New Zealand, US and UK outrank Australia in scores on budget transparency

Miranda Stewart, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Teck Chi Wong, Australian National University

Australia ranks 12th in the Open Budget Index, and scores 74, much higher than the global average of 42 and the OECD average of 68. But Australia’s budget could still be more transparent if it included more on the budget’s impact on welfare and tax and by gender.

The Open Budget Index is published every two years and ranks countries using a transparency score, which is based on a survey for each country about publishing of budget documents, budget oversight and public participation.

This year, there were 115 countries in the index and Australia was included for the first time. Australia ranks behind our neighbours New Zealand and also behind the United States, United Kingdom and France. The top three countries in the index are New Zealand (with a score of 89), South Africa (89) and Sweden (87).

Each country’s survey for the index is prepared independently by an in-country civil society organisation or academic researcher. Applying standardised questions and based on evidence, researchers at the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute conducted the Australian survey. The assessments are also reviewed anonymously..

Read more:
The ‘citizen budgets’ of Africa make governments more transparent

How transparent is the Australian budget?

The survey assessed Australian federal budget process for the 2015-2016 year and the first half of the 2016-2017 year. Australia’s government performs well in publishing most budget documents at different points in the budget process.

The budget documents include: Budget Paper No. 1 (with a score of 87), the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) report (with a score 93) and the The Auditor-General annual report (81). The government reformed these documents in the 1990s with the introduction of the Charter of Budget Honesty.

Where the Australian budget falls down is in engaging the public in the budget process. The index evaluates public participation with 18 indicators. Australia’s weakest score is in budget participation (41 out of 100). This indicates limited opportunities for the public to engage in the budget process.

For example the Australia government doesn’t publish a pre-budget statement and publishes less information in the budget that has been approved by the parliament and the government summary of the budget (a simpler and less technical version of the government’s budget proposal and other budget documents). Australia also lags behind New Zealand in transparency of most reports.

Yet, given participation opportunities are much scarcer in most other countries in the world, Australia is in fact one of the top performers on this measure. Almost all countries have only scant opportunities for public participation (score 40 and below), except New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Philippines.

Where Australia scores really well is in its budget oversight by the Australian National Audit Office (a score of 100). But Australia presents a mixed picture on the checks and balances in overseeing the budget. The parliament provides adequate oversight at the executive and audit stage (that gets a score of 67); but limited oversight at the formulation and approval stage for the budget (with a score of 48). Overall, Australia gets a score of 70 out of 100, lagging considerably behind Norway (91) and Germany (89).

The main barrier to improving this is the lack of pre-budget debate by the parliament. Budget Paper No. 1 is given to members of parliament less than two months before the start of the budget year, and in-year budget implementation is not examined by a parliamentary committee.

Room for improvement

It’s crucial that budget processes are fair, open, democratic and accountable. Australia performs well generally on budget transparency – as we should expect as citizens in a robust parliamentary democracy. But there is some room for improvement.

Read more:
With its 2017 budget the government is still discouraging women

For example, Australia’s budget contains much less information than in the past about distributional effects of budget policy on taxes and welfare. The government is no longer providing “cameo” tables, which show the projected impact in the real disposal incomes of different hypothetical families, as it did in the previous budgets prior to 2014-15.

The Australian budget also does not contain any analysis of the budget by gender. This is in contrast to the 1980s, during that time Australia was the pioneer in introducing gender budget analysis.

The ConversationThese gaps show us why it’s important for us to keep an eye on transparency. We should not be complacent. We need more public reporting, analysis and opportunities for public participation in the budget process.

Miranda Stewart, Professor and Director, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Teck Chi Wong, Research Assistant at the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Seven charts on the 2017 budget update

Ross Guest, Griffith University

Here’s how the budget is looking at the mid-year mark, in seven charts.

The A$5.8 billion drop in the 2017-18 underlying cash deficit compared with the original May budget is due more to higher revenue than lower spending. Receipts are higher by A$3.6 billion and payments are lower by A$2.1 billion.

