But we’ve done tax reform – haven’t we? (Part 2)

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Sunday, 1 March 2015 18:30 by 2353

Last week we briefly looked at some of the problems with the current tax system. It seems that a number of those who should have a high level of understanding of the fundamental flaws in the current taxation system agree that the system needs reform.

Price Waterhouse Coopers suggest:

. . . there is a clear need for comprehensive tax reform — done the right way. The ‘right way' means increasing those taxes that have the least effect on investment and employment, and at the same time reducing reliance on taxes that distort incentives to work, invest and transact business. It also means addressing those factors which increase the complexity of the tax system and the cost of compliance.

Business Spectator reports:

Without widespread tax reform, the Australian government faces a prolonged period of sluggish wage growth and poor productivity. That might sound pessimistic but that’s the simple equation laid out by outgoing Australian Treasury secretary Dr Martin Parkinson.

Peter van Onselen wrote in The Australian (pay walled):

To the extent that consensus among tax professionals on the best way to collect revenue can be found, broad-based taxes are preferable to direct taxes. That’s because direct taxes such as income tax fall victim to bracket creep and stifle productivity. They feed into higher wages, too, which can affect inflation and Australia’s international competitiveness adversely.

But broad-based consumption taxes such as the GST can be regressive, in so far as they hurt lower-income families disproportionately to higher-income families given their flat application.

But this is a situation that can be easily overcome, is generally overstated and certainly isn’t a reason to abandon GST reform, which must be tackled boldly by our political leaders. It is always possible for policy decision-makers to make up for regressive GST application on the spending side.

Firstly, lets discuss the difference between ‘broad based’ and ‘direct’ taxes.

A ‘broad based’ tax is something like the Medicare levy. Everyone who pays tax pays a percentage based on their level of income to fund the ‘free universal’ healthcare system supported by the government. Distortions exist to ‘manufacture’ compliance with various social policies such as the surcharge made to those on higher incomes without private health insurance. GST is another ‘broad based’ tax: as the value of the tax is based, however, on the goods or services being purchased, rather than people’s incomes, someone on $40,000 per annum proportionally pays a higher rate of tax than someone on $140,000 per annum should they decide to purchase the same product. This distribution effect can be ‘engineered’ out through use of rebates etc. — as was promised with the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (Carbon Tax).

Direct taxes are charges such as income tax. You pay a certain percentage based on your income. While someone who is in the fortunate position to pay tax on the highest ‘margin’ pays more dollars than someone on the lowest margin, the person on the lower margin usually contributes a greater value of their annual income.

So, according to the experts, the problem is the complexity and ‘side effects’ of the current tax system: to fix the problems, move to broad based taxes based on equitable criteria and simplify the system. Sounds reasonably easy, doesn’t it?

This is where the politics comes in. In 1975, Asprey and Parsons handed over the full report of the Taxation Review Committee. The Asprey Report received little attention from Whitlam or Fraser: it did contain, however, discussion around the major taxation reforms of the 1980’s and 1990’s (capital gains, dividend imputation and GST to name a few).

The Rudd/Gillard government commissioned Ken Henry, former treasury secretary, to perform another review of the taxation system in 2010. Henry’s review (which was told not to look at the GST — one would assume for political reasons) suggested a number of reforms to improve the taxation system. The politics surrounding the review was that ‘a package’ would be recommended. Ken Henry obviously disagreed. The Henry Review advised:

The review has aimed to set strategic directions for the future architecture of the Australian tax and transfer system. It has not produced a one-off tax policy package, and it has not advanced the detailed design or timing of measures. Indeed, it is neither possible nor desirable to make all of these changes (138 recommendations) too quickly.

In the words of John Hewson:

. . .those expectations were there, so when they were thwarted, the Review was all too easily dismissed, politically, as “just another study/review/inquiry”, easily essentially shelved by the media, although [the government] also all too easily “cherry-picked” with attempts to implement just a handful of its recommendations.

Against this background, the [then ALP] government only picked some “high profile” recommendations immediately, such as the mining tax, and when that backfired, it then only did smaller issues, quietly, leaving the bigger issues like savings and State taxes untouched.

Hewson goes on to note that the Rudd/Gillard government implemented 40 of the Henry Review’s recommendations but the Abbott government has since reversed the implementation of all but seven of them — without identifying the recommendations came from the Henry Review.

This piece started with a comment from an accountancy/business services firm (Price Waterhouse Coopers) stating what it believes is necessary. Not to be outdone, others have expressed their opinion as well, including Ernst & Young, The Conversation here and here, the Housing Industry Association, Newscorp’s The Australian (pay walled) and Prosper, an organisation that has been campaigning for a century for a greater reliance on property taxes to replace direct taxes. There are no doubt others as well — time precludes finding them and space from listing them.

Each group that enters the tax reform debate overtly or covertly expresses an opinion that would assist their members or customers — as is their right. It certainly doesn’t help any government in designing a fair and equitable solution for all of society, especially when affected industry groups commission and use selected facts in television advertising that certainly don’t mention that compensation to taxpayers was a part of the deal.

