It's getting near the time when Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull will need to make decisions about tax, and I'm not talking about the GST.
The big GST decision, on whether to lift it to 15 per cent, is already as good as made. The Treasurer and Prime Minister won't do it. Nor will they extend the goods and services tax to food, to health or to education, although they might yet extend it to financial services.
Extending it to health and education would be unfair. People such as me who use public schools and public hospitals without charge would pay no extra tax, while others already paying dearly would be asked to pay an extra 10 per cent. And, in all likelihood, the government would feel obliged to further fund private schools and the private health system to compensate. Extending the GST to fresh food was never going to happen. It would hit low earners the hardest, and these days it's almost impossible to compensate them.
When the GST was introduced in 2000, most low earners paid tax. But not now. In the past 15 years, the tax-free threshold has tripled to $18,000. And most self-funded retirees no longer pay tax. It's no longer possible to compensate them by cutting tax rates. And because many of them don't receive cash payments (that's why they are called "self-funded"), it's not possible to compensate them by boosting payments either.
Lifting the GST to 15 per cent or fully taxing food would be incredibly difficult if they wanted to compensate the least-well off, and Australians insist on it. New Zealand lifted its GST from 10 per cent to 12.5 per cent in 1989 without compensation, but it couldn't happen here.
And they'd be doing it for the states. Under existing laws, the GST flows to them. But the states aren't even agreed they want more GST. With NSW in favour, and Victoria against, and the money not flowing to the Commonwealth in any event, there's little reason for it to go out on a limb putting the case for collecting more...
Except for financial services. They weren't properly taxed when the GST was introduced, because they were hard to define. The financial service is the margin the bank adds to a product such as a mortgage, rather than the mortgage itself. But New Zealand has managed to do it, and if Australia did, it would raise an extra $4.7 billion a year without the need to compensate low earners (financial services are disproportionately used by high earners).
And it could use the promise of extra money for the states to persuade them to phase out some of their truly objectionable taxes, such as those that single out insurance and commercial property transactions.
Morrison and Turnbull's big decisions concern superannuation. Right now, most wage earners pay just 15 per cent on their contributions, even if they are on the top marginal tax rate and earning $200,000-plus. (At Labor's last gasp, it introduced an extra tax for the small number of Australians on $300,000-plus, taking their rate to a still-concessional 30 per cent.)
The best way to tax contributions would be to tax everyone at their marginal rate. Very low earners would pay nothing, very high earners would pay 45 per cent, and so on. It would rake in an extra $15 billion a year, an amount that would climb over time.
If they were feeling generous, they could give some of it back, perhaps a flat 10 or 15 percentage points up to a limit, through a rebate paid into funds.
But they would have to go further. Earnings, as well as contributions are lightly taxed, a benefit that accrues overwhelmingly to high earners with large balances. The standard rate is just 15 per cent, although funds are able to roughly halve it by the way they structure their investments. When the fund is used to pay out retirement benefits, the tax rate on earnings drops to zero. Not only are the payouts not taxed, no matter how big, but the earnings used to generate those payouts are completely untaxed, no matter how much is under management.
Unless Morrison fixes it, the hole will get bigger and bigger as more and more Australians retire and enjoy completely untaxed investment earnings.
Fixing it will make him enemies. Neither the big institutions that control the private funds nor the unions and employers that control the industry funds will want to pay more tax, and retirees will claim that taxing their investment earnings is retrospective.
But there's a way out. It's the one the government has already used to push up the pension age. Rather than declaring that the investment earnings of retirees will be taxed now, Morrison could declare that the investment earnings of future retirees will be taxed in, say, 15 years. Nothing would be retrospective. Anyone who had already retired could keep their zero tax rate until they died. Future retirees would have plenty of time to prepare.
Squibbing this decision will condemn Australia to an ever-widening hole in its tax system and show that Morrison and Turnbull aren't serious about fixing it.
I think they are.In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald