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Living within one’s means

In the fiscal 2014 year, governments at all three levels in Australia will spend around $520 billion, derived from taxes, income from government business enterprises (GBEs) and borrowings. Around $125 billion (24%) will go on social security and welfare, which is not excessive in relative terms when compared to virtually all other OECD nations. Indeed, it is the lowest as a share of GDP.

However, this year the nation will run yet another deficit, its sixth in a row, although not as deep as that of the Labor Governments in the 1980s and 1990s (Hawke/Keating Governments, and other Labor state governments). The only federal Coalition deficits over the past 60 years were under Malcolm Fraser, partly inherited from the Whitlam Labor Government. The first chart shows federal governments (purple line) and all governments (bars) surpluses and deficits since 1960.

PR Snip1 040414

PR Snip1 040414

So, should the new Abbott Government and Coalition state governments cut deeply into spending in the 2015 financial year and later budgets to return us to surplus? To do this too harshly, whilst also introducing new welfare such as the proposed maternity allowance, seems unnecessary when we are already the lowest taxed nation in the OECD, smacking of ideology rather than common sense.

The debate about our taxes has been re-ignited often over the past several months, with a repeated denial by the Federal Government that there is any intention to raise our taxes, including the GST rate. However, taxes are currently 3% below where they were in 2007, then 31% of GDP, which was the last time we actually ran a surplus budget.

The second chart shows how taxation has fluctuated in recent years.

PR Snip2 040414

It may come as a surprise to taxpayers, be they personal or business, that Australia in 2014 is the lowest taxed nation in the developed world. At 28% of GDP in 2013, it is 9% below the OECD average of 37% of GDP, and exactly half the world’s highest taxed nation (Denmark) at 56% of GDP.

The third chart below shows that only developing economies, without the economic capacity to have higher taxes, sit below Australia’s tax rate.

PR Snip3 040414

So, to suggest to the electorate that our tax level is high enough as it is, or indeed too high, is difficult to justify. To also promise, as the Government has done, that Australia can introduce more welfare, without the funds to pay for it, is a fantasy, unless there is more than an equivalent reduction in other existing welfare. That sort of direction led to the debt problems that most EU nations and the USA now have.

The reality is that the nation is lowly taxed, indeed under-taxed. Raising the GST to 12.5% and removing some of the exemptions would restore our virtuosity, and still make us one of the lower taxed nations. We are nowhere near the so-called ‘nanny state’ levels where taxes are well over 40% of GDP.

By world comparisons, Australia has the luxury of several years grace before becoming more serious about budget issues. We have a low government net debt - as the fourth chart shows - we are part of the biggest and fastest growing region in the world (the Asia Pacific), and we have relatively high consumer and business confidence. However, these attributes will not last forever in the absence of reforms.

PR Snip4 040414

Creating an Audit Committee with experienced captains of industry, and an Industrial Relations Review by the highly regarded Productivity Commission, are good initiatives. They will hopefully be heeded and have most recommendations implemented, unlike the previous government.

This brings the GST into the spotlight. As the final chart shows, Australia has one of the lower rates among the largest economies in the world, the 17th largest among 230 nations.

PR Snip5 040414

Our GST rate at 10% is nearly half the average (17-18%) and well below half of the five highest, all of whom have a rate over 20%. Yes, our personal income taxes sit higher than many in the OECD, but that advantage to individuals and households in those countries is offset by other taxes, including their higher GSTs.

Ken Henry, in his eponymous report on taxation in 2010, suggested a number of taxes should go in the interest of simplicity and streamlining business. They included payroll tax, insurance taxes, property transfer taxes, motor vehicle stamp duty, luxury car taxes and many others. These taxes would be replaced within the four pillars of personal income; business income; private consumption; and economic rents (natural resources and land). No argument from business on this goal.

Important points on taxation

Most importantly, the key messages on taxation are:

  • we are lowly taxed
  • we can and should raise them a little, preferably via the GST
  • we can balance the Budget in the process
  • yes, we should simplify and streamline the tax collecting regime.

We are living beyond our means, but we are not yet anywhere near a ‘nanny state’, and we do have some justifiable social security spending to maintain and expand (health services in an ageing society, support for maternity leave and some others). We can do all this while raising our taxes a little, and still remain close to the lowest taxed nation in the developed world.


Phil Ruthven AM is Founder and Chairman of IBISWorld, the world's largest independent publisher of industry research reports.

Ramani Venkatramani
April 11, 2014

Relatively low or not, Australia's finances require mending, as the press alerts about impending budget surgery remind us.
Past remediation has revolved around tinkering at the edges, some utopian and many futile. Super surcharge that was not a tax, excess contributions regime that ATO find taxing, thought bubbles such as pension earnings beyond $100k per member being taxed... the list goes on.
Missing in action has been a zero-based approach, refusal to contemplate slaughtering some sacred cows, the need to consider implementation before pollies unleash a thought that quickly dies out of loneliness.
No gift or inheritance tax; an alleged global tax regime without an effective infrastructure to capture hidden income; no tax on millionaire pensions above 60, while the average worker coughs up 34% on income above $37k pa; exclusion of million dollar homes in pension assets test; placing a tax-collector ATO in charge of tax-saving SMSFs with no investment scrutiny; HELP debts effectively written off for overseas executives; the legal rort of salary sacrifice available to the children of a greater God!
Compounded by ageing, worsening dependency ratio, the ability of ATO to blithely proclaim its right to be wrong in the Tax Pack without penalty.
And when a brave Ken Henry ventures forth, the report is silenced by political short termism.
Let us keep the article. We will need it in 10 years.

