What are we trying to achieve with our tax system? We should be endeavouring to raise sufficient money for the federal Government's needs in the simplest, most efficient and equitable fashion that we can design.
We know that taxes impose a deadweight cost on the economy over and above the expense of the tax. So we should not impose taxes at any level that is higher than it absolutely needs to be.
Tax reform is not just about tax cuts; at any level. Tax reform involves creating a simpler and more efficient system. Lowering the rates goes hand in hand with broadening the base. This means eliminating many of the concessions and loopholes that make tax compliance more expensive and wasteful of time and effort.
But most of the discussion this week has been about the top rate: the 47 per cent tax bracket. Only 3 per cent of taxpayers will be in that bracket next year. So, the political argument goes, we may as well slug them. Who wants to be seen letting the millionaires off lightly?
But this is just political rhetoric. Anyone with substantial business income or interests is able right now to structure their affairs so that most of their income is earned through companies, which pay tax at 30 per cent. Our tax system has been designed to ensure that, by and large, the only people who pay the top rate of tax are, as the Melbourne Institute recently confirmed, PAYE taxpayers or professionals.
That, of course, is why the top rate raises so little money. Indeed, on our calculations, to remove the 47 per cent bracket completely would at most cost in 2006-07 less than $450 million; less than one-quarter of 1 per cent of the federal budget. And that is before we take into account any improvement in investment, participation, compliance or productivity. The projected costs of reform in our modelling are for these and other reasons very conservative and likely to overestimate the costs of tax reform. In the light of those factors, we could be very confident that removing the top rate would probably pay for itself.
In other words, there is simply no financial or economic justification for maintaining the 47 per cent rate. Its only justification is political: "soak the rich". But such a rationale is completely disingenuous. After all, anyone who is not a PAYE taxpayer can easily and legally structure their affairs so they don't have to pay it.
I have not, however, advocated simply removing the top rate of tax. I also believe that our tax system should be improved by an across-the-board reduction in tax. This would mean all taxpayers would benefit, in terms of less tax and a simpler tax system that is easier to understand and comply with.
The paper Jeromey Temple and I published last week was designed to inform and stimulate debate rather than put forward a specific policy proposal. We simulated, therefore, the fiscal and distributional consequences of a very large number of possible changes to rates and thresholds so that the Australian public would have a good basis of information with which to participate in a debate about taxation.
However, there are a number of the possible models that are obviously more attractive than others, either because their cost is low and-or they deliver a tax cut to a broader range of taxpayers. We particularly focused on those reforms that cost less than $10 billion; a sum that can readily be found from eliminating concessions and improved productivity, compliance and participation.
It is also a sum not much more than the size of the forecast surplus. We do not assume tapping the surplus to pay for tax reform, although there is no reason it should not be available, at least in part, to fund a more efficient tax system.
Without wanting to advocate, at least at this stage, a particular set of reforms, we can focus on a couple of the more feasible reforms as a basis for discussion.
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