Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Government and Opposition tax policies balanced

By John Quiggin - posted Saturday, 15 September 2001

Until recently, the Australian tax debate has been primarily concerned about the merits or otherwise of particular ways of raising tax revenue. The question of how much tax we should pay, and what services we should expect from the governments has been ducked, or else suppressed by bipartisan consensus, in most election campaigns of the past twenty years. In the coming election, both issues should be debated.

In terms of the structure of the tax system, the record of the present government has been decidedly mixed. There are a couple of fairly substantial items on the plus side.

The replacement of wholesale sales taxes and a range of ad hoc financial transaction taxes by the GST represents a significant improvement. Moreover, the tax base ultimately adopted for the GST, with food, education and health exempted or zero-rated strikes a reasonable balance between efficiency and equity.


There is, to be sure, room for adjustment to the GST tax base, most of which should take the form of 'rollback', to adopt the cant phrase of the day. In its anxiety to defend revenue, the government began with excessively tight definitions of the main exempt items, creating more anomalies than would have been the case with a broader range of exemptions. Most importantly, the exemption of 'fresh' food is silly. A better approach would be to exempt all supermarket purchases of food except those that directly compete with restaurants (complete prepared meals).

Another important positive is the Australian Business Number system. In the long term, the ABN should play an important role in controlling tax evasion and avoidance. In the short term, unfortunately, the associated Business Activity Statement has been something of a disaster, but this was a problem of implementation rather than policy design.

Leaving aside the relatively minor problems associated with the implementation of the GST, there have been some important negative changes in tax policy. By far the worst of the government's taxation initiatives was introduced with the support of the Labor Party, which happily collaborated in the gutting of one of its most important reforms, the capital gains tax.

Because there are many methods by which income can be converted into capital gains, and vice versa, the taxation of capital gains on the same basis as other income is an essential element of an efficient and equitable tax system. Before the introduction of capital gains tax, a large component of the tax avoidance industry operated through the design of speculative schemes in which taxable income was converted into untaxed capital gains.

The main rationale for the reintroduction of preferential treatment for capital gains was the supposed success of a similar measure in the United States. It is now clear that the thirst for capital gains was a major factor in the generation of a stockmarket bubble, the bursting of which looks like causing a worldwide recession. We should perhaps be thankful that such 'success' has not come our way.

Although standing relatively firm on the ABN, the government has repeatedly capitulated to resistance to its attempts to control tax avoidance through trusts, companies and other devices. The recent debacle over the treatment of contractors illustrated the extent to which the decline of wage and salary employment has been driven by concern to minimise tax rather than by real economic advantages.


The treatment of fuel taxes was another important failure. Australian road users, particularly those in cities, pay considerably less than the total costs they impose on society, including the cost of the capital tied up in the road network, the costs of local air and noise pollution and their contribution to global warming. Economically sound tax reform would have raised the average cost of fuel, while reducing the cost for rural and regional users relative to that of city motorists.

The tax package produced a messy compromise between the need to placate the National Party and the need to produce something that could be sold to the Democrats as environmentally sound. The result included some desirable elements, such as the differential between urban and non-urban taxes and diesel fuel, but was fatally flawed by the commitment that the price of fuel would not increase. In the end, this promise led the government to the point where it scrapped indexation of fuel excise altogether. Whatever its political colour, an incoming government must reverse this disastrous step as soon as possible.

Finally, the income tax cuts accompanying the tax package were massively skewed towards upper-income earners. This point is sometimes obscured by the fact that the marginal rate for incomes above $60 000 was not changed. But someone earning an income of $60 000 or more gets the full benefit of all the reductions in marginal rates for lower incomes amounting to a tax saving of around $3000 per year. By contrast, low-income households, particularly those with two earners and no children, got hardly enough to offset the immediate impact of the GST, without considering the reduction in public services needed to offset the reduced level of total revenue.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Professor John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow based at the University of Queensland and the Australian National University.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by John Quiggin
Related Links
Australian National University
Australian Research Council
Queensland University of Technology
Photo of John Quiggin
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy