Tax Reform

I spoke in parliament this week about the long-term tax reforms in the budget - particularly the phasing out of the old-fashioned Dependent Spouse Tax Offset, removing perverse Fringe Benefits Tax incentives for cars, and replacing the Entrepreneurs' Tax Offset with more effective measures.
Appropriation Bills, 23 May 2011

David Lloyd George, the founder of the modern welfare state, said:

'We put no burden upon the necessities of life of anyone. We are taxing surplus. We are taxing luxuries. If a man has enough after maintaining his wife and family, and can spare something upon whisky and tobacco, why should he not afterwards contribute towards the pensions and defences of the country?

'We propose a great scheme in order to set up a fund in this country that will see that no man suffers from hunger in the dark days of sickness, breakdown in health, and unemployment which visits many of us This is what we are going to do. These schemes for the betterment of the people ...'

This government is also putting in place schemes for the betterment of Australians. We are implementing a carbon price to deal with dangerous climate change—a carbon price that will operate by taxing the 1,000 biggest polluters—putting a price on pollution that recognises the damage that that carbon pollution does to future generations. We are helping families by providing assistance in those crucial times of need. We are implementing a minerals resource rent tax so that Australians get a fair deal for the subsoil resources that are their birthright. The Labor government helped Australia to navigate the global financial crisis. When the largest downturn since the Great Depression beckoned, we listened to Keynesian economics. We put in place a timely, targeted and temporary fiscal stimulus that protected around 200,000 jobs and tens of thousands of businesses. We used the opportunity to invest in long-term infrastructure, roads and school infrastructure that future generations will benefit from.

This budget is delivering the fastest fiscal consolidation of the modern era. Just as we implemented Keynesian economics in the downturn, we are implementing Keynesian economics in the upswing, through rapid fiscal consolidation. We are reforming our system of taxation. We want the Australian taxation system to be simpler and fairer. We want it to be a system that most efficiently delivers essential social, educational and health services while providing the incentives to keep our economy growing.

I want to focus today on the tax incentives introduced in the most recent budget, because I think that these are initiatives which have received too little attention and that this budget that is marked by its deep commitment to lasting tax reform. The government has announced 12 measures since the 2010-11 budget to reform our taxation system, including (1) a measure that removes the unintended tax incentive for people to drive further than they need to in order to obtain a larger tax concession by reforming the statutory formula method for valuing car fringe benefits. That measure implements recommendation 9 of the Henry tax review. (2) We have improved participation incentives for couples without children by phasing out the dependent spouse tax offset, consistent with recommendation 6(a) of the Henry review. (3) We are better targeting tax incentives by replacing the entrepreneurs tax offset, consistent with recommendation 6(c). (4) We are improving small business tax rules by replacing the entrepreneurs tax offset with a small business tax package that includes a $5,000 immediate deduction for motor vehicles, consistent with the intent of recommendation 29. (5) We are improving certainty for investors by allowing infrastructure projects of national significance to carry forward losses with an uplift factor to maintain their value. (6) We are increasing support for families by increasing family tax benefit part A payments for 16-to-19-year-olds, recognising that the cost of looking after teenagers does not go down. (7) We are reforming family payments by reducing the overlap between family tax benefit part A and youth allowance. (8) We are improving regulation and reducing red tape for the not-for-profit sector by establishing the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. (9) We are improving certainty for the not-for-profit sector by introducing a statutory definition of 'charity'. (10) We are improving tax system governance by committing to a principles based approach to tax law design. (11) We are allowing the Board of Taxation to initiate its own reviews of how tax policies and laws are operating. (12) We are establishing a New Tax System Advisory Board.

Entrepreneurs' Tax Offset

This budget and these important tax measures build on the Gillard government's long-term plan to strengthen our economy and make the Australian tax system simpler and fairer for business and the community. In the case of the entrepreneurs tax offset, it has long been recognised that it is poorly targeted for small businesses. There is little evidence that it has acted to encourage the establishment of small businesses. More than 80 per cent of small businesses were eligible for the offset. Rather than allowing a small business to grow, the entrepreneurs tax offset encourages businesses to structure affairs in a particular way despite the market opportunities which might be present. The assistance provided is a fairly low level of assistance to very small businesses. The maximum claim is $2,500 but the average entrepreneurs tax offset claim was less than $500, with 70 per cent of claims being below $600. That is a small amount of money for a fair bit of paperwork. The vast majority of claimants have income from sources other than business income and nearly all are individuals. Under the entrepreneurs tax offset, it is possible for taxpayers to recharacterise their income as business income—for example, by working as a contractor instead of as an employee in order to claim the ETO.

