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.