Monday, June 22, 2015

Don’t believe Abbott stands for lower taxes

Tony Abbott did so well at the last election with his scare campaigns against the carbon tax and the mining tax it seems he thinks his best chance of re-election is another scare campaign on tax.

An obvious conclusion from voters' overwhelming rejection of last year's budget as unfair was that the attempt to fix the deficit almost exclusively by cutting government spending - without touching any of the "tax expenditures" on the revenue side of the budget - was crazy.

So it wasn't surprising to see, a few weeks back, Joe Hockey edging towards the idea that repair of the budget would have to involve reform of the hugely generous superannuation tax concessions to the well-off.

With Labor making similar noises, Hockey might even eventually have edged as far as promising to do something about the "negative gearing" loophole, had Abbott not stepped in and stopped him in his tracks.

Why? Because Abbott thought he saw a brilliant opportunity to wedge Labor. If Labor was promising to fix super tax concessions and negative gearing, why not promise the Coalition wouldn't touch 'em?

That way, Labor could be portrayed as the party of high taxers, whereas the Liberals could portray themselves as the party committed to lowering taxes, implacably opposed to all tax increases. If you want to pay much higher taxes, vote Labor; if you don't, vote for us.

Not bad, eh? Abbott has telegraphed his game plan so clearly it will be interesting to see if Labor keeps its nerve and offers voters a genuine alternative.

But Abbott's claim to be opposed to all tax increases is not one to be believed. As the former top econocrat Dr Michael Keating has pointed out, this year's budget shows increased taxation is expected to be the main way the government is planning to get the budget deficit down.

In the Labor government's last year, 2013-14, total federal government revenue (including more than just tax collections) was equivalent to 22.8 per cent of gross domestic product. In the coming financial year it's expected to have risen to 24 per cent. And by 2018-19 it's supposed to be 25.2 per cent.

So the government is projecting that revenue will rise by 2.4 percentage points of GDP over the five years. At the same time, the budget deficit is projected to fall by 2.7 percentage points.

"Clearly," Keating writes on John Menadue's blogsite, "these figures show that revenues are doing almost all the work to reduce the budget deficit". Government spending is expected fall by only 0.3 or 0.4 percentage points of GDP over the five years.

So what's the story? Where will Abbott be getting all this extra revenue from? Does he have some new tax hidden up his sleeve? Is he counting on a big increase in the GST?

Well, some part of it will come from the changed accounting treatment of the annual earnings on the Future Fund. But, for the most part, it will come from what, in an earlier chapter of the Libs' professed campaign for lower taxes, Malcolm Fraser and John Howard used to call "the secret tax of inflation".

These days it's more commonly called "bracket creep" - as your income rises over time to (you hope) at least keep pace with the higher prices you're paying, a higher proportion of it is taxed at higher rates. This happens even if you aren't literally pushed into a higher tax bracket, but it happens with a vengeance if you are.

Keating says receipts from personal income tax are projected to increase from 10.4 per cent of GDP in 2013-14 to 12.1 per cent in 2018-19, and this increase of 1.7 percentage points is a rough measure of the contribution of bracket creep to the budget bottom line.

According to his figuring, bracket creep will account for 63 per cent of the projected improvement in the budget deficit over the five years to 2018-19.

But how politically realistic is such a projection? Already it implies that someone on average weekly earnings can expect to move into the second-highest tax bracket in the coming financial year. They'd be paying 39c in the dollar on the last part of their income and on any pay rise.

Keating says that, according to the budget projections, someone on average earnings would see their average tax rate (the rate paid on every dollar) rising from 21.7 per cent to 27.4 per cent over the next decade.

Don't worry, it's unlikely any politician would allow that to happen. But it does warn you not to believe Abbott's claim to be a low taxer.