Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Innovative: a two-class tax cut with disappearing cake

 Surely the most unfair criticism of Josh Frydenberg’s budget comes from the economist who said it was uninspiring. It’s the most innovative, creative document I can remember. With uncharacteristic modesty, he’s presented the tax cut that forms its centrepiece as just another cut, whereas in truth it’s like no other we’ve seen. Frydenberg will be remembered as the inventor of the two-class tax cut.

Those travelling first class get a big tax cut that’s permanent and will show up in their pay packet (or, these days, bank account) in a few weeks. Those in second class get a small tax cut that’s temporary, and they won’t see it until the second half of next year – which is when it will then be whipped away, leaving them paying more tax, not less.

This strange result arises because the second stage of last year’s three-stage tax plan was designed not to be of benefit to the great majority of taxpayers, those earning less than $90,000 a year. Also because of the great invention of Frydenberg’s predecessor as treasurer, Scott Morrison: the appetisingly named “low and middle income tax offset” – known to tax aficionados as the LaMIngTOn.

In its final form, announced in last year’s pre-election budget, the lamington provides an annual tax reduction of up to a princely $255 to taxpayers earning up to $37,000. Those earning between $37,000 and $48,000 have the size of their lamington phased up to $1080, with all those earning between $48,000 and $90,000 getting the full $1080 cake. Then it phases down to no cake at all by the time incomes reach $126,000.

That $1080 is equivalent to a tax cut of a bit less than $21 a week. But, being a “tax offset” rather than a regular tax cut, you don’t get your hands on it until you’ve submitted your tax return after the end of the financial year, and it’s included in your annual tax refund.

On the face of it, the second stage of the tax plan (which wasn’t intended to start until July 2022, but the budget brings forward to July this year) gives a tiny tax cut to those earning between $37,000 and $45,000 and a bigger cut that starts at incomes of $90,000 and keeps growing until income reaches $120,000 – by which time it’s worth $2430 a year, or about $47 a week.

Under the bonnet, however, stage two does something an old accountant such as me regards as quite clever. It whisks away the lamington and substitutes other things, without those who got it under stage one being any worse off.

Trouble is, while almost no one earning less than $90,000 would be worse off, nor would they be any better off. Taken by itself, stage two would give noticeable tax cuts only to those earning more than $90,000 (which is getting on for double the median taxpayer’s income).

Sound fair to you? It would be politically unsaleable. Nor would it fit with the government’s claim to have brought the tax cut forward purely to do wonders for “jobs and growth”.

So someone had a bright idea. While quietly whisking away the old lamington, introduce a new, identical lamington – but only for the present financial year. Problem solved. Every player gets a prize.

The 4.6 million taxpayers earning between $48,000 and $90,000 get a tax cut of $1080 or a little more, while the 1.5 million earning between $90,000 and $120,000 get up to $2430. Everyone earning more than $120,000 gets the flat $2430 (thanks, Josh).

All this was carefully spelt out in one of the sheaves of press releases Frydenberg issued on budget day. But the things he said in his televised budget speech didn’t quite fit his own facts.

“As a proportion of tax payable in 2017-18, the greatest benefits will flow to those on lower incomes – with those earning $40,000 paying 21 per cent less tax, and those on $80,000 paying around 11 per cent less tax this year,” he said.

“Under our changes, more than 7 million Australians receive tax relief of $2000 or more this year.”

Sorry. By comparing this financial year’s tax cuts not with last year’s, but with the tax we paid three years ago, in 2017-18, Frydenberg has managed to add last year’s tax cut to this year’s. For people receiving the lamington, that doubles the tax cut they’re supposedly receiving “this year”.

Why has Frydenberg chosen to describe his tax cut in such a misleading way? Because it helps disguise the truth that high-income earners are getting much bigger dollar savings than low- and middle-income earners.

Similarly, comparing tax cuts according to the percentage reduction in a person’s total tax bill is nothing more than playing with arithmetic – which, to be fair, every government does. Remember, if your income was so low you paid only $10 tax on it, I could change the tax system in a way that dropped you from the tax net and claim you’d had a 100 per cent tax reduction – which made you by far the biggest winner. Yeah, sure.