Monday, July 20, 2015
The council's president, Catherine Livingstone, said last week that "at a time of great economic uncertainty, Australia needs and deserves strong leadership, and the opportunity to discuss reform options as a community".
"Our political representatives are elected and paid by the community to implement policies that will best serve the country. Their leadership responsibility is to ensure that there is a constructive, well-informed debate, leading to implementable outcomes; it is not to undermine the debate in the cause of party political positioning."
Livingstone's rebuke was rightly aimed at both sides of politics and both levels of government. But it must be said that Tony Abbott is the worst offender. Clearly, a government has greater responsibility to lead than an opposition.
The federal opposition's responsibility is not to descend to the level of destabilisation and automatic obstruction resorted to by the previous occupant of the position. Abbott is forging new lows on both sides of the Speaker's chair.
It was Abbott who, not long after Joe Hockey made his first call for a "sensible, mature debate about tax reform", summarily ruled out reform of negative gearing and superannuation tax concessions.
Why? Because Labor signalled its intention to propose such reforms and Abbott saw a chance to wedge Labor by portraying it as high taxing and the Coalition (with all its bracket creep) as low taxing.
Hence Livingstone's reference to "party political positioning". The sad truth is, these days governments rarely propose any "reform" without using it to attempt to wedge the other side. Kevin Rudd tried it with his failed carbon pollution reduction scheme, and Julia Gillard tried it with the Gonski education reforms and the national disability insurance scheme.
There's nothing Bill Shorten would like more than to wedge the Coalition on changes to the goods and services tax (apart from being given an excuse to proclaim the return of Work Choices), but Abbott lost no time in wriggling out of promising any serious change to the GST by imposing a condition he knew would not be fulfilled: every premier must first agree to the change before he endorsed it.
Those calling for greater bipartisanship on tax reform need to remember that, of all the areas of reform, taxation is the one where it's been least evident in the past. The Coalition (and the Business Council) opposed Paul Keating's introduction of capital gains tax and fringe benefits tax.
Labor opposed John Howard's introduction of the GST; the Coalition opposed Labor's introduction of the carbon tax and the mining tax. The only instance of bipartisanship I remember is Simon Crean (foolishly) waving through Howard's halving of the capital gains tax.
The parties divide on tax because there's no issue where the two sides' continuation of class warfare is more apparent. The Coalition seeks to favour the interests of business and high-income earners; Labor tends to favour middle and lower-income earners.
While in opposition, Abbott promised his big-business backers he'd take proposals for major changes in taxation and industrial relations to the 2016 election. But the public's rejection of his first budget as grossly unfair, and his subsequent poor showing the in polls means the government is fighting for survival, with no stomach for unpopular "reforms" of taxation or anything else.
Last week we had Hockey giving a speech that pretended the tax reform white-paper process was alive and well, even though we all know it's going nowhere.
He repeated his call for a mature debate about tax reform, while ruling out various reforms – changes to super tax concessions, negative gearing, the half tax rates on capital gains, the GST – and listing the changes he favoured (at some wonderful time in the future): a lower company tax rate, cutting the top personal tax rate and doing something about bracket creep.
The government's professed goal is lower taxes and no new taxes but, apart from the rise in GST we're not having, Hockey mentioned no tax he'd be prepared to increase to pay for all those he'd like to cut.
The only way to square that circle is another attempt at sweeping cuts in government spending, or to let budget deficits and debt go up rather than down. But who'd believe that?
The tax changes he fancies are from the Business Council wish-list, shifting the tax burden from higher earners to lower earners. They'd be just as unfair as last year's budget.
Memo big business: no fairness, no deal. You should have learnt that last year.