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.

Forcing GST On Imports Doesn’t Stack Up

In opposition the Coalition promised no new taxes or tax increases. On Friday Joe Hockey announced the Coalition’s latest tax increase: eliminating the GST low value threshold on imported goods.

Currently GST is not imposed on imports worth less than the low value threshold of $1000. When you buy books from Amazon or clothes from ASOS, you don’t pay GST. As of July 2017, you will.

Well, you probably will. This is going to be very hard for the Government to implement.

The GST collection won’t be levied when goods are imported. Inspecting packages at the border costs more money than it raises, as the Productivity Commission conclusively found in 2011. (The Assistant Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, has been saying that “real improvements in technology” make that finding no longer true, but the inspection problem isn’t really a technological one, it is a time and warehousing costs one.)

Instead, Australian Taxation Office officials are going to fly around the world to ask “hundreds” of foreign companies exporting more than $75,000 worth of goods to Australia to levy the GST at their end. Nice work if you can get it.

The politics here is obvious and unflattering.

Friday’s announcement satisfies the retailers who have been lobbying for years to reduce the threshold, claiming it makes domestic goods uncompetitive.

Of course, the GST threshold is a convenient scapegoat for much deeper issues in the Australian retail sector. Even if GST were imposed on all goods, many representative products would still be more expensive sold from Australian shops than foreign ones, as my colleague Mikayla Novak has shown. And international shipping isn’t free.

Friday’s announcement also satisfies Treasury and the state governments who are clamouring for more revenue. Like everything else Hockey has dressed up as a “tax integrity measure”, the elimination of the GST threshold is nothing more than a tax grab.

But, politics aside, let’s look at the low value threshold on its own merits.

Almost nobody in the debate has acknowledged that the threshold has been slowly lowering ever since the introduction of the GST. This is because the $1000 threshold is fixed – it is not indexed to inflation. And a grand isn’t worth as much as it used to.

This is the point the Treasury’s own Tax Board made in 2010, writing that inflation will “reduce over time any potential bias in favour of imported goods over local goods of the same quality and value”.

So Australian retailers have been complaining about a tax distinction that has been constantly and automatically eroding in their favour for the last decade and a half.

And that’s before we consider the fact that the dramatic reversal of the dollar has made domestic retailers much more competitive than foreign ones in the last few years.

The GST is usually described as a consumption tax. It is not a consumption tax because the GST is not levied on consumption. It is levied on sales by firms operating in Australia. In the real world, the GST is a sales tax with an input credit.

That observation might sound pedantic but it has big implications for the import threshold debate. If the GST is in fact an Australian sales tax, then trying to impose it on sales by foreign companies in foreign countries is not a tax integrity measure at all. It is a tax on imports. It is, in other words, a tariff.

Foreign companies do not, and should not, pay Australian taxes – just as companies in foreign countries do not operate under Australia’s regulatory framework or our political institutions.

As the Howard government said when it introduced the GST in 2000, “the government wants to ensure it does not unnecessarily draw non-residents into the GST system”.

And the idea that we need to raise taxes at our border in order to ensure “competitive neutrality” or to “level the playing field” is mercantilist nonsense. In fact, it’s not clear why GST should be levied on any foreign imports at all, apart from a pure protectionism.

In practice, the GST is only going to be levied on foreign companies that a) provide more than $75,000 goods into Australia and b) don’t slam their door in the face of Australian tax officials when they come knocking.

So there’s a non-trivial chance Hockey’s GST move will just encourage Australian consumers to move from bigger websites to smaller websites, trying to avoid the 10 per cent tariff.

On Friday Hockey said he has many “levers” at his disposal to “pressure” companies overseas to collect Australian taxes.

Maybe he does. But if so, that should be recognised for what it is: trying to squeeze money from foreign companies for no other reason than to satisfy retail lobbyists and feed the Government’s apparently unrestrainable spending habit.

Why Multinationals Are Not Avoiding Australian Tax

with Sinclair Davidson

The title of the interim report of the Senate economics committee inquiry into corporate tax avoidance, released this week, is “You cannot tax what you cannot see”.

This is a rather embarrassing admission that the evidence for widespread corporate tax avoidance – the avoidance which has filled so many newspaper columns, so many hyperbolic speeches in parliament – just doesn’t exist.

Imagine being pulled over by the police and told that even though you’ve been observed driving below the speed limit, stopping at stop signs, giving way at give way signs, indicating correctly, wearing your seatbelt, and maintaining a respectable distance from the car in front, the police have a hunch you’re somehow violating community expectations.

While the Senate committee feels sure there are questionable corporate tax practices going on, it doesn’t actually find any.

Rather, it relies very heavily on the political rhetoric of a now-discredited 2014 report by the Tax Justice Network, which claimed that firms were denying the government vast sums of revenue through opaque and confusing tax arrangements.

In fact, what the committee’s interim report shows is that the tax practices of the big tech firms are quite explicable.

For instance, Microsoft and Google have their regional headquarters in Singapore. As the committee admits, these headquarters are not shells, existing solely to avoid giving Joe Hockey money. They’re real. They have real offices, real assets, and real staff doing real work. In Singapore. Not Australia. Just because those Singapore headquarters digitally export some products and services to Australia does not mean they should pay Australian corporate tax on the profits.

Even more explicable is large firms with large research and development costs deducting those costs from their taxable profits. The R&D corporate tax deduction is bipartisan government policy. It seems a bit much for governments to introduce a tax incentive then get angry with firms for using it.

The lack of evidence of tax avoidance makes the committee’s belief that the Australian government should name and shame corporate tax avoiders vaguely comic.

Certainly, the Australian Tax Office should be vigilant ensuring firms are paying what they owe. Firms that fail to do so should face the full consequences of the law. But that already happens. Australia has some of the strongest anti-avoidance laws on the planet. The government has the tools, right now, to deal with illegal tax evasion.

Underpinning this whole debate is the fact that Australia’s corporate tax rate is very high. At 30 per cent, it is substantially above the OECD average of 25.3 per cent. And Australia is one of the most heavily reliant countries on corporate tax revenue in the OECD. The Senate committee admits that this heavy burden puts Australia at a “comparative disadvantage”.

With such a disadvantage, it is no surprise that multinational companies are not lining up to establish their regional headquarters here.

But a failure to establish regional headquarters in Australia – “avoiding permanent establishment” in the lingo of the committee – does not constitute tax avoidance. Australia’s tax and regulatory environment is not competitive. Singapore’s is competitive. This ought to cause some soul-searching by the Parliament. Handwringing about phantom corporate tax avoidance just postpones consideration of the real problem.

Perhaps we might expect the sort of anti-corporate nonsense espoused at the inquiry from Labor and the Greens. What’s really disappointing is the full-throated support of the corporate tax panic from the Coalition.

Government senators on the committee wrote a dissenting minority report. Yet their complaint was that the committee did not fully acknowledge all the exciting work the Abbott government was doing to clamp down on multinationals.

Earlier this year the government released its own proposed legislation to deal with corporate tax avoidance. In effect that legislation would empower the ATO to second-guess where it feels profits should be booked for tax purposes.

The consequences of such an approach would be dire. It would expose multinational firms to double taxation. It would be a huge incentive for those firms to leave Australia all together, taking jobs and economic activity with them.

All this fretting about tax avoidance makes good demagoguery. But it might seriously harm Australia’s economy.

Hockey’s ‘Grand Deal On Tax’ Is Just Wishful Thinking

Joe Hockey is looking for a “grand deal” between government and the community on tax reform. On Wednesday last week he addressed a PricewaterhouseCoopers audience calling for a discussion about big, long-term changes to the tax system that might set us up for coming economic changes.

There’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. Hockey seems genuinely interested in the structure of the tax system. He was recently speculating whether the GST has a future in a global economy, where transactions are digital and borderless. It’s not hard to imagine the blue sky conversations he’s enjoyed with Treasury boffins where they ponder such imponderables.