The higher receipts reflect the stronger economy, which implies higher company tax (up A$3.2 billion) and superannuation fund taxes (up A$2.1 billion).

Receipts would have been even higher if not for stubbornly weak wages growth which, despite stronger employment growth, has tended to dampen individuals’ income tax receipts. These are in fact down by A$0.5 billion.

The estimates of GST and other taxes on goods and services remain unchanged since the budget.

The lower payments of A$2.1 billion are driven by several changes having opposite effects. Some of these are:

  • A$1.2 billion (over four years) lower welfare payments to new migrants due to longer waiting times;

  • A$1 billion (over four years) lower payments to family daycare services due to more stringent compliance checking; and

  • A$1.5 billion (over four years) lower disability support payments due to lower than expected recipient numbers.

There is not much change in the net debt projections relative to those in the 2017-18 budget. Net debt is A$11.2 billion lower at A$343.8 billion in 2017-18 (around 19% of GDP). Debt stabilises in 2018-19 and starts to steadily decline thereafter to about 8% of GDP in the next ten years.

The lower deficits as a share of GDP are obviously reducing debt, but one factor tending to increase debt is student higher education loans. These are projected to increase by 32% from A$44.4 billion to A$58.8 billion over just the next four years.

The economic outlook continues to be a puzzle. National output of goods and services, real GDP, is expected to grow slightly slower in 2017-18 than the budget forecast – 2.5% compared with 2.75%.

However this is an improvement on the 2% achieved in 2016-17. And it is expected to increase further to 3% in 2018-19.

The economy is being driven by strong global growth and strong domestic business investment. Australia’s major trading partners are forecast to grow (meaning real GDP growth) at a weighted average of 4.25% in each of the next three years.

Wages and household consumption are the puzzle – they are not growing as fast as expected from the stronger than expected employment growth (up 0.25% on the budget to 1.75%) and lower than expected unemployment rate (down 0.25% on the budget to 5.5%).

Household consumption growth is down 0.5% on the 2017-18 Budget forecast to 2.25%. This has in fact become a global phenomenon due to higher costs and job insecurity from the forces of globalisation and automation.

Commodity prices are notoriously volatile and hard to predict, yet they are critical to the budget forecasts because they impact the revenue of resource companies which feeds into company taxes and other taxes.

Iron ore prices are assumed to remain flat at US$55 per tonne over the forecast period, as in the budget. This forecast is almost certain to be wrong because iron ore prices never stay flat for long – the problem is that we can’t say in which direction it will be wrong.

The same applies to thermal coal prices which are assumed to be flat at US$85 per tonne which is again consistent with the budget forecast.

Australian taxpayers continue to bear most of the burden of budget repair. The government can claim with some justification that their efforts to reduce payments further have been thwarted by the Senate.

Excluding the effect of Senate decisions, new spending has been more than offset by reductions in other spending. The gap between the revenue and payment is reducing at the rate of about 0.6 percent per year.

As a share of GDP payments are expected to be 25.2% in 2017-18, falling to 24.9% of GDP by 2020-21 which is slightly above the 30-year historical average of 24.8% of GDP.

Wage growth has been revised down from an already low 2.5% in the budget to 2.25% in MYEFO. With the Consumer Price Index forecast to grow at 2%, wages are barely keeping pace with inflation – growing in real purchasing power by only 0.25%.

This provides a meagre compensation for labour productivity growth which is implied to be about 1% in MYEFO. Wage growth is expected to pick up by 0.5% next year to 2.75%.

This is important because it underpins government revenue growth, yet it’s brave to expect the deep forces that are keeping wages down in Australia and around the world to turn around and exactly match the 0.5% growth in real GDP expected to occur next year.

New measures since the budget have increased the deficit on both the revenue and expenditure sides of the budget. On the revenue side, for example, higher education changes reduced revenue by A$76 million and the GST by A$70 million.

