Michael Keating. An alternative budget strategy – Part 2

Part 2. An Alternative Budget Strategy 

In the previous part of this comment, I suggested that the Budget did need to return to surplus over much the same time path as intended by the Government. There is nothing new in that, and as previously noted, Labor also had the same intention when it was in Government.  The issue in dispute is whether an alternative Budget Strategy is available to restore a Budget surplus over the next four years and which would be more equitable and less damaging to future economic growth. What follows shows that such alternatives are available; in particular the alternative explored here would rely more on taxation and would avoid the cuts to welfare and education and to research and innovation that are central to the Government’s Budget.

The scope for increasing taxation

In the most recent financial year, 2013-14, government receipts represented 23.0 per cent of GDP compared to a long-run average over the previous twelve years of 24.3 per cent. Some of this current low level of receipts reflects the soft economy, and the ratio of receipts to GDP can be expected to improve somewhat as economic growth recovers. Indeed the Government’s Budget projects that revenue will rise to 24.9 per cent of GDP by 2017-18; that is by almost 2 percentage points, which on its own goes a long way to removing the present Budget deficit.

As John Daley at the Grattan Institute has pointed out, however, three quarters of this improvement in receipts and the budget bottom line represents the impact of bracket creep as (with no tax indexation) people find themselves moving into higher tax brackets as their incomes rise with inflation. As a result someone on average full-time earnings will be pulled into the 37 per cent tax bracket from 2015-16, and the average tax rate faced by a taxpayer earning this projected average income will rise by nearly a quarter from 23 to 29 per cent by 2024-25[1]. Accordingly it seems prudent to assume that any government is likely to raise the tax thresholds from time to time and that the projected income tax receipts will be reduced accordingly.

So what are the other options for improving the revenue? It is suggested that these broadly comprise action to:

  • Reduce tax expenditures which in many cases are equivalent to outlays
  • Limit tax avoidance
  • Restore the Carbon Tax and the Mining Resources Rent tax
  • Removing the tax rebates for the fuel excise for miners and farmers and the private health insurance rebate
  • Lift tax rates but in a considered way

The potential for each of these actions are considered briefly below. 

Reduced tax expenditures

Many of the largest tax expenditures would be seen as justified and/or have considerable popular support. For instance the list of tax expenditures published by the Treasury includes no capital gains tax on people’s principal residence, deductions for philanthropic gifts, and the exemptions of education and health from the GST, and it seems unlikely that any government will want to remove these “concessions”. Instead it is suggested that reform of tax expenditures should focus on only two – the special taxation treatment of superannuation contributions and earnings and the capital gains discounts for individuals and trusts. Some might question adding negative gearing, but it is not included, as it is not considered by Treasury to be a tax expenditure, and there are legitimate issues of principle for allowing interest deductions against a taxpayer’s income irrespective of how that income was earned.

In 2013-14Treasury estimated that the revenue foregone from the concessional tax treatment of superannuation was $32.1 billion. Rough projections by the author suggest that this amount might increase to around $39 billion in 2017-18 if there is no change to these concessions. However, not all of that $39 billion would be saved if the concessions were removed because some behavioural response could be expected. Even more significantly, some concessional treatment of superannuation savings is probably justified, given its compulsory nature and the restrictions put on accessing superannuation accounts. Clearly a number of options for possible reform of the tax treatment of superannuation are available for further consideration, but further exploration of those options would be a major exercise in its own right. For present purposes it is the author’s judgement that savings of the order of the order of $15.5 billion should be available in 2017-18 if the tax treatment of superannuation were reformed. Savings of this order would not be so much as to change the incentive for people to continue to save through superannuation.

As part of its 2001 tax reform package, the Howard Government introduced a 50 per cent deduction for capital gains for individuals and trusts. Realised capital gains are just as much income as any other form, and there was never any justification for this 50 per cent discount, especially in a tax system which ensures that there is no double taxation of dividends accruing to Australian residents.  Furthermore, the Murray Inquiry into Australia’s Financial System concluded last week that the concessional treatment of capital gains “encourages leveraged and speculative investment – particularly in housing”.  The resulting high levels of household debt represent the major financial risk to the economy – much more than government debt.  Accordingly there is a strong case for   restoring the full taxation of capital gains, which is projected here to save around $5 billion in 2017-18.

Reducing tax avoidance

Before the Labor Government fell last year it introduced legislation to protect the corporate tax base from various loopholes. The most significant of these was “thin capitalisation” whereby the operating Australian subsidiary of an overseas company is loaded up with debt to its parents, so that it makes little or no profits in Australia. The Abbott Government has seen fit to drop these reforms, but if they proceeded the author projects (on the basis of information provided by the Labor Government last year) that these anti-avoidance measures could produce around $1.5 billion extra revenue in 2017-18.

