The South Australian Major Bank Levy: Arbitrary, unjustified, and harmful for South Australia and the rest of the country

With Sinclair Davidson

Introduction: In the South Australian state budget 2017-18, South Australian Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis announced that the state government intended to introduce a South Australian Major Bank Levy, one of two revenue measures “to help us meet the cost of our significant support for driving economic growth and creating more jobs”. Treasurer Koutsantonis made clear that this levy was explicitly modelled on the Commonwealth government’s Major Bank Levy, which was announced in the May 2017-18 Commonwealth budget and passed the Commonwealth parliament in June.

Banking is a key sector in a modern economy. Banks and the financial markets they serve work to allocate capital across the economy to its most efficient purpose. The health of the banking sector is closely related to the health of the economy in general; likewise, an unstable and inefficient banking sector often causes, or is at least a leading indicator of, turmoil in the general economy. The centrality of banking and financial markets to economic prosperity and recession throughout history is reason to subject public policy proposals that affect banking markets to particular scrutiny.

This paper is an examination of the South Australian Major Bank Levy. The South Australian Major Bank Levy is intended to exactly replicate the Commonwealth Government’s Major Bank Levy but at the state level. Accordingly, it applies an additional 0.015% tax on South Australia’s share of the total value of bank liabilities that are subject to the Commonwealth Major Bank Levy Act 2017. That levy consists of a tax introduced on a range of liabilities held by the five of Australia’s largest banks – the Commonwealth Bank, the ANZ, the National Australia Bank, Westpac and Macquarie Bank. While these banks are not explicitly named in legislation, they are subject to the levy because they each have total liabilities greater than $100 billion – raising the prospect of new banks being added or of existing banks dropping off the list.

Both levies apply to the total liabilities held by each bank with the exception of that bank’s additional Tier 1 capital, its deposits protected by the Financial Claims Scheme (that is, its government guaranteed deposits), an amount equal to the lesser of the derivative asserts and derivative liabilities of each bank, and its exchange settlement account held with the Reserve Bank of Australia.

This paper finds that the South Australian Major Bank Levy:

  • will be economically harmful to a state that has seen a rise in unemployment and a decline in business investment,
  • lacks serious justification in either taxation or banking policy,
  • represents a rollback of the GST compact of 2000 which required South Australia to remove state taxes on banking and financial services,
  • harms the stability of banking in South Australia and Australia more generally,
  • increases ‘regime uncertainty’ for investors, and
  • there are reasons to believe it has already done harm to the South Australian economy.

Not only should the bank levy be rejected by the South Australian parliament, but parliament needs to work to ensure that markets and investors have certainty that such an arbitrary and harmful intervention could not occur in South Australia in the future.

Available in PDF here.

State Government bank levy makes South Australia riskiest place for investment in Australia

Imagine being an international investor looking at Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis’s Budget. You wouldn’t be interested in his infrastructure spend and “future jobs fund”.

You’d immediately hone in on the fact that the South Australian government has doubled down on the Federal Coalition’s bank levy by introducing its own state bank levy.

And you’d immediately understand that this makes SA the riskiest state to invest in, in a country that is looking like an increasingly risky place to invest.

South Australia has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. It needs firms to put their money into the state and create productive private sector jobs. No government spending can substitute for an attractive economic investment climate.

In this, the state’s bank levy is almost comically bad. The federal bank levy is arbitrary, punitive and unjustifiable. Treasurer Scott Morrison groped around for a rationale for taxing the big banks, finally landing on: people “don’t like you”.

Koutsantonis’s tax is even more arbitrary and its rationale even more slight. In his Budget speech, he said that the “banking sector is very profitable” and that given, in his view, the GST should be applied to financial services, SA should expropriate some of the big banks’ money.

But this is nothing more than a rhetorical shell game. The SA bank levy looks nothing like the GST, developed and refined over nearly two decades to be as efficient as possible. The GST is a consumption tax specifically designed to be paid by consumers.

Koutsantonis says he will ban the banks from passing his tax onto consumers. (This is astonishing by itself – the SA government is going to start regulating banks? We ended state-based financial services regulation 20 years ago.)