Steve V.
April 11, 2014

I think an increase in GST is a good way to address the fiscal problems created by the former government. It creates additional revenue without destroying incentive and is harder for tax evaders to cheat. If it means that the federal government is able to better balance the books without attacking the welfare system and retirement incomes, I'm all in favour of it.

Nonetheless, any type of tax increase will be savagely attacked by Labor, despite the fact that they were the ones who brought us to this point. Already we've had Jenny Macklin in the media starting a scare campaign about reductions in age pensions etc. What would Labor make of a GST increase? They would have loved to get it over the line but couldn't because of the non-aligned state governments. Here we have Phil Ruthven setting out all the facts for us but ten to one the electorate won't be in possession of the same unbiased analysis. The media being their irresponsible, non-objective, sensation seeking selves will no doubt have a field day, regardless of whether policies are good for the economy or not. At some point we have to bite the bullet and the sooner the better. Labor would just love to kick the can down the road and take us to the edge.

April 06, 2014

While I accept the low tax proposition when measured as a % of GDP, this masks the narrow base of our taxes and the multiplicity of concessions that put the tax load on the middle class employee tax payer and distort the collection process.

Tax reforms are way overdue

April 04, 2014

Interesting, Australians only get taxes at 9% of GDP which is the lowest in the OECD. But reframe that statement and it become Australians get taxed at 30 to 45% of their annual income and compare that to Japan's income tax of 8% and you understand that Australians are over taxed.
Also if Hockey and Abbott did not raise the "debt ceiling" (to seem Americanized) by 500 Billion Dollars, there would not be any need to raise taxes.
I fail to agree with your claim and argument.

Jon B
April 04, 2014

I always like the material that Phil Ruthven produces, it typically accurate and concise. However the issue that I see from working with expats is the Australian cost of living. We regularly hear as a reason that people seek employment offshore is because of a falling standard of living with lower disposable income. These educated and skilled Aussies are choosing better paid jobs in lower taxed, OR lower cost Countries.

Dealing with the tax system might be a start, but a more holistic view of the issue is required. People don't whinge about tax if the other things are about right.

Cranky Pants
April 04, 2014

WIth respect to the relative levels of taxation and government expenditure, it would be useful to see comparative figures that include State and Local Governments as well (both here and internationally).

But the broader conversation about governments doing for folks only what they can't do well for themselves is long overdue.

I will add duplication to that list: why do we have 5000 public servants in Canberra dealing with education, and a similar large number dealing with health? Foreign affairs, defence, intelligence gathering etc I understand as a Federal role, but there is also a lot of ribbon-cutting induced over-reach that can be eliminated.

April 04, 2014

Strong arguments for increasing tax, something nobody really wants. But before jumping to this conclusion governments should first look hard at ways to save cost. Just one example of this being successfully done recently is $70 million annual savings from removing a ridiculous amount of waste in electricity infrastructure. This huge figure was just for one state ! If this diligence was applied in other areas there would be no need to raise revenue.

Phil Kneale
April 04, 2014

We shouldn't always assume that the way to increase tax revenue is to increase tax rates. There is a good argument that the opposite is the case. An increase in taxes changes behaviour - business activity declines and you can get a lower volume of taxes, despite the higher rate. I'd cut tax rates in order to incease tax revenue. I seem to recall some canny Scandinavian country having some success with that. (Sweden?)
Also, tax comparisons with other countries are not very meaningful. No doubt there is a bunch of (often basket-case) countries that have higher tax rates than we do, but that doesn't provide a rationale for us to catch up with them.

Josh Dowse
April 04, 2014

Great points to make and we should keep making them until the Murdoch press and like-minded politicians stop harping on about the evils of tax and creating the impression we're highly taxed.

Interesting to see, as highlighted, that ALP tends to run deficits and LP surpluses.
Also interesting to that ALP tends to lower tax/GDP ratio, and LP raises it. Worth also highlighting, in the interests of balance?

Jon B
April 04, 2014

In reply to Josh Dowse: Really? Can you point to some evidence of this.

April 04, 2014

I wonder about the comparability of figures between countries. For example, the USA shows up at just above Australia in the low taxed countries list. And yet, Americans do not pay taxes towards their health care as most other countries do. Instead, they (mostly) pay many thousands of dollars per year in private Health Care Insurance Premiums. It doesn't count as a tax because it isn't paid to the government. So Americans show up as low taxation (true) but their out-of-pocket expenses are still higher than what is reflected in the table.

How many other anomalies like this are there and how often do the tables end up comparing apples and oranges because of them?


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