It seems like we've heard it all before. (because we have) Liberal cries of 'Class Warfare' at even the mildest redistributive tax reform. But in fact those with a sense of proportion and history will note that Shorten Labor's current commitments are mild at best. Labor needs stronger action on reforming the tax mix and funding new policies which improve the provision of everything from Aged Care to Health, and Welfare and Infrastructure.
nb: This post will also appear at the Australian Independent Media Network starting on the morning of Tuesday August 8th. Your comments and opinions would be very welcome there as well as here!
Dr Tristan Ewins
“Bill’s low-rent class war” is scrawled across the pages of the “Herald-Sun” (6/7/17). Liberal operator and Opinion columnist Peta Credlin in full flight: defending the rights of the very rich against unconscionable calls to contribute to the common good.
Defending the wealthy and corporations against the ungrateful masses – who in the face of a cost of living crisis are feeling inequality more acutely than before ; and who scandalously expect tax evasion loop-holes to be closed ; for affordable housing ; for an end to punitive welfare ; for a modern living wage ; high quality public Health and Education, and so on.
Credlin asserts that “the top one per cent pay nearly 20 per cent of all tax.” And: “there are nearly four million households that pay no net tax after transfer payments.”
Further, Credlin draws on Roger Wilkins to argue “Australia is more equal today than forty years ago.”
And so Credlin infers that any kind of redistribution: whether through welfare or the social wage will drive “businesses and people offshore”; and hence Shorten is “[pushing] a hard left agenda.”
How to respond to this?
To begin, ‘the top 1%’ comprise people on incomes of over $227,000 a year ; and these would still end up with post-income-tax incomes of over $150,000. (calculated according to the income tax scales) They are not ‘battlers’.
Joe Hockey made similar claims in 2015 when he argued that “50% of all income tax in Australia paid [was] by 10% of the working population”.
We will deal with Hockey’s claims as a way of responding obliquely to Credlin’s arguments.
‘The Conversation’ concluded that Hockey’s claims were accurate , but put it down to Australia’s progressive taxation system. Without progressive taxation distributive outcomes would be skewed even further towards the rich, and against everyone else, especially the poor.
Therefore these figures must be considered in the context of rising income and wealth inequality. That is – the rich (including the top one per cent) are paying more tax because they are bringing in much more money. (at other peoples’ expense ; it does not ‘trickle down’ ; exploitation is a reality)
As I have observed elsewhere: Professor Robert Wilkins conceded that the portion of national income going to the top 1 per cent has approximately doubled since the 1970s to over 8 per cent, and that inequality is “high by modern standards” (‘the Australian’ (22/7, pp 1, 8).
And if we include the GST in our calculations we might acknowledge the fact that the wealthy also pay more GST because they can indulge in so much more conspicuous consumption.
The Conservatives in this country have also been concerned at the possibility that Australia may develop a European-style welfare state. But when put in context we see (admittedly according to 2009 and 2013 figures) that in 2009 Australia devoted just over 7 per cent of GDP to cash payments (welfare) ; compared with roughly 17 per cent in France. And in 2013 France devoted roughly 34 per cent of GDP to “social expenditure” compared with roughly 19 per cent in Australia. Even with very significant reforms such as I project in this article – we are nowhere near a “European style welfare state”.
The Conservatives also say nothing with regard the fact the Aged Pension takes the lion’s share of the social security Budget. They take the ‘aged demographic’ for granted ; but ultimately want a retirement age of 70. And when a greater proportion of Australians start retiring on their superannuation savings we might expect a more “frontal assault” on pensioners.
At only about 26 per cent of GDP overall levels of tax in Australia are in fact very low. Australia’s $154 billion social security and welfare bill (2016 figures) is also low by international standards, despite an obvious tactic by the Liberals of cultivating ‘downwards envy’ – intended to create resentment against the vulnerable ; often involving the distortion and misrepresentation of statistics. In fact the cost of social security and welfare in 2016 (approximately $154 billion) was somewhat less than 10% of a total $1.6 trillion dollar economy ; but is larger proportionate to the total tax take only exactly because overall Australian tax levels are comparatively so-very-low.
So again ; when you factor in a dramatically rising cost of living – as well as levels of personal indebtedness for those on lower and average incomes, or with lower to average wealth – the problem of inequality is becoming far more urgent.
This personal indebtedness includes mortgage stress. Indeed while some banks have behaved in an irresponsible and predatory way, there is the danger that the unsustainable personal debt which fuelled the housing boom (and perhaps consumption levels more generally) may finally give way to bust ; flowing into overall consumer confidence as well.
Factoring the housing affordability crisis in, that makes a strong difference to those on average or lower incomes attempting to pay off a mortgage, or even to afford the rent in an established suburb with decent amenities and infrastructure. Indeed home ownership is down to 31% from 41% in 1991, reflecting the concentration of housing in the hands of investors – to the detriment of first home buyers. The plight of those forced to the urban margins ; or to forsake the ‘Australian Dream’ of their own home also cannot be grasped by mere considerations of income inequality. Again, because of a broader cost-of-living crisis inequality is more urgent than any time in decades.
So Wilkins talks at length about income, but not so much about wealth ; this in a context where home ownership (or the lack thereof) is becoming a crucial socio-economic fault line.
And yet the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Maloney observes research from ‘Credit Swisse’ to the effect “the top 1 per cent of Australians own more wealth than the bottom 70 per cent combined.” And that according to ACOSS research “someone in the highest wealth group had 70 times as much wealth as someone in the lowest.” Maloney further observes the selective nature of the statistics Wilkins draws upon. Had Wilkins began by observing inequality from 2004 onwards that would have revealed a radical increase in inequality during the 2003 to 2008 period. This applies to income as well. According to the OECD, for instance, “Real incomes for the top quintile of households [in Australia] grew by more than 40 per cent between 2004 and 2014 while those for the lowest quintile only grew by about 25 per cent.”
Also since the 1970s profit-share has risen from 16.5 per cent to 26.5 per cent ; but the wage share of the economy has fallen from 62.7% to 52.3 per cent. (2016 figures) It had been assumed that increasing the profit share was necessary to spur investment ; while a falling wage share (and a largely neutralised trade union movement) would prevent a ‘wage-price spiral’. But in fact workers have less capacity to consume ; have turned to private debt to maintain lifestyles ; and the whole arrangement is beginning to look very precarious.
Neither pre-tax or after-tax income is enough to grasp the growth of inequality. While taxes have grown ‘flatter’ (less progressive) but nonetheless lower, the ‘user pays principle’ has been applied less and less discriminately , to the point where it applies now to everything from education and energy to communications, transport infrastructure and water. This intensifies the impact of inequality. Appallingly, ‘user pays’ for residential Aged Care especially has become akin to a ’death tax’ . But unlike progressive inheritance taxes or ‘death duties’, this impacts disproportionately upon families with lower to middle incomes, including those for whom the family home is the only significant asset they have.
As opposed to the earlier post-war mixed economy, the user-pays element has been increasing proportionately, and privatised entities are no longer providing cross-subsidies for ‘battlers’. Also: arguably privatised entities are abusing their market power to reinforce their bottom line. Hence the cost of “essential items such as food, electricity and insurance” is rising at almost double the rate at which wages are rising. And the position of the poor and welfare-dependant is even more precarious. A look at Medibank Private’s increasing premiums is enough to hammer these points home ; along with soaring profits.
Meanwhile policies such as capital gains tax discounts, superannuation tax concessions, and negative gearing – overwhelmingly benefit the well off – to the detriment of social programs which may otherwise further social solidarity and the common good. According to Treasury in 2015 $10 billion out of $30 billion in superannuation tax concessions alone are lining the pockets of the wealthy. (the top 10%) With time the problem could worsen markedly.
Bill Shorten’s agenda is not ‘hard left’by any reckoning. Michael Pascoe of the Sydney Morning Herald has observed that Shorten’s reforms to family trusts only scratch the surface (saving less than a third of what may have been possible). And that Shorten is even using 10 year projections to make his reforms look more substantial. Pascoe concludes that if this is ‘class war’ Shorten is “firing blanks”!
We need much stronger policies from Labor: reforms of the tax mix, and new progressive taxes to provide for significant new social policies. End inequitable superannuation tax concessions. Wind back user pays in Aged Care and Education for equity and fairness ; and improve the quality of service. Reform welfare to further ameliorate poverty (raise all full pensions by $1000/year). A big investment over time in public housing to increase supply, deflate the bubble, provide for the vulnerable. Consolidate and extend Medicare. Provide the necessary resources and apply the political will to maintain transport, communications and other infrastructure as natural public monopolies. Consider strategic re-socialisations ; maybe re-establish a public-owned savings bank. Properly fund mental health.
The lower end of the labour market needs re-regulation as well ; though this is not necessarily linked with tax.
Arguably decades of privatisation and austerity have resulted in inferior cost structures for areas of the economy properly the domain of natural public monopolies. Meanwhile in Australia a limited welfare state has restricted ‘collective consumption via tax’. That also has impacted upon cost structures ; and has given consumers worse value for money in the end analysis.
The consequence has been less consumer demand for the remainder of the economy. Capitalism is desperately striving to expand existing and new markets to stave off its contradictions. But ironically perhaps the best way it can do this is to transition to a ‘hybrid economy’ which cedes ground to socialisation (public and other democratic ownership). Efficiencies via socialisation (natural public monopolies, collective consumption, enforcement of competition in specific sectors, eg: banking, insurance – by government business enterprises with competitive charters) would mean more income left over for consumers to spend elsewhere (ie: in non-socialised sectors). Many capitalists would resist such a transition for political and Ideological reasons ; but many others still could stand to gain from such a compromise. As could the public at large.
Public investments in services and infrastructure can also comprise a ‘pull factor’ for investment (for instance an educated workforce). This gets forgotten in the constant push for more austerity and lower taxes. And it is one reason why the Nordics are so successful with their welfare states, mixed economies, industry policies and active labour market programs. The opposite of the catastrophe scenario suggested by Credlin in response to Labor’s modest policy agenda.
As things stand a Shorten government could ameliorate social injustices including economic inequality. But Labor’s existing policies are very mild. Shorten has time to develop a stronger policy profile ; though the modesty of past ALP policy is such that Labor’s recent announcements appear ‘radical’ to some.
Token reforms are not enough to deliver, even though they may convince those without a sense of proportion and history. Rather than reforms bringing in $1 billion Labor needs to think bigger ; perhaps in the vicinity of 2 per cent of GDP in a first term. (approximately $32 billion in a $1.6 trillion economy) And gradually more in subsequent terms. Not because that is just some ‘silly’ arbitrary figure ; but because Labor needs to think of what is necessary for its policy ambitions ; but also what is politically ‘do-able’ – and over what timeframe.
Meanwhile those claiming a $1 billion tax reform (one sixteenth of 1% of GDP) is ‘class warfare’ are frankly kidding themselves.
Dr Tristan Ewins is a Social Sciences PhD, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne. He also blogs at ‘ALP Socialist Left Forum’, ‘Left Focus’ and ‘The Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy’. He has been a member of the Socialist Left of the Labor Party for over 20 years. The opinions he expresses here are his own only.