But his hope for a grand deal on tax is folly. Tax reform is easy to talk about. It’s very hard to implement. It’s even harder to implement in a way that prevents the political system from undermining the virtues of the reform in question. And it’s almost impossible to implement when your government has no political capital.

Australian governments levy more than 100 separate taxes. Each of these interact in complicated ways, introducing incentives for us all to rearrange our affairs, to work, spend and save differently. No real-world tax is perfect, perfectly fair or perfectly efficient. They all bias economic activity somehow. (Sometimes this bias is intentional. So-called “sin” taxes are designed to stop us buying the product that is being taxed.)

Over time, governments have amended the system to reduce the most obvious biases and distortions. Many of those policies that are today fashionably described as tax loopholes or concessions exist because, in their absence, some activity would be penalised.

On The Drum last year, for instance, Alan Kohler criticised dividend imputation for making Australian investors obsessed with collecting dividends. But if we didn’t have it, income earning through corporate investment would be taxed twice – first in corporate tax, then when it is returned to investors through income tax.

The tax system is an evolved formula that reflects decades of lessons, errors and political compromises.

So designing a more efficient tax system than what we have now is relatively easy. Everyone has their own ideas. Yesterday John Daley and Brendan Coates of the Grattan Institute were pushing for property levies. NSW Premier Mike Baird proposed a 50 per cent increase in the GST. Tony Abbott likes that one.

But there’s a big difference between tax design and tax reform, as the Harvard economist Martin Feldstein noted four decades ago. Tax systems can be designed on a blank sheet of paper. But tax reform has to be done in an existing political system, underpinned by existing political institutions, coordinated with existing political compromises, and against the backdrop of a welter of political interest groups with political influence and media friends.

All that politics inevitably leaves its mark. All economic reform is the result of bargaining between the most powerful interest groups. What looks like a beautiful, clean, theoretically-efficient tax on paper is distorted and damaged when the political class try to enact it. Not all laws come out looking like firmly-cased and richly-coloured sausages. Sometimes what falls out of the legislative meat grinder is just a coarse pile of mince and broken pieces of pig intestine.

Hockey should know this. Remember the mining tax? The idea of a resources rent tax was, as so many economists said at the time, an elegant and efficient tax compared to the royalties system. But imposing such a tax on top of the Australian landscape was, it turned out, a hopeless task.

First of all, the mining tax was introduced by the federal government. But state governments owned the resources and charged the royalties. So the designers had to work around that problem by crediting back royalty payments. Second, it had to be introduced into an existing landscape where decisions about mining investments had already been made – hence another round of compromises and transitional arrangements.

And all this happened before the Rudd government learned it was not strong enough to resist a publicity campaign by mining companies. The replacement mining tax, introduced by the new prime minister, Julia Gillard, was even worse.

The last real tax reform success was 15 years ago, when the Howard government introduced the GST. But that success is easy to overstate. Parliamentary negotiations meant that large swathes of consumer products now fall outside the GST net. The original intention was that states would eliminate stamp duties on mortgages and other loans. That didn’t happen. And the way the GST is distributed means states bicker over their share and generally act like mendicant clients of an autocratic Commonwealth.

Hockey wants big picture thinking and long-term reform. It is good we have a Treasurer thinking such thoughts. But Hockey is not a theoretician. He is a parliamentarian. And what can be imagined on paper and what can be negotiated in politics are very, very different.

Submission to Treasury consultation into exposure draft of Tax Laws Amendment (Tax Integrity Multinational Anti-avoidance Law) Bill 2015

With Sinclair Davidson

Introduction: The Tax Laws Amendment (Tax Integrity Multinational Anti-avoidance Law) Bill 2015 exposure draft represents an important and concerning watershed in the practice of Australian corporate tax governance.

The draft bill would base the assessment of Australian tax liabilities on an assessment of tax rules in other countries. It undermines global tax agreements to which Australia is a part that have developed to prevent double taxation, risking the phenomenon that those agreements were designed to avoid. It offers a disincentive for the world’s biggest firms from establishing operations in Australia. It mischaracterises readily understandable business decisions as tax avoidance and penalises firms for normal corporate structural practices.

The scope of this legislation amounts to a substantial, yet entirely unpredictable, increase in corporate tax, and an attendant increase in the regulatory burden faced by large firms operating in Australia. We dispute the claim that this is a “tax integrity” measure. It is very much a tax increase.

Available in PDF here.

An analogue budget meets the digital world

Budgets are a matter of light and shade. You have to get the balance right. And so having spent the weekend talking about its wonderful childcare plans, yesterday the Government paraded Treasurer Joe Hockey in front of cameras toformally announce some of the budget’s so-called “tax integrity measures”.

Yes, tax integrity measures. Treasury’s spinners would have worked hard on that little catchphrase. Funny how measures to strengthen the integrity of a tax system always seem to deliver more tax to the government.

First, the Government plans to adjust anti-avoidance laws to crack down on multinationals shifting their profits to lower taxing jurisdictions. Second, the Government is going to introduce a Netflix tax – that is, try to impose the GST on digital downloads like books, music, videos and so on.

These two are linked, and in an important way that perhaps even Hockey does not realise. Analogue tax system, meet digital world.

Let’s start with profit shifting. I’ve tackled the claims that multinationals are evading taxation by shifting their profits across borders on The Drum before. Long story short: it’s a beat up. But the Government wants a budget that sounds fair and nothing sounds fairer than beating up on big companies. The corporate tax is a diffuse and confusing tax. It’s designed that way.

We are told Australian Taxation Officers have been “embedded” in 30 different multinational companies. We’re not told which companies. And at the press conference yesterday the treasurer didn’t want to tell us how much revenue the new anti-avoidance measures might raise. “It’s billions of dollars, obviously.”

This should be a red flag. It’s true that Treasury doesn’t have a good track record for estimating how much money new taxes will raise – recall the embarrassingly low take from the mining tax. But this looks less like prudence and more like a lack of confidence. Running a media or political campaign against corporate tax avoidance is easy. Trying to reverse engineer the tax accounting of the world’s biggest firms is hard.

The Government’s crackdown has a certain Sisyphean quality. In a world where much value is tied up in intangible intellectual property, it is borderline nonsensical for politicians to command that economic activity occurs in this jurisdiction or that jurisdiction.

It used to be the case that big firms had capital assets you could see and touch. Factories, vehicles, equipment, land. What mattered to firms were things like location, infrastructure, access to markets, the price and skills of the labour force and so on. But now the assets of the biggest firms can be placed anywhere in the world instantaneously. So they tend to be clustered in low tax jurisdictions with established and reliable legal systems. Like Ireland and Singapore.

What isn’t obvious is why this is a bad thing. Yes, higher tax countries like Australia would prefer that firms book their intellectual property here so Treasury could skim some cash off the top. But treating big firms to a publicity focused “crackdown” only harms what we should be trying to improve: the Australian investment environment. Firms should want to put their assets here. Implicitly, the Government’s profit shifting claims suggest they do not.

There is almost exactly the same issue with the Netflix tax. Once again, the Government is trying to shoehorn a national tax better suited for an analogue era into the age of digital globalisation.

“It is plainly unfair that a supplier of digital products into Australia is not charging the GST whilst someone locally has to charge the GST,” Hockey said at the press conference on Monday.

But why? The GST is a tax that the Australian government has chosen to place on Australian businesses. If there is an unfairness here it is an unfairness imposed by the government when it chose to introduce the GST. It is not “unfair” that other countries do not charge the Australian GST.

When we import goods from other countries – real or intangible – they are priced free of the burden of the many taxes and regulatory costs imposed by the Australian government. This does not make international trade unfair. In fact, all those institutional, regulatory and geographic differences between different trading partners are why international trade is so beneficial.

And – as with the profit shifting debate – the Government’s rhetoric is running far ahead of its capabilities. It is absolute fantasy that Hockey and the Australian Treasury will be able to impose our taxes on international digital goods providers in any meaningful way.

Yes, they might be able to convince a few of the big firms to play ball. But many already are playing ball. Apple, for instance, already charges GST. Those online firms with no Australian base and few Australian interests are unlikely to sign up to this new impost. What’s the Government going to do? Censor them?

It was reported last week that the Abbott Government has scotched many of the tax increases on the table in order to free itself to attack Bill Shorten for wanting to increase tax. That’s good, as far as it goes.

But it would be better if they opposed tax increases because they find increasing tax inherently objectionable.

Ultimately, the tax “integrity measures” announced yesterday have to be seen in the context of a Government that thinks the only viable way back to surplus is more revenue.

Conservative Voters Blindsided By Coalition Tax Increases

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.

Moral Panic Overlooks Real Company Tax Problem

with Sinclair Davidson

The corporate tax profit shifting debate is a classic example of moral panic. First, it’s incredibly complicated. How many Australians could explain how company tax is calculated, let alone what business practices a “double Irish Dutch sandwich” refers to?

Second, it’s driven by hyperbolic and simplistic reports of companies paying little to no tax. These stories pivot on even more complicated scandals, such as “Lux Leaks”, and the technicalities of foreign tax systems.

And third, it’s wildly overstated. The best current estimates of how much corporate tax is shifted across borders is in the realm of 2 per cent to 4 per cent of total corporate tax.

It’s true that earlier estimates in the 1990s were much more than that. It was those high estimates that got the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development interested in the issue. But the firm- and affiliate-level evidence is better now. It’s pointless to scrutinise a moral panic for the clarity of its claims. But the corporate tax debate is missing the point.

As a society we don’t value firms for the money the government extracts from them. We value firms because they produce goods and offer services that make us richer, our lives easier, more convenient and more enjoyable, and our standards of living higher.

We ought to design our tax system to encourage foreign firms operating and doing business on Australian shores, bringing investment and jobs. Any attempt to tackle profit shifting that raises uncertainty or lowers Australia’s investment climate would be a disaster.

The corporate tax is not a good tax. As a recent Treasury paper pointed out, it is one of the most inefficient taxes levied by Australian governments. The burden of the corporate tax is scattered and obscure.

Greens leader Christine Milne has been running around this week accusing companies of not paying their “fair share”. But that fair share is always and inevitably passed on to someone else. The literature on the incidence of corporate taxation suggests the burden of corporate tax is worn in the short term by investors, and in the long run by a combination of investors and workers. Of course, under our superannuation system every worker is an investor as well.

Few of the standard justifications for the existence of corporate tax – particularly in a small, open economy – are compelling. One fear is that company owners might divert their personal income into the company. But they’d still have to pay capital gains tax on the way out again. Another argument is that corporate tax is an easy way to get money out of multinationals. Absurd, we know.

That’s why there are academic tax papers with titles such as “Why is there corporate taxation in a small open economy?” and “Can capital income taxes survive? And should they?”

For the political class, the corporate tax has one great advantage: it’s unclear who ultimately pays. It’s easy and comfortable to beat up on corporations, just as long as you stay mum about who actually ends up paying corporate tax. The whole system rests on this clever one-two trick. Who could sympathise with big bad business?

But even if the government wishes to keep the corporate tax fiscal illusion going, there’s hope. For all the handwringing about the double Irish Dutch sandwich, one point often missed is that Ireland has been very clever. That country’s low corporate tax rates have brought in multinationals, and with them jobs and investment.

It’s not obvious those low rates have come at a cost to the Irish budget. Corporate tax revenue as a percentage of total revenue in Ireland is almost exactly the OECD average. There’s no reason we couldn’t copy the Irish example – get in on the Irish-Dutch sandwich ourselves. The Irish make their own luck. So should we.