When Is Tax ‘Reform’ Actually Just A Tax Grab?

The worst thing about the Abbott Government’s newfound interest in reforming the GST is that it makes Kevin Rudd right.

During the 2013 campaign one of Rudd’s biggest attacks on the Coalition was that Tony Abbott was desperate to increase the GST.

The sole hook for this claim was the fact that the Coalition had promised a tax review that, unlike Rudd’s Henry Review, was supposed to scrutinise the GST alongside everything else.

On that basis any attempt to study Australia’s tax mix could be assumed as a plan to increase any and every tax.

Rudd’s GST attack was deliberate, disingenuous fearmongering – based on virtually nothing, used to fill out a campaign desperate for anything.

Yet now here we are, in 2015, and the Coalition can’t help itself talking about changing the GST.

Rudd would be feeling pretty good about his ability to predict the future. The great sage of Griffith.

There are apparently two proposals on the cards. The first is lowering the threshold at which consumers can import goods without paying GST. The idea is that local retail doesn’t compete on a level playing field against foreign websites.

The second is the perennial one of broadening the base. The GST should be applied to things like fresh food – things that were specifically excluded when the tax was first introduced by the Howard government at the turn of the century.

Both interesting ideas. It’s nice to chat about policy.

Incidentally, these proposals will raise the government quite a bit of money.

It’s painfully obvious that the main reason we’re talking about the changing the GST is because of the Government’s dire budget and political situation.

There’s a big difference between tax reform and tax grabs. The sudden interest in the GST looks everything like a tax grab.

But there’s another reason for the GST gabfest: the Coalition’s search for a “narrative” that will push them through to the next election.

Folk political memory recalls how John Howard won his first re-election on the GST – the same new tax that had sunk John Hewson just a few years before. Even more impressively, Howard pulled off this trick after an unfortunate and unhappy first term.

So you can understand why trying to replicate the master’s 1998 success might have some appeal.

But the GST was a grand program, not a technical adjustment. When Howard and Peter Costello announced the GST they described it as “not a new tax, a new tax system”.

The idea was not that the GST would simply replace the sales tax but would reduce taxes across the board. Howard claimed “the heart” of the system was “the largest personal income tax cut in Australia’s history”. And the GST was supposed to allow states to abolish stamp duties and transaction taxes, and a host of other inefficient taxes.

Despite some superficial similarities, Howard was in a very different political space to Abbott. Howard had much more political capital. Budget repair was on track. There was a sense in the late 1990s that we had prosperity in our future – a sense somewhat lacking today.

And, most of all, Howard’s “non-core” promises did nowhere near as much damage as Abbott’s policy backflips have done.

One of the most credibility damaging moves this Government made was its introduction of the deficit levy on high income earners in the 2014 budget.

Not only did it destroy the promise that “taxes (will) always be lower under the Coalition”, but it raised the marginal tax rate on high income earners to 49 per cent – just under that morally dubious rate where more marginal income goes to the government than to the earner.

The Abbott Government’s approach to taxation thus far has been almost exactly the same Labor’s. They’ve been trying to quietly bump up taxes and tax rates at the edges without causing a stir. In August last year the indexation of the fuel excise resumed. In April the Fringe Benefit Tax rate is going to be bumped up as well.

Then of course there’s bracket creep, which steadily and inexorably raises everybody’s tax rate without the Government having to lift a finger.

You might object that possible changes to the GST should be treated on their own merits. They’re either good ideas or bad ones, regardless of what else is going on in the broader economic or political sphere.

As my IPA colleague Mikayla Novak has pointed out, lowering the import threshold is in the not-a-good-idea category. It won’t fix the problems of the retail sector, and it would be prohibitively expensive to impose.

And as for broadening the base? Well, a broad tax is better than a narrow one. But unless this change is matched by wider reform, imposing the GST on food would be simply soaking the poor.

But the Government isn’t thinking about efficiency, or fairness. It’s thinking about politics. Let’s hope parliament doesn’t use the GST for a short-term budget fix.