Michael Keating. The mining tax debacle

Tony Abbott has finally achieved another “triumph” with the end of the mining tax.  Of course mining royalties continue, and have even been increased recently, and oil and gas are subject to a similar sort of resource rent tax that Abbott decried when it was applied to mining.

No doubt the mining industry, their largely foreign owners and the cheer squad in the Murdoch press are pleased, but what about the rest of the Australian community? After all it is we who are the actual owners of the resources, and we have now lost a useful source of revenue. And what does this sorry saga say about the chances of getting genuine tax reform in this country in the future?

Why we need a mining tax

The Government and the mining industry would have us believe that a resource rent tax on mining will reduce investment and cost jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course for most industries a tax on profits will generally reduce the rate of return on the investment, leading to less investment and fewer jobs. But mining, which involves the extraction of non-renewable resources is different for the following reasons:

  1. The resources are owned by the community, and the community should receive a return for allowing the private firms to exploit those resources
  2. Present taxation arrangements frequently fail to collect a sufficient return for the community because they fail to reflect and obtain a fair share of the super profits, or economic rents, that mining can generate
  3. The reason why mining, unlike other industries, can generate these super profits (or economic rents) is because the supply of the resource is finite; that is the supply of minerals cannot be readily increased, so if demand rises relative to that supply it will sell at a price that more than covers its cost of production and thus generate super profits. Even if other mines later come on stream in response to these super profits, this normally takes a lot longer than for most other goods and services, and the new mines typically involve less attractive deposits that cost more to mine. Consequently the market will settle at a new price that exceeds the costs (including a normal return on capital) of the most productive mines, which are thereby enabled to generate super profits, especially in the short run and even in the long run.
  4. Given that a properly designed resource rent tax is only ever taxing super profits over and above the normal rate of return on the investment then, contrary to the Government’s and the industry’s protestations, such a resource rent tax cannot deter investment nor lead to a reduction in employment. Indeed, if further empirical evidence in support of this logical conclusion is needed, think of the history of the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax, which is now nearly thirty years old, and during this time there has been massive investment in the oil and gas industry in this country.

Indeed the Henry Review of Australia’s Future Tax System, considered the amount of taxation revenue that we have been missing out on by not having a resource rent tax for the mining industry. Thus back in 2001-02 taxation absorbed almost 50 per cent of mining profits, but as minerals prices and profits rose in the mining boom, by 2008-09 taxation’s share of the profits fell to a bit less than 15 per cent of mining profits. By comparison in the petroleum industry that had a resource rent tax, taxation’s share of profits stayed fairly stable fluctuating between around 30 and 40 per cent over this decade. Of course the prices of some important minerals have now fallen compared to 2008-09, but they are still higher than a decade ago and we are still missing out on an important potential source of revenue.  Indeed, at the height of the mining boom a rough estimate is that the Government missed out on about $10 billion in a single year compared to if it had taxed minerals in the same way as oil and gas are taxed.

How best to tax mining super profits

In 2010 the Rudd Government introduced the ‘Resources Super Profits Tax’ (RSPT) covering all minerals, based on the recommendations of the Henry Review. Furthermore, the intention was that this new tax would replace the existing State Government royalties with consequent efficiency gains.  Overall this RSPT appeared to be an academically elegant way of raising revenue while having a perfectly neutral impact on future investment decisions. It was, however, complex and difficult to explain. Furthermore it depended on the government being accepted as a full (but silent) partner in each mining project, taking 40 per cent of both the losses and the profits. However, as the government postponed taking on its share of the losses, and only contributed its share of the capital as the mine was written down through depreciation, there was a legitimate question as to whether the cost of capital to a mining company was in fact as low as assumed in these taxation arrangements.

In any event, in the face of strenuous opposition from the mining industry, the Labor Government panicked and the new Prime Minister Gillard and Treasurer Swan negotiated with just the three biggest mining companies – BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata – a replacement ‘Minerals Resource Rent Tax’. This tax only applied to iron ore and coal, had a lower tax rate, allowed accelerated depreciation, and brought in far less revenue.

What is surprising, and not only in retrospect, is that the Labor Government did not elect to just extend to all minerals the existing petroleum resource rent tax (PRRT), which also has a 40 per cent tax rate. This would have been much easier to explain, and as acknowledged by the Henry Review, the PRRT can approximate the impact of the RSPT, although the particular features of the present PRRT are a bit more generous to the mining companies than under the proposed RSPT.