Politically and economically, tax reform is a hard ask. Hawke/Keating and Howard/Costello both were successful to a degree in implementing reforms to the Australian taxation system. There are also those that suggest the whole system should be replaced by ‘flat taxes’.

Of course there are a number of versions of ‘flat tax’ from the ‘pure’ — everyone pays a percentage of their income with no deductions or rebates allowed — through to systems that allow deductions, negative taxes and other arrangements. Wikipedia discusses some of the different versions here.

The economics editor of The Australian argues that ‘flat tax’ is an economic necessity (pay walled). In 2010, Abbott, then opposition leader, suggested a version of flat tax would be beneficial and commented it was recommended by the Henry Review. The ALP disagreed. Greg Jericho, writing on ABC’s The Drum website, suggests that ‘Unless you’re wealthy, you’re not going to like flat taxes’. Jericho makes the point that flat taxes are by their nature regressive, as they are a ‘broad based’ tax.

Remember the disparity in the actual proportion of a person’s income when buying a product we looked at a couple of hundred words ago? Twenty per cent of $140,000 is $28,000 and 20% of $40,000 is $8,000. So the person on $140,000 still has $118,000 per annum to spend while the person on $40,000 only has $32,000. Regardless of the dollar amounts, the person on the lower income is paying more value from their income when a broad based tax (such as a GST or ‘flat income’ tax) is levied. Certainly there can be some ‘engineering’ of the tax system so that the value contributed by both the higher and lower income earner can be made fairer but that is adding to the cost of managing the tax revenue and reduces the ‘purity’ of the revenue collection system.

Hewson, in his paper, suggests that Hawke/Keating achieved some tax reform because they crafted a message supporting the need for change to the then system by way of the ‘Tax Summit’ and demonstrating that change would reduce the level of tax evasion, such as the ‘bottom of the harbour’ scheme that was apparent in the 1970’s and 80’s. He also claims that his “Fightback” package, that was taken to the 1993 election, was the subject of various campaigns to create fear, uncertainty and desperation. To an extent, it is a fair call. Hewson also suggests that 1% of tax revenue is taken by the administration of the tax revenue system — demonstrating its complexity.

It seems that a simplified revenue collection system is a given to make our taxes work harder. Another factor that needs to be considered is the current rhetoric from political parties of all colours that the country’s budget is closely related to a household budget and has to either balance or be in surplus.

To simplify the current revenue collection system, tax reform is needed. If tax reform is discussed, every ‘special interest’ group in the country will have its say in an attempt to protect the interests of their members/customers. While ‘flat taxes’ are superficially attractive, they do have a tendency to favour those earning a higher income unless ‘engineering’ is performed to make the tax impost fairer (in which case what is the point of a nominally one-size-fits-all ‘flat tax’ system?).

Something that recent governments have painted themselves into a corner on is the mythology that the country’s budget is similar to a household budget and must be balanced or in surplus. It doesn’t — as Australia issues it’s own currency. The Conversation recently discussed ‘Why the Federal Budget is not like a household budget’ and noted:

The real calculation faced by government should not be about how much money the government has — it has an infinite amount. The calculation should be about the capacity of the economy to absorb government spending without driving inflation.

Seeking a balanced budget and automatically borrowing any deficit spending (as we currently do) is an effective but unsophisticated way of ensuring government spending doesn’t cause runaway inflation. Taxes and government borrowing remove money from the private sector, creating space for government spending (which injects money into the private sector). Remember, the government does not have to borrow or tax in order to finance spending because they can create money.

The Political Sword has previously looked at the fallacy of the balanced budget debate here and here. Peter Costello (former treasurer) not unsurprisingly has a comment on the difficulty of balancing budgets versus tax reform:

This is harder than balancing a budget and I've done both.

John Hewson’s push to become prime minister in 1993 failed due in part to a lack of understanding of his tax reform measures. John Howard found that he could not pass the GST without diluting the ‘purity’ of the tax to appease the Australian Democrats; Julia Gillard had to negotiate to get a ‘watered-down version’ of the Mining Tax through the Senate. So far, Abbott’s government has not demonstrated that it can negotiate well enough to ensure that the minor parties and independents in the Senate would commit to a package of reasoned and logical tax reform.

During October 2014, Abbott called for a mature debate on inter-governmental relations in general and the GST in particular. It is unlikely to happen until either the current government learns how to build a consensus as Hawke and Howard did or has the numbers and the motivation to do something for the common good. Either way a mature debate cannot be conducted in 30 second sound bites so loved by our current prime minister and the media.

What do you think?

About 2353

This week 2353 completes his ‘Tax reform’ discussion and paints the political difficulties of achieving tax reform. As he writes, almost everyone agrees we need tax reform but we don’t seem able to come to agreement on what should be done. Please tell us your views of tax reform and how we can achieve it.

Come back next week for Ken’s view of "President Abbott: or why prime ministers should be not immune from removal by their party".