Finally, the GST was specifically devised in order to get rid of state-based taxes on financial products. These taxes – the bank account debits (BAD) tax and financial institutions duty (FID) – were uniformly agreed to be inefficient, to disproportionately harm the poor, and to harm Australia’s international competitiveness.

Getting rid of the FID and BAD tax was a key part of the GST deal. Is SA going back on that deal? Is it dipping out of the GST compact? How do Koutsantonis and Premier Jay Weatherill think the other states and Commonwealth, should respond?

With the imminent closure of Holden, SA needs to be looking to grow its economy and attract investors. But if there’s one thing investors hate, it is policy uncertainty.

Policy uncertainty is exactly what Koutsantonis has delivered.

Diverted Profits Tax Will Go Nowhere

With Sinclair Davidson

The Turnbull government’s diverted profit tax has passed the Parliament. Introduced in response to the moral panic that, somewhere, somehow multinational corporations don’t pay a fair share of taxation, this new tax is at odds with the government’s professed belief in lowering the corporate tax burdens, is at odds with our international competitors, and (as we learnt just this month), is even at odds with the Australian Taxation Office’s tax enforcement priorities.

The 40 per cent tax on diverted profits is expected to raise $100 million. That implies that the federal government estimates a mere $250 million of diverted profits. To put that figure into perspective, the federal government recently announced a tightening of the rules on the grandparent child care benefit. That policy change would result in welfare savings of $250 million.

Grandparents allegedly rorting the welfare system are a much bigger budget problem than multinational corporations allegedly rorting the tax system.

Indeed, Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan gave the game away on March 16 when he told a Tax Institute conference that the gap between what large corporates and multinationals pay and what they should pay in tax was “relatively modest” and that “the biggest gap we’ve got in the system is us” – that is, individual taxpayers.

After five years of hyperventilating about corporate tax avoidance, this is a striking confession. The previous treasurer Joe Hockey made much of the fact that the ATO had identified 30 multinational corporations likely to offend and had embedded agents in those firms and would carefully investigating their practices.

True, Scott Morrison did say that this diverted profits tax is a tax integrity measure. Ensuring the integrity of the tax base is a legitimate policy goal. But a diverted profits tax is a counterproductive and illiberal way to go about it.

It allows the ATO to impose upfront liability and collect tax on allegedly diverted profits. It reverses the onus of proof and removes the right to silence – thus multinational corporations the right to natural justice under the Australian legal system. That is not a reasonable integrity measure but rather a punitive regime that targets foreign investors and successful Australian companies.

This is a policy that substantially increases the powers of the ATO without any governance measures to ensure that abuses do not occur. No doubt these powers will be exercised by the ATO to collect revenue beyond the amount intended by Parliament. That is simply the nature of regulatory bureaucracies and it will be small comfort for those multinationals who successfully challenge the ATO that their money is eventually returned to them.

Even more fundamentally, the diverted profits tax doesn’t sit well with current policy settings, nor with economic reality. There is currently a lot of effort and anti-business rhetoric to collect $100 million. Is it a coincidence that business investment is low? Or is that government is passing tax laws that violate societal norms of fairness and are creating an uncertain and arbitrary tax environment?

Business doesn’t know what tax rate they will face in Australia in years to come. It could be 30 per cent. It could go down to 25 per cent over 10 years if the Turnbull government’s corporate tax cut goes through. Or it could be as high as 40 per cent if some Canberra bureaucrat, empowered by the diverted profits tax, gets a bee in their bonnet about multinational structures they do not understand.

There’s been a lot of talk about policy uncertainty in the Australian energy market. With a lot less fanfare the corporate tax confusion is doing the same to the entire corporate sector. This is not how to ensure jobs and growth

In the meantime, Australia is facing an international environment where the British Prime Minister is openly discussing turning the UKinto a tax haven, and the Trump administration wants to reduce America’s corporate tax rate to between 15 and 20 per cent. The Turnbull government has chosen the wrong time to put multinational engagement with Australia at risk.

“Stop This Greed”: The Tax-Avoidance Political Campaign in the OECD and Australia

With Sinclair Davidson. Published in Econ Journal Watch (2017) vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 77-102.

Abstract: Corporate tax avoidance has come to be a major political and popular issue. This paper considers the evolution of the corporate tax debate; it scrutinizes the empirical claims and the calls for crackdowns on corporate tax avoidance. It focuses on two jurisdictions, the OECD and Australia, to show how international claims were reproduced in domestic political rhetoric. The paper then considers the economic function of tax competition, and examines the evidence underlying the OECD’s claim that the corporate tax base is being “eroded” by “profit shifting” to lower tax jurisdictions.

Available at Econ Journal Watch

The case for a company tax cut is rock solid – and Labor knows it

To read most election comment you’d be forgiven for believing that what was until very recently a bipartisan consensus – that there was a strong case for Australia’s company tax rate to be cut – was in fact a mass delusion.

In 2010 Wayne Swan as treasurer declared that, “Reducing company tax will create new jobs and grow the economy right around the country” and was open to a reduction in the rate from the current 30 per cent to 25 per cent. Chris Bowen was arguing for a 25 per cent rate as recently as September last year.

But now that the Turnbull Government has announced a reduction to 25 per cent to be phased in over the next decade, Swan says there’s “no case for a company tax rate” because multinational companies are avoiding their tax and to suggest otherwise has something to do with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and “trickle-down economics”.

For their part, Bowen and Bill Shorten now describe the 25 per cent rate as a $50 billion giveaway to big companies.

This is a rather damning indictment of the current Labor leadership, which has abandoned a long-held position simply to paint the Coalition as pro-big business during an election campaign.

Still, why blame a politician for acting like a politician? The populist argument against company tax cuts is just too easy to make. What’s remarkable is not that Labor has reversed its view but that successive governments actually managed to reduce the company tax rate from 49 per cent in the late 1980s to 30 per cent today.

The case for a corporate tax cut is rock solid. It’s about ensuring that the Australian economy is internationally competitive. A competitive economy attracts foreign investment – and with that investment comes growth and jobs. By contrast, an uncompetitive economy is a declining economy.

As the Rudd government’s Henry Tax Review pointed out, in 2001 the OECD average corporate tax rate was 32.5 per cent. At that time Australia’s 30 per cent rate was a good effort. But now the OECD average is about 25 per cent, and Australia’s rate hasn’t changed.

A word has to be said here about our system of dividend imputation. Under dividend imputation, investors receiving a dividend are credited for tax already paid on company profits. This avoids profits being taxed twice – first as company tax and then as personal income tax when dividends are returned to shareholders.

You often hear that dividend imputation makes the 30 per cent headline rate meaningless, as a reduction in company tax would be automatically made up by a corresponding increase in income tax collection. But that only holds true for domestic shareholders. Foreign companies have foreign shareholders who do not benefit from dividend imputation. And it is foreign companies we want to attract – along with their money and jobs and economic activity.

Indeed, the fact that we need a dividend imputation system at all partly demonstrates why the company tax is a bad tax. In truth no “company” pays tax. Companies are made of people and people pay tax – whether those people are company’s customers, shareholders, workers or management.

Who ultimately pays what proportion of the company tax is a matter of great controversy.

Last year Chris Bowen accepted that the bulk of the company tax was paid by workers. If, alternatively, investors pay the bulk, then it’s worth remembering that through compulsory superannuation we’re all investors. If management pay the bulk – and you sometimes see arguments that the company tax is a de facto tax on wealthy managers – then it is a wildly indirect way of taxing the rich.

This confusion and complication is why every serious investigation into tax points out that the company tax is one of the most inefficient – that is, wasteful – taxes available to government. (See Chart 1.5 of the Henry Review.)

Yet Australia relies on this inefficient tax for its revenue (18 per cent of the total tax take as of 2013) more than any other OECD country (with the exception of Norway, where company tax provided about 22 per cent of the total tax take).

In that light, Wayne Swan is exactly wrong to argue that multinational tax avoidance means we shouldn’t reduce the company tax rate. I’ve argued in the past that avoidance is for the most part a non-problem. But to the extent that company tax is being avoided, it is because other jurisdictions – like Singapore – offer much more welcoming tax environments than Australia does.

Our extreme reliance on company tax makes us particularly vulnerable to corporate tax avoidance and demonstrates how uncompetitive Australia has become for investment.

Labor used to understand this. Given how close they are to winning government, it’s a real worry they no longer do.

Why the super debate is a Liberal flashpoint

Casual observers might be confused why what appears to be a technical legal debate – what counts as retrospectivity for the purposes of superannuation policy – has been so emotive within Liberal circles over the last fortnight.

The answer is historical and philosophical.

For the last two years Labor has been beating the Coalition up on “fairness”, arguing that its economic policy favours the rich. The superannuation changes are intended to counter this attack, hitting the Coalition’s own supporters in their retirement accounts.

But with the retrospectivity debate the Government just dropped itself into another fairness debacle.

Retrospective law changes the legal status of actions that were performed before the law was passed. The issue here is that the new lifetime cap of $500,000 on after-tax concessional superannuation contributions is backdated to 2007.

That means there are Australians who have been planning their retirements on the basis of the law of the day and who have suddenly been informed that the law was, in retrospect, different, and that they were working towards a contributions cap that they never knew existed.

That retrospectivity feels unfair, in the sense that it is unjust to rewrite the past in a way that negatively affects the future.

(Retrospectivity is not inherently unfair or unjust. No one could object to posthumous pardons of men convicted of homosexual offenses in the 20th century. And no one should object to the post-war convictions of Nazi war criminals, even though, given they had not violated German law, their offenses had been retrospectively created and applied. But people planning for retirement are neither of those.)

As much as Bill Shorten has tried to suggest otherwise, fairness is not just a question of how heavily the rich are taxed. It encompasses the feeling that a citizenry acting in good faith will be reciprocated with good faith actions by the state.

Particularly since the Howard government, Australians have been told to put superannuation at the centre of their future planning – to contribute as much and as often as they can. Making superannuation the central pillar of retirement income has been a deliberate policy and political position of government after government.

It is hard to exaggerate how much pushback the Coalition is getting from its own supporters on the unfairness of retrospectivity.

There are a lot of people – and many Liberal Party supporters – who are quietly sceptical about the whole idea of compulsory superannuation.

In part this is because retrospective law has a particularly sensitive history in the Liberal Party. The Fraser government’s 1982 legislative volley against the bottom-of-the-harbour tax minimisation schemes (where companies stripped all their assets just before their tax was liable) included a provision that required these companies to pay all the tax that would have been due between the years 1972 and 1980, when the bottom-of-the-harbour schemes were believed to be legally sound.

This created a firestorm among the business community. The issue wasn’t so much that the loophole was being closed. It was that people who had made decisions under the law as it was were suddenly being told that they had actually been acting unlawfully. It was, fundamentally, a fairness battle fought against the government’s supporters.

In his autobiography, John Howard spends a big chunk of his account of his time as Malcolm Fraser’s treasurer detailing the political havoc that the legislation created. Fourteen Coalition members crossed the floor against the bill. Howard told a radio interview in 2006 that he still carried a few scars from the debate. As prime minister he regularly made hostility to retrospective law a basic liberal value.

Twenty-four years after it was introduced, compulsory superannuation is still a policy experiment vulnerable to tax grabs and policy change. While this has been obvious from a theoretical perspective for a long time, the 2016 budget confirms the uncomfortable fact: superannuation is an unreliable store of our retirement money.

Retirement savings are unique in that they constitute fixed investments made with a time horizon of 40 or 50 years. The Coalition Government seems determined to demonstrate that they can fiddle apparently unhindered and consequence-free with the tax treatment of this long-term asset.

Are we supposed to believe that this will be the last change to superannuation? Under the Turnbull Government’s new policy, the accumulation accounts that are supposed to hold super balances above the $1.6 million lifetime cap will be taxed at 15 per cent. It is virtually certain that here will be a government soon that decides that 15 per cent is too low. That it ought to be equivalent to the company tax rate (30 per cent) or the top marginal income rate (45 per cent). Or decides that the money should be taxed when withdrawn at the equivalent marginal income rate.