The entrepreneurs tax offset is difficult to administer and adds to the complexity of our tax system. There are better and more effective ways to help small businesses: such as the $5,000 immediate deduction for motor vehicles from 2012-13 that was a hallmark feature of this government, such as reducing the GDP adjustment factor for pay-as-you-go instalment taxpayers to four per cent for 2011-12, such as simplifying and increasing the instant asset write-off threshold to $5,000 from 2012-13, and such as providing a head start to the reduction in the company tax rate for small businesses from 30 per cent down to 29 per cent from 2012-13. Around 2.7 million small businesses stand to benefit from these measures. The savings from abolishing the entrepreneurs tax offset will fund those progressive measures for assisting small businesses. Those savings will be reinvested into the small business tax reform package.

Dependent Spouse Tax Offset

We are also modernising Australia's taxation system by removing antiquated notions about gender roles. The dependent spouse tax offset was introduced back in 1936 at a federal level, although some of the states had their own small programs at the time. During the second reading debate in this place, one member justified the measure, saying that he felt it was the duty of a husband to maintain his wife and therefore it was right and proper that he should receive a deduction for it. I do not think these are sentiments that would be shared by most 30-somethings in the labour force today. This is a measure for families without children, and I think that most modern-day couples would not expect the government to provide a tax break in the case where one partner chooses not to work. This measures is not just about removing antiquated notions but about encouraging greater workplace participation, because it phases out the dependent spouse tax offset, which penalises work for stay-at-home spouses. And, as we know, increasing participation is absolutely critical in a modern Australia with our businesses facing skills shortages. Work is a good way of maintaining contact with the community and a first job is a stepping stone to a better job. We in the Labor Party are strongly committed to the dignity and value of work.

If a dependent spouse earns more than $282, under the current program the entitlement reduces by $1 for every $4 that the dependent spouse's income is above this threshold. The effect of that is to put in place a 25 per cent tax rate additional to current marginal tax rates on the first $10,000 earned by a so-called dependent spouse. This measure will be progressively phased out for those aged 40 years and below. And, importantly, those taxpayers who are invalid or permanently unable to work or are carers or who are aged 40 or above will not lose their benefits.

Fringe Benefits Tax on Cars

The budget also introduces important measures to fix the current system of fringe benefits taxation for cars. The existing statutory formula method for determining the taxable value of car fringe benefits delivers a greater tax concession the further a car is driven. Anecdotes in my own electorate about people who pass the keys onto their teenage child to drive to the coast for a weekend do not reflect the way in which most Australians would want to see their tax expenditures used. Car fringe benefits arise when an employee uses a salary sacrificed or employer provided car for private use. Under the statutory formula method, a person's car fringe benefit is determined by multiplying the relevant statutory rate by the cost of the car. These statutory rates are designed so that a person's car fringe benefit decreases as the distance travelled by their vehicle increases. People can therefore increase their tax concession by driving their vehicle further. The AFTS Review reported evidence that this is exactly what people do.

We are removing the current incentive for people to drive salary sacrificed and employer provided vehicles further to increase their tax concession and in the process burn more fuel and damage the atmosphere. We are reforming the statutory formula method by replacing the current statutory rates with a single rate of 20 per cent that applies regardless of the distance travelled. This reform will only apply to new vehicle contracts entered into after announcement on budget night. It will not affect people who have already entered into contracts, and will be phased in over four years.

People who use their vehicle for a significant amount of work related travel will still be able to use the operating cost and log book method to ensure that their car fringe benefit excludes any business use of their vehicle. Over the forward estimates, this reform will result in an increase in revenue of $970 million, an increase in GST payments to the states of $50 million and a reduction in other expenditure of $33.9 million.

We are also helping small business through the immediate depreciation deduction, which now applies to motor vehicles. The additional benefits that we are putting in place will assist many small businesses in Australia. The vast majority of businesses operating in Australia, around 96 per cent, are small businesses. They often experience greater cash flow difficulties than their larger counterparts. The Gillard government looked after those small businesses when the global downturn happened. We did that because we recognised that small businesses were much more vulnerable than large businesses, which are better able to smooth over the economic cycle. Our economic reforms recognise that small businesses are very much the lifeblood of the Australian economy. We are reforming things like the entrepreneurs tax offset in order to assist small businesses and to give small business owners the certainty that they need in assisting our economy.


With taxes, we build society. Tax reform needs to be grounded in good, strong economics. It needs to reflect the values of Australian and we need to recognise when those values change. When values about environmental protection change, we need to reform fringe benefits systems that create perverse incentives to drive cars further. When norms about dependent spouses change, we need to reform old tax laws that are based on outdated 1930s notions. We need to keep on making these updates because we in the Labor Party recognise that economic reform is not something that we do once and then forget about. It is an ongoing process. It is important that we engage in that ongoing process and use opportunities like the Henry tax review, which has laid down many of the key principles important in devising the architecture of Australia's tax system. It is important that—as we in the government do in the case of climate change—we listen to the advice of economists and take into account that our tax system needs to be shaped by expert advice. Those in the opposition are sometimes too willing to go for the quick sound bite and too willing to ignore expert advice on climate change and tax reform. We in the Labor Party are committed to ongoing economic reform and to improving our tax system so that it is simpler, fairer and as efficient as possible.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.