The ConversationOn the expenses side, needs-based funding for schools has cost an additional A$118 million and improving access to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme costs A$330 million. The roll-out of the NDIS in Western Australia adds another cost at A$109 million, and Disability Care Australia at A$362 million.

Ross Guest, Professor of Economics and National Senior Teaching Fellow, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Government budget update saved by higher than expected economic figures

Saul Eslake, University of Tasmania

The 2017-18 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) is another reminder – if one is needed – that the relationship between the budget and the economy runs in both directions. While we mostly ask the question, “how will the budget affect the economy?”, this update shows the economy can also have (and has often had) a significant impact on the the budget.

The highlights of this year’s MYEFO, as far as the government is concerned, are the A$9.3 billion improvement in the underlying cash balance over the four years to 2020-21 (compared with what had been forecast in the May budget), and the consequential A$11 billion reduction in the forecast peak in net debt (from A$366 billion to A$355 billion) in that year.

These improvements are the result of revisions to economic assumptions and other so-called “parameter variations” since the budget, which in total have improved the four-year bottom line by more than A$11 billion. The biggest of these came from reductions in payments to people with disabilities, students, single parents and age pensioners (totalling A$4.6 billion over four years) due to lower-than-expected recipient numbers.

Read more: Budget update shaves growth and wage forecasts but is brighter about the deficit

Personal income tax cuts seem possible

There is no additional detail in MYEFO regarding the government’s foreshadowed personal income tax cuts ahead of the next election. But if the forecast surplus for 2020-21 of A$10.2 billion is credible, then there’s arguably some scope for the government to fund personal income tax cuts beginning in that year.

Although the cost of more significant tax cuts would escalate substantially over the medium term, there is actually more scope for these cuts than generally realised (provided the government succeeds in keeping growth in spending under control).

That’s because the projected moderate surpluses, averaging about 0.5% of GDP out to 2027-28, incorporate an arbitrary assumption that taxation revenue will be capped at 23.9% of GDP. If that assumption wasn’t made, the projected surpluses would rise to 1.6% of GDP by 2027-28.

In dollar terms that would imply a surplus of around A$55 billion, compared with one of around A$15 billion if the surplus were only 0.5% of GDP. Over the period 2021-22 to 2027-28, relaxing the assumption that tax revenues are capped at 23.9% of GDP results in almost A$90 billion of additional budget surpluses. This is over and above what is projected with that “tax cap” in place.

Presumably, some of those “additional surpluses” are absorbed, in the government’s internal figuring, by the promised phased reduction in the company tax rate for businesses turning over more than A$50 million per annum by 2025-26 – which according to the last publicly available estimate would reduce revenues by some A$65 billion over ten years.

However, that would still leave a considerable amount “left over” to pay for personal income tax cuts, and allow the government to continue to project surpluses of around 0.5% of GDP out to the second half of the next decade.

That’s assuming, of course, that we are able to clock up 36 years of uninterrupted economic growth, and that all the other projections come to pass, including for a return to more “normal” rates of wages growth.

Economic indicators in MYEFO

Treasury has revised downwards its forecast for economic growth in the current financial year, from 2.75% to 2.5%. A large part of this revision comes from stronger growth in public spending, which is now forecast to rise by 4% in real terms in 2017-18, up from 2.5% at the time of the May budget.

This reflects faster growth in both government spending (on the NDIS) and investment (NBN and state government infrastructure investment). The forecast for business investment has also been upgraded, from flat at budget time to growth of 2%, the result of both stronger growth in non-mining business investment and a smaller decline in mining investment.

This is largely the result of a downward revision to the forecast for growth in household consumption spending which has been lowered from 2.75% to 2.25%: and this carries over into a 0.25 percentage point reduction in the forecast for 2018-19, to 2.75%. Even these require a further decline in the household saving rate.

The forecast for dwelling investment spending has turned around from 1.5% growth to a decline of 1.5%, with the “softening in dwelling investment occuring slightly earlier than expected”.

Longer term, the government is still anticipating that economic growth will average 3% per annum from 2018-19 through 2023-24, by which time all the “spare capacity” in the labour market will have been absorbed. That is, the unemployment rate will be down to 5% and underemployment (workers not being able to get enough hours at work) returned to more normal levels.

The ConversationThe longer-term projections also assume that wages growth accelerates significantly from 2019-20. This represents the greatest risk to the goverment’s promise of a return to surplus by 2020-21.

Saul Eslake, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Budget update shaves growth and wage forecasts but is brighter about the deficit

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The 2017-18 budget update shows an improvement in the deficit forecast for this financial year but predicts lower economic growth and a smaller increase in wages than was expected in the May budget.

The deficit for 2017-18 is now expected to come in at A$23.6 billion, an improvement of A$5.8 billion from the May forecast, according to the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook released by Treasurer Scott Morrison and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.

Growth for this financial year is forecast to be 2.5% compared with the budget’s 2.75%, reflecting recent lower-than-expected growth in household consumption.

Nevertheless Morrison and Cormann said Australia’s growth story “remains a compelling one, and although real GDP growth has been slightly tempered in 2017-18, the trajectory is upward”. Real GDP is forecast to grow at 3% in 2018-19, the same as the budget number.

Budget update on wages

The update notes that wage growth “remains low by historical standards in both the public and private sectors and has been more subdued than expected since budget”.

Wages are forecast to increase by 2.25% through the year to the June quarter 2018 and 2.75% through the year to the June quarter 2019.

This is 0.25 of a percentage point lower in both years compared with the budget – vindicating the scepticism that economists expressed about the budget forecast being too optimistic.

The flat wages situation reflects a serious political pressure point for the government, as many people struggle with high power prices and other squeezes on their cost of living.

“Wage growth is forecast to lift as the economy strengthens, inflation picks up and excess capacity in the labour market is reduced,” the update says.

Budget receipts have been revised upwards by about A$3.6 billion in 2017-18 and A$2.8 billion over the forward estimates compared with budget time – driven mainly by company tax and superannuation tax. The company tax forecasts reflect increased profitability and enforcement activity by the Australian Taxation Office.

But “over the forward estimates, lower forecasts for wages and unincorporated business income are expected to weigh on individuals’ income tax receipts,” the update says.

The half yearly revised numbers confirm that the budget is on track to have a surplus in 2020-21. The projected surplus of A$10.2 billion in that year is A$2.7 billion better than estimated in May.

Savings measures on education and welfare

The government has announced in the update a new welfare crackdown to save money and also an alternative higher education savings package after it could not pass its earlier proposals.

Savings of A$1.2 billion over four years will be reaped by broadening the criteria for waiting periods for new migrants before they can get various welfare benefits.

The changes will extend the present two-year waiting period for a range of payments, such as Newstart, to three years, and introduce a consistent new three-year waiting period to apply to a further number of benefits such as Family Tax Benefit and Paid Parental Leave.

Social Services Minister Christian Porter said the measures “will reinforce the foundational principle that Australians’ expectation of newly arrived migrants is that they contribute socially and economically for a reasonable period before having access to our nation’s generous welfare system”.

The higher education package includes a freeze on total Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding from January 1, set at 2017 levels, and a combined limit for all tuition fee assistance under all HELP and VET Student Loans.

The government will also pursue an alternative set of HELP repayment thresholds from July 1 next year, with a new minimum repayment threshold of A$45,000, higher than the A$42,000 in the original plan. At present the threshold is A$55,000.

Most of the new higher education package doesn’t have to be legislated, thus avoiding the Senate hurdle. The previous higher education package was set to save A$2.7 billion over the forward estimates; the new one saves A$2.1 billion.

Real growth in payments over the budget period is expected to be an annual average of 1.9%. Compared with the budget, nominal payments are lower in every year of the forward estimates.

The payment to GDP ratio is expected to fall to 24.9% of GDP by 2020, slightly above the 30 year historical average.

