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Opinion article

Tax debate too narrow

As Australia heads to the polls this weekend, CEDA Chief Executive, Professor the Hon. Stephen Martin asks have the big issues been addressed.

It is easy to think in the final week of this horrendously long election campaign that Australia's economic salvation lies in company tax changes promised by the government or negative gearing changes offered by the opposition.

But this would be a cop out.

How quickly we seem to have forgotten promises of a genuine and adult discussion around taxation.

How quickly we appear to accept what was once a bountiful table loaded with public policy reform ideas can be swept away by the tide of political cowardice.

There are many culprits in this failure to appreciate that not embracing genuine wholesale taxation reform is contributing to the Federal Government's revenue problem and its inability to fix the budget deficit.

Weren't we promised a taxation white paper that would be a root and branch examination of reform, including implications for Commonwealth and State governments?

Wherefore art thou GST?
Weren't we subjected to a 24 hour thought bubble proposing that the states be given their own income tax powers?
And what of negative gearing that is almost last person standing?

Depending on whose modelling or self-interested analysis we believe, we have been told changes to negative gearing will either bring house prices down or will lift them. It will see investment and retirement savings crippled. Housing affordability will either improve or be further out of reach than ever.

Is there clarity around what changes have been adopted or are in train around the so-called Google tax to have multinationals pay their fair share of tax where their income is derived?

And is the tax debate really all around personal rates and bracket creep?

And as for superannuation. Talk about a moveable feast. 

Meanwhile the states' contribution has been limited to courageous suggestions coming from South Australia around land tax and many imposing additional taxes on foreign property investors. 

Sadly, what is a casualty in this critical non-debate is that taxation is a necessary evil that allows governments to provide pensions, support health and education and defend this nation. 

Governments are elected on behalf of Australians to deliver services such as health and education, and infrastructure and it can only be done if governments have the financial wherewithal to do so – you can’t simple keep talking about tax cuts and more tax cuts.

Cutting tax is fine but only if the revenue loss can be met somewhere else and it can be modelled to show genuine benefits to the Australian economy. This is even more critical when we have been running a Federal Government Budget deficit, despite 25 years of economic expansion, for almost a decade.

Yet a comprehensive consideration of reform based on principles of fairness and economic sustainability seems to be beyond our reach. 

What we should have been hearing during the election campaign is how an incoming government intends to address the revenue problem and tackle the deficit sooner and realistically.

The second thing we should have been seeing is demonstrated leadership and a genuine conversation around taxation – not a one sided affair around cuts. Where is the talk of a comprehensive tax plan? Or even a commitment to have a genuine discussion around taxation if elected?

And while we’re at it, how around a commitment to ensuring that any taxation discussion includes a comprehensive discussion around Federal state relations – not just ill-conceived thought bubbles that get shot down – that examines how taxes are allocated to ensure effective and efficient delivery responsive to the needs of Australians.

With the nation undergoing a radical and fundamental adjustment at the end of the mining investment and commodity boom and the looming changes being caused through digital disruption, innovation and robotics there has never been a more important time to consider those economic reforms necessary to sustain our future. 

In the final days hopefully we hear some genuine commitments to long term reform and that come 2 July, we have a government who is willing to have the courageous discussion on genuine reform that this country desperately needs and that taxation is a fundamental pillar in that debate.
About the authors

Stephen Martin

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Professor the Hon. Stephen Martin
Chief Executive, CEDA

Professor the Hon. Stephen Martin has had a long and distinguished background in the Australian Parliament, academia and the private sector.

Read more about Professor the Hon. Stephen Martin.

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