Sunday, November 02, 2014

Sunday Explainer. Why we will pay more for petrol, even though Parliament said no

The excise on petrol is set to go up in line with inflation despite the government not having taken the policy to the election or having the support of  Parliament. Peter Martin examines the case for and against.

First, the history. Why do we tax fuel at all?

To pay for roads and the costs of maintaining them. We've been doing it since 1929.

Has the money raised actually been spent on roads?

That was the law from 1929 to 1959, but it has been the practice all along. In July the Productivity Commission reported that in 2011-12 total road expenditure by all levels of government amounted to $19.5 billion. The revenue collected from fuel excise, registration charges, driver's licence fees and stamp duty amounted to $16.5 billion.

It's called an excise, not a tax. What's the difference?

A tax is levied on the price of something. The goods and services tax is levied at a rate of 10 per cent. Income tax is levied at rates of 19 per cent, 32.5 per cent, 37 per cent and 45 per cent. An excise is levied on the amount of something. In case of the alcohol in full-strength beer it is $46.30 per litre. In the case of tobacco it is 50.8 cents per gram. In the case of petrol it is 38.1 cents per litre.

As prices go up wouldn't the impact of the excise shrink?

That's why every so often the government used to announce one-off hikes in excise. The typical budget headline read: "Beer, smokes, petrol up". Then, in 1983, prime minister Bob Hawke made the process automatic. From then on, every February and August the excises on tobacco, alcohol and petrol climbed in line with inflation.

Did you say petrol? Did the rate of petrol excise climb with inflation?

It did until 2001 when prime minister John Howard froze it where it was at 38.1 cents per litre. He was trying to head off criticism of his recently introduced GST.

So as a proportion of price the fuel excise has been shrinking?

Too right. When John Howard froze the excise in 2001 the petrol price was $1 a litre making the tax rate 38.1 cents in the dollar. Petrol is now near 150 cents, making the tax rate only 25 cents in the dollar. Unless indexation is reintroduced the tax rate will fall even further.

So the government is undoing a decision of John Howard's and reinstating a decision of Bob Hawke's?

Exactly, and it is happy to sing Hawke's praises. "We have simply done what Bob Hawke did," prime minister Tony Abbott told the parliament on Wednesday. "Bob Hawke was a real Labor leader, Bob Hawke was someone who was prepared to put the national interest ahead of short-term politicking," he told the leader of the opposition.

What about the politicking? How have Labor and the Greens justified opposing the reintroduction of indexation?

They say that it is a new tax, and that Abbott promised no new taxes. And they say that it hits low income Australians the hardest, which is does despite the treasurer's assertion that "the poorest people either don't have cars or actually don't drive very far in many cases". As a proportion of income, low-income Australians spend much more on petrol than high-income Australians.

And the Greens are concerned that the legislation 'sets aside' the extra revenue for spending on roads. But the provision is fairly meaningless. The government spends much more on< roads than the extra revenue already. When the government offered to withdraw the provision the Greens wouldn't budge, so the government left it there and used regulations to get around Labor and the Greens.

What will the regulations do?

The regulations will lift the excise on petrol in line with inflation just as the legislation would have. The regulations will lapse unless they are validated by the parliament within 12 months.

Can the government do that - impose tax increases without the approval of parliament?

Yes. Whenever beer, cigarettes and petrol were slugged in budget nights past, the excise went up at midnight on the night of the budget. A delay would have encouraged a run on supplies. This time the provision isn't being used to stop a run on petrol stations - it is simply being used to get around the parliament.

The increase will take effect on Monday, November 10, so it could be worth filling up the evening before. But it won't be worth much. The first increase will take the excise from 38.1 to 38.6 cents per litre. The November hike will lift the price of a tank of petrol by around 25 cents.

What if the parliament withholds its consent?

After 12 months the money would be returned to the petrol manufacturers and importers.

Is the parliament likely to withhold its consent?

Not likely. It would be hard to justify handing to oil companies money that was effectively collected from their customers.

Does that mean the Senate will cave in and pass the government's legislation?

Not at all. It could simply validate the government's regulation so as not to hand money back to oil companies but still refuse to pass the legislation that would reintroduce indexation. The government would have to regulate one year at a time, with embarrassing consequences. Each year it would be hit with headlines saying "fuel tax up", the sort Bob Hawke's system of automatic adjustments was designed to avoid.

Abbott said after a year it'll cost the average family just 40 cents extra a week. Is he right?

No. He misspoke. It will cost the average household an extra 40 cents per week. But the average family is bigger than the average household. Many households contain just one person. It'll probably cost the average family an extra 55 cents per week.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald