Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why we're sure to be voting on a rise in GST

About a year ago, I began confidently predicting the Coalition would not be going to next year's election with any proposal to increase the goods and services tax. I've been tardy in advising you that, with the removal of Tony Abbott and the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull, that prediction has become, as George W. used to say, inoperative.

Indeed, I now confidently predict the Coalition will be seeking the voters' agreement to an increase in the GST.

Why the reversal? Turnbull doesn't have much choice but to run with a GST increase for pretty much the opposite reasons that Abbott had little choice but to avoid one.

Abbott and his treasurer, Joe Hockey, would love to have championed a GST rise – and, early in their term, fully intended to do so – but their disastrous first budget, with its blatant unfairness and broken promises, robbed them of their popularity, authority and trustworthiness.

They repeatedly demonstrated their inability explain complex and controversial policy proposals.

But the government's big-business backers – not to mention most economists – have convinced themselves the only cure for the sluggish economy is major economic reform, and top of their list is a cut in the rate of company tax, plus a cut in the top rate of personal income tax.

This is why they became so dissatisfied with Abbott and Hockey, and so expectant of better things from one of their own, Turnbull.

The whole country knows Turnbull will be a better manager of the economy than Abbott and that if this silver-tongued barrister can't "sell" economic reform, no one can.

So great is the confidence in the confident Turnbull that the best way for him to stumble would be to baulk at this challenge.

Trouble is, by the time he's knocked tax reform into political shape, it will have fallen well short of its proponents' grand vision, won't deliver the promised economic benefits and won't make much difference to anything, apart from making the tax system less fair.

Right now, Turnbull is grappling with the desired shape of the GST increase. My guess is he'll definitely want to increase the rate of the tax, and won't go through all the angst for a piddling increase to 12.5 per cent. No, he'll go all the way to 15 per cent.

Broadening the tax's narrow base is more problematic, as the academics say. My guess is he'll avoid the practical minefield of extending the tax's coverage to health and education (even though taxing private health insurance and private schools would do much to reduce the tax's regressiveness​), but may include financial services.

His big temptation will be to tax fresh food but, though this would greatly increase his takings, it would also greatly increase the tax's regressiveness (because low-income households devote a much higher proportion of their budgets to food than high-income households do) and thus require much of this gain to be returned as "compensation", while adding much agonising and indignation from the elderly.

Of course, the GST increase will just be part of a much bigger package of tax reforms. Since the object of the exercise will be to change the "mix" of taxation – increasing indirect taxes on consumer spending while reducing direct taxes on income – it will include big tax cuts.

Turnbull will learn from his predecessors' blunder and ensure his reform package looks fair by including imposts aimed mainly at high-income earners. If he decides to cut the top rate of income tax – benefiting just the wealthiest 3 per cent of taxpayers – he'll probably include a crackdown on superannuation concessions and discounted capital gains tax favouring the well-off.

He'd also want to throw in abolition of some inefficient state taxes, such as the stamp duty on insurance policies.

He's making it very clear that low- and middle-income families would be protected from the effect of the higher GST by adequate compensation, in the form of special increases in pensions, dole payments and family benefits. People on low wages would be compensated by tax cuts.

But just because Turnbull has the smarts, political credit and credibility to raise the GST and hope to keep his job, this doesn't give him a magic wand to wave away the iron laws of arithmetic.

The sad truth is that the untiring advocates of a higher GST have plans to spend the proceeds many times over. Big business wants to devote the proceeds to covering the cost of cutting the rate of company tax.

The nation's grossly over-taxed chief executives want to use the proceeds to cut the top rate of income tax – all to produce a flowering of innovation and agility, naturally.

Then there's the Treasurer and his department, who profess to want to use the proceeds to counter the effects of bracket creep on everyone paying less than the top rate.

And, finally, there are the premiers, who think they own the GST and want to use the proceeds to cover the ever-rising cost of their spending on schools and hospitals. In principle and in political reality – although not strict legality – the premiers have a veto over any increase.

As ever, they'll go along with the deal once they've extorted enough moolah from the feds. Right now, they're in negotiating mode.

But not to worry. St Malcolm has promised to square the circle.