Clearly Gillard and Swan’s Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) was inferior to the PRRT. Its coverage was limited, and as no attempt was made to rationalise the interaction of MRRT with the State’s existing royalties, the tax rate for the MRRT had to be kept low. Another criticism was that the MRRT did not raise the expected revenue. However, a principal reason for lower than expected revenue was the accelerated depreciation, so while mining investment was booming, the miners were able to write down their profits for taxation purposes enormously.  But that also means that these new assets will be depreciated quickly and then these allowances will cease. Now the irony is that the MRRT could have been expected to raise more revenue from here on if it had not been abolished. Thus despite its flaws, the Parliamentary Library has estimated that the MRRT would have raised a handy $1 billion this year, $1.4 billion next year, and $2.2 billion in 2016-17. 

State taxes and their role

The RSPT as proposed by the Henry Review and subsequently by the Rudd Government was intended to supersede the existing State royalties, with the States receiving adequate compensation from the new Commonwealth RSPT revenue.  That compensation would, however, have been fixed so that the Australian Government did not fund any future increases in State royalties. Indeed it may have been necessary for the Australian Government to introduce financial penalties on the States so as to discourage them from introducing any such future increase in royalties. Unfortunately the States, possibly sensing the political winds, showed no inclination to negotiate with the Rudd Government so as to achieve a better rationalisation of mining taxes.

In the rush that followed the change in Prime Ministers, the new Gillard Government did not even consider the value of rationalising the State royalties so that they were absorbed into a profits-based system of mining taxation. Instead there were two systems: with the new Commonwealth MRRT co-existing alongside the pre-existing State royalties which were typically based on the quantum of production or its value, and which accordingly paid no regard to the profitability of the mine. As such the opportunity to shift to a more neutral system of mining taxation was lost, thus foregoing a principal objective of the Henry Review. Furthermore, despite Abbott’s hysteria about taxing resource rents, two conservative State governments have seen fit to increase their mining royalties since the introduction of the MRRT, thus adding to the confusion, and the Gillard Government apparently felt unable to intervene.  

The flawed policy process and how this mess eventuated

Nevertheless, whatever its faults, the MRRT was still better than nothing. But now with the abolition of the MRRT that is where Australia has returned, with the additional disadvantage that it will now be that much more difficult in the future to introduce a more adequate and neutral system of mining taxation. So how did this sorry situation come about and what does it say about the policy process in Australia at this time.

In my view the principal culprits are first, the Henry Review’s proposals which while academically elegant were clearly too complicated for any government to sell. Instead the Review, and later the Rudd Government, should have had the wit to embrace an extension of the existing PRRT. This would have been relatively easy to sell, especially as it clearly had not damaged investment or employment in the oil industry, thus negating Tony Abbott and the mining industry’s main stated reasons for opposing the tax.

Second, the Rudd Government clearly failed to consult, as promised, before introducing this major tax change. This led the industry to lose trust in the Government, and may have helped the industry to justify its opposition – at least to itself.  Instead the Rudd Government should have released the Henry Report much earlier when it was received, and then used it as the basis for consultation. The recommendations in the Report would have given the Government the necessary authority, rather than trying to impose a tax that neither the Prime Minister nor the Treasurer ever seemed to really understand, and certainly could not explain.

Third, the Gillard Government put quickly ending the dispute with the mining industry ahead of obtaining a good policy outcome. As a consequence that Government far too readily accepted the terms devised by three big mining companies with insufficient thought and expert advice regarding the consequences.

Fourth big business was distinguished by its silence through all this process. While quite prepared to pontificate about lower taxes for themselves, it seems that big business will shy away from any engagement, let alone taking some responsibility, for the difficult decisions and trade-offs that genuine tax reform will inevitably require. Indeed judging by its performance over recent years, big business is more a hindrance than a help in the pursuit of tax reform.

Finally the Australian Government for the most part ignored the States in introducing its mining tax proposals. But like it or not, the States are necessary partners in mining taxation (and in a number of other important policy fields) and reform is difficult unless they are brought into the consultations fairly early.

Michael Keating was formerly Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

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