Morrison told a joint news conference with Cormann: “As we push into the new year, there is still more work to be done but we are on the right track.

“Jobs and growth will continue to be our mission and our focus. Helping the lives of the thousands of Australians, millions of Australians, and their families and returning the budget back to balance.”

Cormann said: “This is a good set of numbers in all of the circumstances.”

Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said the government remained committed to increasing the tax paid by working Australians. He said there was no mention of personal tax cuts – which Malcolm Turnbull has foreshadowed – in the update. People only got a tax rise.

He condemned the revised higher education package, saying it would particularly hit those from a lower socioeconomic background.

The ConversationThe chair of Universities Australia, Professor Margaret Gardner, said the package would leave university funding “frozen in time”. She said the blow would be hardest in areas where university attainment was lowest, such as regional areas.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Security gets $1.2b, community programs to counter violent extremism $40m – that’s a foolish imbalance

File 20170801 766 wd8iw
Police raided several Sydney properties over the weekend in relation to possible terror plots.
AAP/Dean Lewins

Clarke Jones, Australian National University

The arrests and raids in Sydney over the weekend, as well as the 12 so-called “terrorist plots” disrupted by police since September 2014, ought to raise questions over whether Australia’s efforts to counter violent extremism are actually working.

A spending and policy imbalance

Australia has spent more than A$1.2 billion since 2015 on strengthening sharp-end counter-terrorism arrangements such as increasing intelligence and security capabilities. Millions more will be spent when the government’s proposed Department of Home Affairs opens.

Over roughly the same period, only about $40 million has been spent on countering violent extremism and community cohesion programs.

Of this $40 million, only around $2 million was given out in 2015 to 42 of the 97 applicants. This money was to support grassroots organisations to develop new, innovative services to move people away from violent extremism. This funding round was developed to improve Australia’s capability to deliver localised and tailored intervention services.

So, there is a significant imbalance between sharp-end funding and piecemeal, short-term, community-level grants. The money is clearly not being invested wisely or even reaching the right places, such as those at-risk communities willing to engage and desperately seeking funding. Many more terror-related arrests will follow in the foreseeable future as a result.

All the while, it’s been full steam ahead in relation to security, legislation, corrections, police and intelligence. This has come at the expense of community resilience and building up protective mechanisms within vulnerable youth and communities.

From my research with Muslim communities over the past two years, the government’s approach is verging on being counter-productive. It now risks trampling on the basic rights and freedoms of young Muslims, their families and their communities more broadly.

This approach will actually worsen the many underlying issues – such as discrimination, alienation, marginalisation and rejection – that seem to contribute to offending in the first place.

The safety of all Australians should remain a key government priority. And getting the balance right between security and youth and community welfare is difficult. But the government seems hell-bent on pre-crime arrest, prosecution and punishment, while falling short on providing the necessary long-term support for the young vulnerable people it really needs to protect and prevent from engaging in serious anti-social behaviour.

For those from minority communities in particular, the criminal justice system is a very slippery slope. Once in it, the prospects of positive and meaningful futures are slim.

Where Australia’s approach is lacking

As with the UK’s Prevent program, Australia’s approach suffers from multiple, mutually reinforcing structural flaws. Its foreseeable consequence is a serious risk to the wellbeing of young Muslims and Australian multiculturalism more broadly.

Much of the centrepiece of the government’s countering violent extremism strategy rests on the theory of radicalisation and the social engineering of radical views and cultures to become more conservative and “Australian”.

However, for the concept of radicalisation alone, there seems to be very little clarity about the term and the tools that measure it. If such tools are used to help determine the destiny of a young Muslim person, whether it be in a school or criminal justice situation, then these must be made more available for wider peer review – rather than held in secrecy within the government.

For those deemed “radicalised” or on the pathway to radicalisation, there are very few community-based secondary-level intervention programs designed to support them. Nor are there programs they are willing to participate in voluntarily. This is largely because most current programs are led by government and police, which seem to lack a crucial understanding about the many cultural, religious and ethnic nuances required for effective intervention.

Without close community partnerships and community-led approaches, programs will never be able to fully understand the highly complex nature of families and communities.

Getting access to vulnerable youth and their families, and then encouraging them to participate in interventions, requires close and trusted community partnerships. To date, partnerships between government and the more conservative community groups have not been fully developed. This is particularly the case with the more hard-to-reach groups, which have many of the young people requiring support or intervention.

Put together, this has limited the government’s capacity to support and fund communities working with the most at-risk or vulnerable youth.

The government’s position on these communities is that they are too risky to work with. In reality, it is too risky not to work with them.

To make us truly safe – not just from terrorism, but from other serious crimes too – the government needs to go back to basics. Australia should invest a lot more in longer-term community partnerships and develop more preventive measures, such as community-led interventions. These interventions must be developed by those outside the government’s national security apparatus.

The ConversationA major government rethink is required if it is truly going to keep us safe.

Clarke Jones, Research Fellow, Research School of Psychology, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

With its 2017 budget the government is still discouraging women

File 20170518 24315 1mr25bo
Recent figures show that women are adversely effected by the 2017 federal budget.
AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

Helen Hodgson, Curtin University

The 2017 federal budget was pitched as a fair budget, but much depends on your definition of fairness. Reviewing the policies through a gender lens, there is little to address the entrenched economic disadvantage experienced by women. The Conversation

Australia was known for being a pioneer of policies that are sensitive to the impacts on different genders, but that 30-year history came to an end in 2014 when the Abbott government announced it was abandoning the practice. Rather than see this analysis disappear, the National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW) stepped in and partnered with academics like us, to analyse the budget through the gender lens. We review the effect that each announced policy will have on women’s lives: their economic status and well-being.

We found there were no measures designed to specifically address gender inequality and the related women’s entrenched financial vulnerability.

It’s a relief that the government has abandoned the so-called “zombie measures” which included changes to the family tax benefit and paid parental leave measures. These measures would have had a direct impact on women by adding to the effective marginal tax rate. They would also have reduced the female workforce participation rate, having a long-term effect on the economic well-being of women and their families.

However the budget still includes measures that have a disincentive effect in the workforce. The increase in the Medicare levy will affect those on incomes greater than A$21,644. For those with eligible children, the Family Tax Benefit A payment rates are frozen for two years and those who pay child care fees receive will continue to face high effective marginal tax rates (EMTR’s).

A flat increase in taxes or levies will particularly impact low income earners. Women are overrepresented in the lowest income levels, so changes to government benefits and increases in taxes have a disproportionate affect on women. Recently released ATO statistics show the median income for women was A$47,125 in 2014/15, while for men the amount was A$61,711.
And the recent reduction in penalty rates has already been identified as disproportionately affecting women.

These changes hit those earning well below the average wage, and are particularly harsh for women. Combined, these changes could lead to effective marginal tax rates of possibly 100% or higher for some women, particularly as Family Tax Benefit Part A begins to decrease at A$51,903.

The long awaited housing package will have some benefits for women. But community organisations will need to be vigilant in ensuring that the new National Housing and Homelessness Agreement ensures that funding is guaranteed for the homeless and for women fleeing domestic violence.

There has already been criticism of initiative to encourage older Australians to downsize their homes, but when a gender lens is applied, the inherent bias becomes clear. Economic patterns established during a woman’s pre-retirement years mean that women are more likely to be in receipt of the age pension, and are more likely to be receiving the full age pension. They are also less likely to have superannuation, and the balance will be lower.

Where a person is in receipt of the age pension, the downsizing initiative will reduce it, so single women are more likely to lose entitlements if they access this benefit. For example, a widow maintaining a home that is bigger than she now needs, will not be able to benefit from downsizing with this policy.

The increase in the Medicare levy to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is also a mixed outcome. The primary carer for a person with a disability will benefit from access to the NDIS, as the additional funds for services will relieve financial and emotional pressure on the carer. But because women are still more likely to be the primary carer for a family member with a disability, this measure will disproportionately improve the lives of women.

