Wednesday, May 5, 2010

You can trust politicians ... to do exactly what's best for them

What terrible shi ... people politicians are. Kevin Rudd decides he wants a "root and branch" review of Australia's tax system. The biggest and best review in the history of the universe. Federal, state, local, the lot. So our top econocrat, a tax expert, and four other highly qualified and busy people devote 18 months of their lives to a very thorough, thoughtful review.

What does Rudd do? Takes months to get around to looking at it then, when he does, picks the one big plum out of the pudding - a genuine, economic rationalists' licence to impose a great big new tax on an industry for which there's little voter sympathy - explicitly rejects 19 controversial recommendations and passes no comment on the remaining 120-odd.

Thanks very much, that's you off to a pigeonhole.

So let's ignore our appalling politicians and pay the Henry report the courtesy of considering what it has to say. Its key point is we need changing taxes for changing times. We're in the early part of a new century, our lives are changing, the position Australia finds itself in is changing, so how does our system of taxes need to change in response the major challenges we're likely to face over, say, the next 40 years?

Ken Henry and his fellow panel members identify three big trends we need to adjust to. The first is demographic change. The population is ageing and the higher proportion of older people will involve increased demand for spending on age pensions, aged care and healthcare, putting a lot of pressure on federal and state budgets.

You've heard that before from the pollies, but you haven't heard this: "We do not expect total tax burdens will rise in the next few years, but some increases in later times may be unavoidable." So taxes will be going up, not down as politicians like to fantasise. We need a "robust" group of taxes, the collections from which keep up with ever-increasing government spending, and the rates of which can be increased from time to time without causing distortions.

We need to ensure older people - facing choices about when to retire and whether to work part time in semi-retirement - aren't discouraged from working by rates of income tax that are too high. We also need to keep getting the bugs out of the taxation of superannuation so people are encouraged to save for their retirement income needs on top of the age pension.

The second major trend is globalisation. Australia has always needed to attract foreign capital because our opportunities for economic development far exceed our ability to save the capital needed to exploit them.

Globalisation is increasing the alacrity with which international investors (including pension funds) are willing to move money around the world in search of the highest returns. But development of the poor countries, particularly in Asia, means we're facing more competition in attracting the foreign investment we need.

When you boil it down, governments tax only four main things: land (including natural resources), capital, labour and consumption spending. The Henry panel believes the greater international mobility of capital - and the competition between small economies to attract that capital - means we can't get away with taxing it as heavily as we once did. This explains its recommendation to reduce company tax from 30 per cent to 25 per cent. It also believes globalisation is making highly skilled labour more internationally mobile and thus harder to tax at high rates.

But if mobile resources need to be taxed less, then immobile resources will have to be taxed more. Nothing's more immobile than land and natural resources. Hence the proposal for an annual land tax, at a low rate of, say, 1 per cent, on all land (but with the abolition of conveyancing duty).

And hence the proposal for a resource rent tax on natural resources. The coal and iron ore belong to all Australians, not the mining companies, and the use of this tax to effectively replace state royalties is just a way of ensuring the miners pay us a price for our resources that more accurately reflects their hugely increased value (as a result of globalisation and the economic development of China and India).

The third major trend is environmental degradation. Environmental pressures are emerging "in areas such as land degradation, species decline, water use and climate change", the panel says. Higher population and continued economic growth "will put pressure on our increasingly fragile ecosystems".

Our economic prospects are strongly linked to environmental sustainability. "The environment provides natural resources essential to Australia's productive capacity, and ecosystems that absorb and assimilate the waste generated by people and industry. Sound land and water management practices are essential to maintaining agricultural production; biodiversity enables technological progress, particularly in medical and pharmaceutical applications; and low atmospheric pollution is essential to climate stability."

People and businesses make decisions every day that affect environmental quality, but in many cases they aren't fully aware of their impact, or don't value those impacts as highly as others do, particularly future generations. "Accordingly, there is a role for government to influence decision making with a view to achieving better environmental outcomes."

The tax system can play a greater role in promoting sustainable policy outcomes by influencing the incentives that lead to environmental degradation. "An equally important consideration is to ensure that settings within the tax and transfer system do not unintentionally produce adverse environmental incentives or conflict with the broader environmental goals of ... other policy measures."

Bet you haven't heard that kind of talk about tax reform before. And what's the one big reform we need to get us moving on the right path? A carbon pollution reduction scheme.