If it was any other investment, of course, we would be free to move out of this now provably unreliable asset and put our money elsewhere. But that is against the rules.

There are a lot of people – and many Liberal Party supporters – who are quietly sceptical about the whole idea of compulsory superannuation for this reason. It is fundamentally unfair to prevent people by law from accessing until retirement money they have legitimately earned.

And as Labor knows, once people have it in their mind that a policy is unfair, that impression is hard to budge.

Are The Panama Papers Really Such A Scandal?

What, exactly, is the scandal with the Panama Papers?

You might have read in Time that it “could lead to capitalism’s great crisis” and the Guardian that it depicts “the corruption of our democracy”.

It’s easy to draw political conclusions from the leak of 11.5 million files from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca – even take a guess how it will play out in Australian domestic politics, which we will come to shortly – but put aside the hyperbole for a moment.

Is the scandal that Vladimir Putin’s inner circle has extracted billions of dollars of the wealth of the Russian citizenry and state? Or is it that they are trying to avoid paying the Russian statutory income tax rate of 13 per cent?

Is the scandal that you can accumulate incredible wealth as a member of the Chinese government? Or, then again, is the scandal that some of that fortune isn’t being taxed domestically?

Twenty-nine per cent of all active companies represented by Mossack Fonseca were set up by its Chinese offices. But this doesn’t inherently suggest criminality. Wealth in China risks expropriation by the state. Investing offshore is good risk management.

Indeed, most of the foreign leaders named in or connected to the Panama Papers come from countries that are high on corruption and low on the rule of law.

Scan your eyes over the nationalities of the “power players” in the Panama Papers. Georgia, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Ghana, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Cambodia, Kazakhstan. This is not a list of the world’s liberal democracies.

Some are, though. The prime minister of squeaky-clean Iceland, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, stood down last week after he was named in the Panama Papers. When his wife invested the proceeds of a sale of her father’s business offshore, Gunnlaugsson failed to declare his interest in the company. The company also held bonds in the very same Icelandic banks that the government was responsible for winding up after the Global Financial Crisis.

But Gunnlaugsson’s true crime is hypocrisy. Having professed an Iceland-first economic policy of capital controls, retaining businesses in Iceland and protecting the Icelandic króna, it understandably galls to see his own wife utilising global offshoring to – legally – maximise her wealth.

David Cameron is having similar trouble after his father was named in the papers. All evidence suggests that Ian and David Cameron paid all taxes on the dividends they received in Britainfrom this offshore investment. But the British government has spent the last few years trying to whip up a frenzy about complex tax arrangements. Not a great look.

Still, hypocrisy is a moral violation, not a legal one.

Tax havens perform an important function by putting downwards pressure on domestic tax rates. They are the global economy’s escape valve – preventing sclerotic Western welfare states from pushing taxes up and up.

As the Cato Institute’s Dan Mitchell wrote last week, the fact that law firms like Mossack Fonseca create corporate structures is no scandal. Even though what they do is completely legal, they are now being tagged with a vague sense of criminality. But Mossack Fonseca does not acquire the money, hold the money, or invest the money. And it is required to do due-diligence on its clients.

Most importantly, for all the impressive scale of the Panama Papers (11.5 million files comes to 2.6 terabytes of data) it tells us little about the extent to which offshoring erodes the tax base of non-haven countries. It is remarkably hard to identify any serious detriment to the revenue from offshoring, as even the OECD, the multinational body pushing the crackdown on tax avoidance, admits.

This is where the politics of the Panama Papers and their actual policy significance sharply diverge.

In Australia, Bill Shorten has made a crackdown on corporate tax avoidance the pillar of his economic policy. As Lenore Taylor writes in the Guardian, Shorten is relying on the revenue gained from closing tax loopholes to fund new social spending, and close the budget deficit.

Labor thinks it can squeeze another $2 billion in revenue from a crackdown on tax avoidance, but won’t release Parliamentary Budget Office estimates it says shows this. My Institute of Public Affairs colleague Sinclair Davidson has often pointed out that the Australian government is much better at writing press releases announcing how much extra revenue it will collect from a crackdown than actually collecting that revenue.

The Panama Papers helps Shorten keep the Turnbull Government on the back foot. Even though the Coalition has tried to beat up the tax avoidance issue itself, economic populism is not a game that nominally market-oriented parties can win. As the prime ministers of Britain and Iceland have learned, the politics of offshore investments is about impressions not policy.

To be mentioned in the Panama Papers looks bad. That the Panama Papers exist looks bad. It’s the vibe. It’s the optics of the thing.

Every article on the leak has a sentence saying something like, “There are legitimate uses for offshore companies”, but who reads the fine print? And in the middle of a frenzy about the super-rich and what they do in foreign, exotic countries, who would want to?

Negative gearing changes aren’t bold or courageous

Why are we talking about negative gearing?

The simple answer is Bill Shorten released Labor’s negative gearing policy. (For better or worse, this is how you control the media cycle. Release policies.)

The more complicated, more worrying answer is that the economic debate is so empty – that the range of acceptable discussion is so narrow, that big picture ideas are so thin on the ground – that changing negative gearing is the boldest economic reform the political class can reckon with.

Removing negative gearing has been done before. Where in 2016 negative gearing changes counts as a courageous barbecue stopper, the Hawke government’s abolition of negative gearing barely rates a mention among the great regulatory upheavals of the era. It’s a sad illustration of how our vision of the range of possibilities has shrunk in three decades.

An even more depressing thought is how disconnected the negative gearing discussion is from the big economic challenges we face. There are two reasons one might consider negative gearing changes. We might want to gather more revenue for the Commonwealth budget. And we might want to ease pressure on the housing market.

That Labor has a more-tax-revenue approach to budget repair and favours negative gearing as an explanation for high house prices is well-known.

But it’s a worry that the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, while defending negative gearing in general,believes that the “excesses” of negative gearing need to be tackled.

First, this goes against Morrison’s apparently rock-solid belief that spending needs to be reduced, rather than revenue increased.

Second, it implicitly concedes the view that the house price boom is caused by demand – too many investors – rather than supply – restrictions on land release and NIMBYism.

Third, and most importantly, changes to negative gearing have nothing to do with economic growth. Nothing.

It’s true that you could make a creative, complicated, multi-stage argument that lower house prices might eventually lead to growth benefits. But all else being equal, it is hard to see why removing money from the economy – as any proposal that increases government revenue would – might help the economy, rather than hinder it.

The unfortunate conclusion is that both the Government and the Opposition are talking about negative gearing because they have so few ideas of what to do next.

Just look at Morrison’s speech to the National Press Club last week. As a generic political speech it was perfectly adequate – an outline of the economic climate and reiteration of previously announced policy positions. But as an attempt to articulate the economic direction of the Turnbull Government it was empty.

On the question of budget balance Morrison only managed to demonstrate that very little had been done to reduce the deficit – as his 7.30 interview made perfectly clear, the Coalition has spent $70 billion of the $80 billion it has saved.

Perhaps the problem is that the bank of reform ideas is empty. Property commentators have been hyperventilating about negative gearing for ages. Maybe it’s only being talked about because the political class has run out of other things to talk about.

Yet the Australian policy community is rich with ideas: big bang ideas and small marginal ideas. The Abbott government commissioned the production of many of them. We’ve had the Harper review into competition policy, the Murray inquiry into the financial system, and the encyclopaedic audit commission report. These reports offer hundreds and hundreds of pages of policy discussion, recommending everything from intellectual property law changes to returning some income tax powers to the states. So where is the shadow of that formidable ideas production in our federal parliament?

Morrison has given a partial answer. From a growth point of view, cutting the company tax rate could get the biggest bang for our reform buck. This would be hard politics, especially if the revenue loss was compensated with a GST rise. As the Treasurer explained, “the proposition that you tax mums and dads more so companies can have a tax cut has an obvious problem.” Yet that problem has been surmounted before. Company taxes were cut in 2000, and again in 2001, at the same time as the GST was introduced.

It seems clear that politicians feel more hemmed in than they were in the past. That’s either because they lack courage – or because they lack the stable foundations on which to be courageous. Australian politics has now experienced half a decade of leadership instability, brought about by the fractious decision to roll Kevin Rudd in 2010.