Despite the commitment to fully fund the NDIS there are no measures to address workplace conditions. The caring economy is still largely based on women, whether they provide paid care or unpaid care.

Women working in the care sector still endure historically undervalued pay rates and working conditions, whether in the NDIS, childcare or aged care. The current consumer directed care model encourages the use of casual workers, which further reduces economic security for these women.

This year’s budget delivers some significant improvements in infrastructure, disability support, health and housing. These are welcome because they place a higher weight on the provision of government services, than unfair policies aimed at arbitrarily reducing the surplus.

The 2017 budget contains initiatives that help alleviate some of the worst aspects of its predecessors. However, it doesn’t radically turn things around for women.

Helen Hodgson, Associate Professor, Curtin Law School and Curtin Business School, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Full response from the AiGroup for a FactCheck on how Australia’s top tax rates compare internationally

File 20170516 11956 1dw3xht

Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

In relation to this FactCheck on the AiGroup’s Innes Willox’s statement that Australia has “one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world”, a spokesman for the AiGroup sent the following sources and comment: The Conversation

Innes was referring to top marginal tax rates. Data for 2016 show that Australia has a relatively high top marginal tax rate (49%) but not the highest among OECD countries (Sweden is top, at 60%). The rub is that our top marginal rate cuts in at a relatively lower level of income than most other OECD countries (2.2 times our average wage).

Chart created by AiGroup using OECD data.
Chart created by AiGroup using OECD data.

The spokesman also sent a screenshot from an OECD report titled Revenue Statistics 2014 – Australia:

A screen shot from the OECD report Revenue Statistics 2014 – Australia.

Sunanda Creagh, Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

FactCheck Q&A: does Australia have one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world?

File 20170517 24341 1851nin
The AiGroup’s Innes Willox, speaking on Q&A.

Kathrin Bain, UNSW

The Conversation fact-checks claims made on Q&A, broadcast Mondays on the ABC at 9:35pm. Thank you to everyone who sent us quotes for checking via Twitter using hashtags #FactCheck and #QandA, on Facebook or by email. The Conversation

Excerpt from Q&A, May 15, 2017. Quote begins at 0.50.

Look, we just need to keep in mind that we have one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world at the moment. – Innes Willox, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, speaking on Q&A, May 15, 2017.

When Q&A host Tony Jones asked if wealthy people should pay more tax, the AiGroup’s Innes Willox said that Australia already has one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world.

Is that true?


Checking the source

When asked for sources to support Innes Willox’s statement, a spokesman for the AiGroup clarified that Willox was referring to top marginal tax rates.

The spokesman referred The Conversation to OECD tax statistics, and two charts built using that data, saying that:

This shows that Australia has a relatively high top marginal tax rate (49%) but not the highest among OECD countries (Sweden is top, at 60%). The rub is that our top marginal rate cuts in at a relatively lower level of income than most other OECD countries (2.2 times our average wage).

You can read his full response and see those charts here.

Is it true? Not exactly

Looking at OECD data, Australia’s highest marginal tax rate is higher than the OECD median. Out of the 34 OECD member countries in this data set, Australia ranks 13th for the top marginal rate of tax, meaning 12 countries have a higher top marginal rate, and 21 countries have a lower top marginal rate.

However, a straight comparison like this can be misleading. More than half (19) of the OECD countries impose “social security contributions”. The OECD defines social security contributions as “compulsory payments that confer an entitlement to receive a (contingent) future social benefit”. It notes that they “clearly resemble taxes” and “better comparability between countries is obtained by treating social security contributions as taxes”.

When social security contributions are taken into account, Australia’s “ranking” in terms of top marginal rate of tax drops to 16 out of the 34 OECD member countries – making it still higher than the OECD median top marginal rate, but not by much.

The other point noted by the AiGroup spokesman was that Australia’s top marginal tax rate applies at a relatively low level of income compared to most other OECD countries.

