Wednesday, July 15, 2015
It's happening because of bracket creep. This year's budget says the present intention is to let inflation push people into higher tax brackets for another five years before our next tax cut in 2020.
The more continuing falls in the prices of iron ore and other mineral exports slow the growth in company tax collections, the further into the future the timing of our next cut in income tax.
So much for the man who says he stands for lower taxes, whereas his opponents stand for higher taxes. It does seem that Labor may summon the courage to go to the next election promising to reduce superannuation tax breaks for the well-off and to do something about negative gearing.
But continuing bracket creep plus those small reforms – should we ever see them – won't be sufficient to stop budget deficits getting ever higher as government spending – federal and state – continues growing strongly. In particular, spending on health and education are almost certain to grow faster than the nation's income (gross domestic product) is growing.
Similarly, don't believe the team captain when he claims to stand for "smaller government". We have the inglorious retreat from last year's budget – which was intended fix the budget deficit for good and all, and do so almost solely by cuts in government spending – to convince us that the electorate simply won't tolerate the scale of cuts, nor the unfairness, needed to hold our spending down to the level that receipts from our present collection of taxes are able to cover.
Usually, this is the point where the question of raising collections from the goods and services tax is raised. Either raising its rate from 10 per cent, or broadening its net to include food, education and health. Or both.
Be under no illusion, the rich and powerful of this country have their hearts set on raising more from GST. They want it not to cover ever-rising government spending but to cover the cost of cutting the rate of company tax and the top rate of income tax.
They argue that globalisation has intensified the "tax competition" between countries. Financial capital is now a lot more mobile and if we tax it too heavily it will go elsewhere. So we need to cut our taxes on highly mobile resources (company tax and income tax on highly paid executives) and increase tax on less mobile resources (consumption tax paid by punters who can't move countries).
That this would shift the burden of taxation from the well-off to the less well-off is just an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of a globalising world, we're told.
But this is where someone of consequence has said something new and different. In a paper to be released on Wednesday, the head of the Grattan Institute, John Daley, with help from Brendan Coates, argues that the obvious tax we need to raise is not GST but property tax.
He's right, and it's amazing it's taken so long for someone to say the obvious. Real estate is the ultimate immobile resource. A tax on land – with or without the improvements built on it – is very hard to avoid, even by foreign multinationals. It's also highly "efficient" in the economists' sense that it does little to distort people's behaviour. It doesn't discourage them from working, saving or investing.
Since it's the state governments that do most of the spending on health and education – and Abbott still has on the books his plan to cut his budget deficit by reducing federal grants for public hospitals and schools by $80 billion over a decade starting in 2017 – it's appropriate that the tax would be levied by the each of the states, which would keep the proceeds.
Politically, I don't imagine voters would view the prospect of higher property tax with any less hostility than they'd view higher GST. But there's one big difference: increasing property tax would much fairer.
GST is "regressive" – it takes a higher proportion of low incomes than high incomes – whereas property tax is "progressive", hitting the rich harder than the poor. It's actually a tax on one of the main forms in which we keep our wealth.
At present we pay three taxes on property: local government rates, stamp duty when properties are bought and land tax on property other than the family home.
Daley proposes leaving these taxes unchanged while adding a new "property levy" imposed on all property, including owner-occupied homes. The levy would be applied to the same tax base as used for local rates.
He estimates that an annual levy of just $2 for every $1000 of unimproved land value, or $1 for every $1000 of improved value (land plus building), would raise about $7 billion a year.
A homeowner would pay a levy of $772 a year on the median-priced Sydney home, valued at $772,000, or $560 a year on the median-priced Melbourne home, valued at $560,000.
What would we get for that? Mainly, more healthcare, giving us longer lives and less infirmity. Not a bad deal.