Our policy debate is more shallow, limited and parochial than it has been for decades. Yet at the same time the need for major changes – changes that would spark economic growth – is as pressing as it has been since the 1970s. That changing negative gearing is the best that Labor and the Coalition can come up with is a condemnation of their failure to lead.

How We’re Getting The Whole GST Debate So Wrong

The GST reform debate is a complete mess. If this was in doubt, the Council of Australian Governments meeting last week made it unambiguous: the Government is pushing ahead with a solution to a problem that it has not yet defined. The solution is a 15 per cent GST. Does anybody know what the problem is?

Most economists have a good, clean answer to that question. Basic tax theory tells us that consumption taxes are more efficient than most alternatives. Taxes that are easy to evade or substantially alter our behaviour are less efficient. Yet consumption taxes play only a small part of Australia’s overall tax mix. The ideal tax from an efficiency perspective is low, broad, simple and does not encourage people to avoid saving.

Hence the Henry Review’s position that “a broad-based consumption tax is one of the most efficient taxes available”, and why lots of serious people these days talk about raising the GST and expanding it to fresh food and financial services.

But theory and practice are very different things. At last week’s COAG meeting the state and commonwealth governments were discussing a complicated tax bargain, where two levels of government would trade off fiscal favours with each other. In the Australian Financial Review, Phillip Coorey has a good run down of the proposals.

Jay Weatherill’s plan is that the Commonwealth Government would keep the revenue from a GST increase, which could be used to finance income tax cuts and compensation to low income households, while the states would be allocated a fixed percentage of the commonwealth’s income tax take to spend at their discretion.

An alternative model is that proposed by Mike Baird, where the states would receive $5 billion between now and 2020 to recover some of the funding increases cut from the 2014 budget. After that, the states would be allocated the revenue from income tax bracket creep – the steady tax increase that occurs thanks to inflation every year.

Neither of these plans have much to recommend them. They would further entrench the fiscal imbalance in the federation – the distorted political incentives that arise from the fact that the states do not raise the money they spend. But Baird’s plan is particularly awful. Not only does it rely on maintaining bracket creep as a fixture of the Australian tax system, it would create a constituency – the states – that would lobby hard against any future income tax relief.

The states are obviously clamouring for money. Having lost any real revenue base of their own, they’ve been reduced to begging the commonwealth for scraps.

The real question is why the Commonwealth Government is indulging any of this. The efficiency gains from replacing income tax with a consumption tax are unlikely to be realised once the Government starts compensating low income holders and bargaining with the states. Those compromises will impose their own efficiency costs – costs that do not get captured in the blackboard modelling that informs the debate – but those costs might swamp the benefits from tax reform.

There is a vast gap between an ideal, perfectly implemented tax system and the necessarily compromised and complicated system that emerges from the process of democratic bargaining.

The Government is correct to say that our tax system comes from an older era, and correct to point out that many of our tax rates are punitively high – particularly the income and corporate tax rates. But piecemeal changes could tackle these problems. Every budget includes its own minor changes to the tax system. Why not work through the normal budget process? Why the need for big-bang reform?

When the GST was first introduced by the Howard government, it was designed to replace the wildly inefficient, complicated and obscure wholesale sales tax, as well as stamp duties, taxes on financial institutions, and bed taxes. The one fell swoop approach suited our tax reform needs then. It does not anymore.

The flaws of the existing system have been created by the same political dynamic that makes a revolutionary jump to a substantially better system unlikely. And if the trade-off for a higher GST is to lock in bracket creep forever, as the Baird plan would, tax reform will have been worse than pointless: it will have been genuinely harmful.

The Turnbull Government can’t even convince its own economic elders about the desirability of reform. Peter Costello (who brought in the GST in 2000) warns that a GST debate “will swamp everything”. Peter Reith (shadow treasurer when John Hewson presented his GST plan) urges the Government to “shut down this discussion before Christmas”. Neither of these two are the sole founts of wisdom on tax, of course, but something has obviously gone badly wrong.

