But we’ve done tax reform – haven’t we?

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Sunday, 22 February 2015 18:30 by 2353

Here’s a tip for 2015. If the Abbott Government can remove the current opinion polls and stories of excess and incompetence from the front pages, it has been signalling that it intends to tackle ‘tax reform’ during the life of the current government. It wouldn’t be the first to attempt to do this: Governments back to the days of Hawke in the 1980’s have legislated large changes in the way the government charges for the services it provides — and the continual evolution of the Australian and international community would indicate that further changes are necessary now and in the future.

There is an implication that the governments that rate highly on ‘economic management’ also seem to be considered ‘good’ governments. The Hawke/Keating Government introduced a number of changes to tax collection practices during the 1980’s, as did the Howard Government in the 1990’s, and were still considered ‘good’ governments. No doubt Abbott would like to share the same perception.

This week’s discussion piece is a very brief overview of some of the issues with payment of taxes (charges and levies); next week we will look at some of the realities of ‘tax reform’ — why it isn’t as easy as some commentators, politicians and academics suggest.

In an ideal world, taxes would fund measures to ensure that everyone has an equal standard of living — ensuring that each member of society pays an equal amount of money to receive an equal amount of benefit. We don’t live in an ideal world.

Naturally, each member of society perceives their needs and wants to be more important than others: if for example I am retired and can’t fund my own living expenses, I expect the government to provide an allowance to make it easier to meet my ongoing commitments and live to a standard that is similar to that I enjoyed when I was employed. In contrast, if I am a parent with a young family committed to pay a mortgage and the expenses of young children, I would look to the government to give me a supplement to my income to assist in the provision of essentials to what are effectively non-productive members of the family (‘my’ children) as well as assistance towards the costs of child care, maternity leave and so on.

Both groups of people have an equal expectation of government support and an equal reason to believe the government should assist them — after all the retired person has contributed to society through their labour and payment of taxes for a considerable period of their lives; while a parent is still contributing labour and taxes while bringing up children who will in turn contribute labour and taxes to support the community into the future. The unfortunate thing is that when a government claims (probably with some justification) that it cannot afford to be as generous as it was in the past, there is a considerable proportion of the population who believe that their needs or wants are more important than other groups within the community: why are others getting some benefit which is reducing the funding that I can claim?

There is a ‘long and proud’ history of robust discussion of taxation matters in Australia. In 1854, the Eureka Rebellion in Ballarat was primarily a revolt against the imposition of a tax (licence fee) on miners, regardless of their success at their chosen profession. While it could be said that they lost the battle, the miners won the war with their leader, Peter Lalor, being elected to the Victorian Parliament along with eight other miners in 1855.

At the Print Media Enquiry in 1991, Kerry Packer is reputed to have said:

I am not evading tax in any way, shape or form. Now of course I am minimizing my tax and if anybody in this country doesn't minimize their tax they want their heads read because as a government I can tell you you're not spending it that well that we should be donating extra.

‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’ observed Benjamin Franklin in 1817. There are also a number of comments regarding the morals and ethics of the Roman tax collectors in the Bible. It seems that Australians aren’t the only ones that don’t appreciate the need for taxes.

Packer altruistically assisted the funding of installation of defibrillators in most New South Wales ambulances, so he wasn’t averse to donating money to a ‘good cause’. However, he has a point: why should I pay proportionally more than the next person to the government to fund community services?

John Hewson, is the ex-Liberal Party Federal Leader who took a GST to the 1993 election as a part of his “Fightback” package, and lost. Hewson is now a professor of economics at Australian National University and an occasional media commentator. He observes when tax law was introduced into the Federal Parliament in 1915, the act consisted of 24 pages, but in the 1980s the legislation ran to some 1200 pages and today it tops out at some 5500 pages. Clearly as the government has discovered ‘faults’ in the legislation, it has amended the legislation to rectify the errors. That has led to those who can afford the cost finding additional loopholes that have yet to be plugged by the government of the day. After all, as Kerry Packer pointed out (above), tax minimisation is perfectly legal — tax evasion isn’t. The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) annual report for 2013/14 runs to 266 pages, which seems to be rather a lot when all they should really be saying is everyone paid their fair share and the world moved on.

There are a number of factors for the dramatic increase in the size, and one would imagine complexity, of tax law in the past 30 years. Let’s look at two of them: tax compliance and tax minimisation.

During the 1970’s, some lawyers and accountants devised a system where companies were formed, traded, made profits and just before tax was to be paid, the assets of the company were given to another related entity and the former company shell sold to an unsuspecting person without the financial backing to pay outstanding commitments, such as tax on the original company’s income. The ATO was an unsecured creditor (a person or legal entity who is owed money by the business without legal entitlement to any of the assets by way of a mortgage or charge) to the original company, along with unsuspecting service providers and employees, and effectively got nothing as it was a pointless exercise to bankrupt the unsuspecting person. The scheme is known as the ‘bottom of the harbour’ as effectively the companies that were stripped of assets were sent there to drown.

In recent times, the ATO has prosecuted a number of ‘famous’ and ‘influential’ people as a result of Operation Wickenby, including The Masters Apprentices bass guitar player and John Farnham’s manager Glenn Wheatley and star of television comedy and movies (including Crocodile Dundee) Paul Hogan.

Tax minimisation is completely legal, but it reduces the tax revenue available to fund the services we as a community expect the various levels of government in Australia to provide. There are a number of ‘common’ schemes that are used on a daily basis including:

    • Negative gearing –To ‘negative gear’ you borrow money to purchase an asset that will not pay it’s own way (such as an investment property or share portfolio). The difference between income from the asset and the costs of the asset, including interest, can be claimed as a tax deduction. Those that use this scheme often offset the losses against other income (thereby reducing their taxable income) and also hope that a future increase in the price of the asset when it is sold will equal or exceed the losses they have claimed on their tax return.
    • Novated leasing - A three way agreement between an employee, employer and financial company where the employer nominally purchases a car (or similar) for an employee and funds the purchase from the employee’s pre-tax income effectively reducing the employees taxable income and tax liability.
    • Exporting profits - Apple is the subject of the link here as it apparently transferred around $2 billion to an Apple related entity based in Ireland while declaring and paying tax on a profit of under $100 million in Australia during 2013. Apple is not the only global company using this strategy. Other household names also move the bulk of their profits around the globe to avoid paying tax as well. How it works is the Australian customer deals with an Australian seller, but the financial transaction takes place in another jurisdiction where a significant proportion of the purchase price is claimed for the ‘production of the item’ and ‘intellectual property’ used in the product. That amount is sent directly to a related corporate entity in a country that offers the company a better tax treatment than Australia. The only part of the purchase that is ‘transferred’ to the Australian company is the price of the sale infrastructure and transport of the item to the purchaser. It is fair to say that a number of these ‘arrangements’ will cease to exist in the next few years as it has been recognised as a significant issue by governments and is now the subject of negotiations at events such as the G20.
In addition, governments of all colours introduce ‘targeted’ tax benefits or liabilities to manage social behaviours. There is a significant tax impost if someone purchases a packet of cigarettes — the argument being that there is a measurable drop in consumption of cigarettes (an arguable benefit to society in reducing smoking related illness) every time the tax rate rises. Australia also introduced a ‘Luxury Car Tax’ in 1990 in an effort to improve the viability of local vehicle manufacturing. Australian engineers can design a competitive product as shown by Ford and Holden/General Motors retaining the capacity to design a vehicle from the ground up once the current manufacturing capacity is withdrawn. A discussion on how and where Luxury Car Tax applies is here. Then GST is applied to the final cost of some products (including taxes), so we are paying tax on tax in some cases.

John Hewson claims:

… there are 125 taxes paid by Australians annually — 99 levied by the Commonwealth (recognising many agriculture and food levies), 25 by State and Territory governments, and one by local governments. These revenues are heavily concentrated with over 90% derived fro[m] just 10 taxes, reflecting 95% of Commonwealth revenue, over 60% of State revenue, and 100% of local government revenue.

Hewson also observes that over 66% of Australians use the services of agents to submit their annual tax return — surely an indictment of the perceived complexity of the system.

So we have a complicated system of taxes, charges and levies, which has been added to and amended over the past century. Is ‘tax reform’ a good idea in theory? — of course it is, but there is a political cost to doing it, ask John Hewson.

What do you think?

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The next part of this discussion will be posted next week and looks at the practicalities of introducing a fair, reasonable and easy to understand taxation system.