In addition, with the third biggest mining corporation operating in Australia (Glencore) reportedly paying next to no tax in Australia, it would seem that the time is ripe to review the tax treatment of transfer pricing arrangements. These arrangements occur when Australian subsidiaries sell at below market prices to their parent company so as to minimise their profits and tax paid in Australia. However, in the absence of more precise information, no allowance has been made for extra revenue from this source.

Restore the carbon and mining resource rent tax

While these taxes seem to have been contentious, there is a very good economic case for both of them. Indeed most economists strongly favour pricing carbon as the best way to reduce the harmful effects of carbon pollution. And the MRRT is only levied on above normal profits and as such cannot be a disincentive to mining investment. Indeed, if any further proof were needed, the experience over almost 30 years since the PRRT was introduced for offshore petroleum and gas shows that properly constructed resource rental taxes do not affect resource investment.

Based on information in the 2012-13 Budget, the author estimates that in 2017-18 restoration of the carbon tax and the MRRT would bring in around an extra $3 billion and $2.5 billion respectively.

Removing tax credits for fuel and private health insurance

There is no economic justification for providing tax credits to farmers and miners for their fuel use. First, why subsidise the use of any particular input into the production process? And if fuel is subsidised why not also subsidise other input costs, including for example, labour costs? Second, why subsidise some of the costs of two particular industries – farming and mining – but not other industries, including other industries that are competing with these two industries for resources such as labour.

Equally many evaluations have pointed to the cost ineffectiveness of the subsidy for private health insurance. Contrary to the alleged justification for this subsidy, more patients would be treated if the same amount were spent on public hospitals rather than subsidising the inefficient operations of the private health funds and the overcharging by private medical practitioners.

Technically these two subsidies are not regarded as tax subsidies and instead are reported on the expenditure side of the Budget. On the basis of the forward estimates of these expenditures it is projected by the author that in 2017-18, $7.6 billion and $7.2 billion could be saved by abolishing the fuel credits and the private health insurance rebate respectively.

Total revenue savings

The sum of the budget savings identified above is estimated to be around $42 billion in 2017-18 or equivalent to about 2¼ per cent of the projected GDP (see table below). This structural saving to the Budget of an annual $42 billion by 2017-18 is about the same as the total turnaround that the Government expects to achieve in its Budget.

 

Possible Budget Savings on the Revenue Side

2017-18, $billion

Tax Expenditures
Reduce favourable treatment of superannuation

15.5

Capital gains discount for individuals & trusts

5

Restoring anti avoidance measures dropped

1.5

Restoring tax measures dropped
Carbon pricing

3

MRRT (net after allowing for impact on Company tax)

2.5

Removing tax credits
Fuel excise rebate

7.6

Private health insurance rebate

7.2

Total budget savings

42.3

Of course, the list of revenue measures identified here can only be illustrative of what can be achieved on the revenue side of the Budget.  It may be that others would want to amend the list in various ways. For example, it may be that in the present political climate the carbon tax would not be renewed, but even if not all the measures identified were taken up or only partially adopted, what is clear is that there is a lot of scope for raising additional revenue and achieving a fairer Budget outcome.

In addition, as noted above, most of the Government’s Budget turnaround is also achieved through higher income tax revenue, but that revenue is brought about by bracket creep rather than efficient decisions.   Indeed, after allowance for the one-off payment of $8.8 billion to the Reserve Bank last year, and for various additional expenditures principally on new infrastructure and defence, the Government’s budget actually achieves very little in expenditure savings on a net basis, amounting to only 0.3 per cent of GDP in 2017-18. By contrast the proposals presented here do not make the unrealistic assumption that bracket creep in the tax system will be allowed to continue to bring in extra revenue without any of those proceeds being handed back through tax cuts. Instead if most of the measures proposed in this comment were substituted for the government’s budget then there would be scope for tax cuts by increasing tax thresholds to offset the impact of bracket creep.

Nevertheless, as pointed out in the first part of this Alternative Budget Strategy, Australia faces a longer term fiscal problem, and the assessment is that over time by 2049-50 further structural savings will be needed of the order of another 2¼ per cent of GDP – that is as much again.  Those issues will be discussed further in the next part of this series.

Suffice for now to say that while clearly more work would be needed to determine the details of where savings should be made to achieve the necessary restoration of the Budget surplus by around 2017-18, enough has been shown here to establish that credible alternative budget strategies are available. Conservatives should not be allowed to hide behind the convenient myth that their strategy is the only one, and that any questioning of it is irresponsible and a failure of governance and our political system.


[1] This fact needs to be considered in perspective. In reality around 80 per cent of the full-time male employees earn less than average full-time earnings. If allowance is made for those who work less than full-time, who are females, and who do not work at all, then considerably less than 20 per cent of the adult population have an income equivalent to full-time average earnings or more.

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