On Tuesday the Government will release its Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, which will reportedly show that government expenditure is around 26.2 per cent of GDP.

This means the Australian government now spends more than it spent when the Rudd government was trying to pump-prime the economy during the Global Financial Crisis (“just” 26.0 per cent of GDP was spent in the 2009-10 financial year). We are at permanent emergency levels of spending. This – not marginal changes to the efficiency of the tax system – is what Malcolm Turnbull should be spending his political capital on.

Tax Reform A False Start In Pursuit Of Economic Growth

The new Turnbull government should stop talking about tax reform.

Tax reform is a poor use of its political capital. It is a waste of the goodwill Malcolm Turnbull brings to the prime ministership. The challenge Turnbull faces is not to make our tax system slightly more efficient. The challenge he faces is how to make the economy grow.

When he became Treasurer, Scott Morrison stated that the Commonwealth has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. That is, the government wants to focus on spending cuts rather than tax increases.

This is excellent, as far as it goes. But in truth our real problem is growth.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the Australian economy is going to grow just 2.5 per cent this year. Back in the Howard years, growth averaged 3.7 per cent a year. The Reserve Bank governor has publicly speculated that our lower growth might be the new normal.

If you want to blame the stubborn budget deficit on anything, blame it on this. John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull: they’ve all been riding the waves of our growth figures.

Some governments have made the problem better and some have made it worse, but the simple fact is that policymakers can no longer rely on the same level of growth that once delivered windfalls to the Commonwealth budget.

The focus on tax is a distraction. Ever since Kevin Rudd commissioned his own Treasury Secretary to conduct a “root and branch” investigation of Australia’s tax system in 2008, tax reform has been an obsession of governments. Joe Hockey was only following Labor’s lead when he launched the Coalition’s tax reform process.

It is true that the tax system could be made more economically efficient. It would be more efficient for taxes on income to be further replaced by taxes on consumption. This is why many economists have said that the GST should be raised and personal and company tax reduced. Morrison has been talking about this possible trade-off already.

But it’s hard to see why this is a national priority. Efficiency isn’t the only thing we want from a tax system. Indeed, a theoretical insistence on efficiency was what gave us the Rudd government’s mining tax; a tax which was understood by a tiny fraction of the population but was the inexplicable and unhappy centrepiece of Labor’s economic agenda.

And while efficiency makes it easier for governments to extract more money out of us, is that really such a virtue? We ought to know when we are being taxed. Voters need to know what their government is doing. They need to know how taxes are raising the prices of the goods they buy and reducing the money they have to buy those goods.

A budget emergency is the worst time to conduct tax reform. There’s not a person in the country who believes the economy will escape this round of tax reform with a lower total tax burden.

Every incentive in the Treasury department is to edge taxes up. That’s why Joe Hockey cracked down on so-called corporate tax “avoidance”. That’s why the GST is now to be levied on online purchases. And anybody who thinks eliminating superannuation “concessions” will help the economy has rocks in their head.

It’s all incredibly counterproductive because the fixation on revenue and tax increases actually holds back the growth we need to encourage. Taxes take money out of the productive parts of the economy. Perhaps the government thinks it might be able to use its revenue to lay the foundations of growth – by investing in infrastructure and private education. In practice, too much of this investment goes to white elephants and degree mills.

Governments – directed as they are by professional politicians with their eyes on marginal seats and swinging voters – aren’t that good at spending our money wisely. Turnbull needs to be careful his interest in innovation doesn’t become a stream of taxpayer-funded boondoggles. Much better to revitalise the Coalition’s flagging deregulation agenda, refocus on industrial relations, and eliminate any regulatory burdens holding back employment and production.

Even the constant drumbeat of tax reform is likely to be harming growth. We’ve been talking about tax reform for nearly a decade. Uncertainty about Australia’s future tax regime makes companies less eager to invest. They know the tax system is probably going to change. They don’t know when, or how.

But there’s a deeper reason Turnbull should fixate on growth rather than taxes. Higher growth means increased living standards. Higher growth means a more prosperous Australia and more prosperous Australians. This – not spending, not revenue – should be what keeps Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison awake at night.