saving. And all of them were instituted as part of a democratic bargaining process. Eliminating a loophole is the same as raising a tax.
The Coalition should know this instinctively. Liberal parliamentarians campaigned under the slogan “Our Plan: Lower Taxes”. When he became leader Tony Abbott declared “there will not be any new taxes as part of the Coalition’s policies”. Now his team are lining up alongside Bill Shorten and Christine Milne to push for new and higher taxes. Let’s hope they’re embarrassed.
I haven’t even mentioned bracket creep, the process whereby inflation slowly pushes wage-earners into a higher tax bracket without making them wealthier.
The tax system is full of little revenue-scrounging tricks like that, tricks of language and mathematics and perspective that hide who pays and how much.
Funny how those tricks always work in Treasury’s favour. Bracket creep could be done away with once and for all by indexing income tax to inflation. Malcolm Fraser’s government experimented with such a policy, but abandoned it. It is in the government’s political interest to let bracket creep work its subtle expropriating magic.
The government’s problem is spending, not revenue. The public spat this month between Hockey and Peter Costello was revealing. If you missed it, Costello criticised Hockey’s desire to raise tax. Hockey responded that he wished he had the sort of revenue Costello enjoyed in government.
But hold on: Hockey does have that sort of revenue. If we adjust the figures for inflation, Hockey has $18.6 billion more revenue than Costello received in his last budget. (The most recent reported figures appear in the December Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.)
The government’s other budget excuse – that the iron-ore price is bottoming out – isn’t convincing either. Yes, iron ore could go as low as $US36 ($46) a tonne. It was nearly $US200 a few years ago. But that was under Labor. Costello hadn’t been so lucky. Iron ore only lurched above $36 after the Howard government left office.
Hockey said he was kicking off a national conversation about tax and efficiency when he launched his tax discussion paper last month. Economists – particularly the sort of economists that populate treasury departments – spend a lot of time thinking about what is the most efficient tax system. The discussion paper reflects a lot of that thought. It judges taxes on how much they distort our incentives to work and produce.
However, efficiency isn’t the only thing we want in a tax system. Too often politicians use the word efficiency as a synonym for ingenious. The 17th-century French finance minister Jean Baptiste Colbert famously described the art of taxation as “plucking the goose as to get the most feathers with the least hissing”. You can understand his view. For a treasurer the most important thing is maximising revenue.
But it’s not obvious why we should be pleased the government wants to pluck more of our feathers. A Coalition government, no less.