Australia’s highest marginal tax rate applies to taxable income above A$180,000, approximately 2.2 times Australia’s average wage. The AiGroup spokesman was right to say this is relatively low, with the majority of OECD countries (20 out of 34) applying their highest marginal tax rate at income levels higher than Australia (that is, at income levels higher than 2.2 times the average wage).

However, it is worth noting that based on the latest Australian Taxation Office statistics, for the 2014-15 tax year, only 3% of individual taxpayers fell into the highest tax bracket.

Where Australia does rank amongst the highest in the OECD is the percentage of total tax revenue that is derived from individual income taxation.

In 2014, 41% of Australia’s taxation revenue came from income taxation on individuals. This is the second highest in the OECD (the highest being Denmark at 54%) and significantly higher than the OECD average of 24%.


The statement made by Innes Willox that “Australia has one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world at the moment” is an exaggeration.

Australia ranks 13th in the OECD for the top marginal rate of tax, and 16th if social security contributions are taken into account.

However, Australia does rely more heavily on personal income tax (when compared to other taxes) than all but one other OECD country. – Kathrin Bain


I agree that the statement is an exaggeration. 13th out of 34 is higher than the median, but it would be equally true to say that more than one-third of the OECD countries have a higher personal marginal tax rate than Australia.

It is always problematic to try to compare tax data across different countries. Although the OECD does try to make the data comparable the differences between tax and welfare systems can lead to misleading comparisons.

It is generally well known that certain Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, have a very high marginal tax rate. However those countries also tend to have a different approach to social and welfare spending. Australia does not have a dedicated social security tax: pensions and income support are paid from general revenue. This structural difference in the tax-transfer systems does limit the comparison.

Australia does have a high reliance on personal income tax, and the top marginal rate is higher than the median OECD level. Although the top marginal rate is relatively low at 2.2 times the median wage, the fact that only 3% of the population are in the top bracket says that we, in fact, have a relatively flat tax structure, with most taxpayers in lower tax brackets. – Helen Hodgson

The Conversation FactCheck is accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network.

The Conversation’s FactCheck unit is the first fact-checking team in Australia and one of of the first worldwide to be accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network, an alliance of fact-checkers hosted at the Poynter Institute in the US. Read more here.

Have you seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

Kathrin Bain, Lecturer, School of Taxation & Business Law, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: dismal wages growth makes a joke of budget forecasts

File 20170518 12226 1d3qe01
Pay packets rose just 0.5% in the first quarter.
bradleypjohnson/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Richard Holden, UNSW

Vital Signs is a weekly economic wrap from UNSW economics professor and Harvard PhD Richard Holden (@profholden). Vital Signs aims to contextualise weekly economic events and cut through the noise of the data affecting global economies. The Conversation

This week: investor loans continue to rise, unemployment ticks down, wages growth remains distressingly low, and consumers are unconvinced the budget will improve their financial situation.

Now that Australia’s two major political parties (and the Greens) have decided that robbing banks is legitimate public policy, we return our focus to how the Australian economy is actually functioning.

ABS data released Monday showed that investor housing loans rose slightly, up 0.8% on the previous month. The really interesting figures on this front are still to come, since the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority announced tighter macro-prudential measures – especially on interest-only loans – at the end of March. There are already some anecdotal suggestions that these have started to dampen investor demand, but there is no proper evidence yet. The next round of ABS housing finance data will certainly provide some clues.

The ABS also reported this week that first quarter wage growth was distressingly low, with pay packets rising just 0.5%. That puts private-sector annual wages growth at 1.8%. The main concerns here are, of course, for workers struggling to get by and the fact that rising levels of income inequality are not being dented by robust wage growth.

Added to this, however, is the impact of low wage growth on the budget, and the economy more generally. The RBA has pointed out in recent months that around one-third of mortgage holders have less that one month’s repayment buffer. As the cost of living keeps rising, but wages don’t, people with close to no wiggle room get squeezed more and more.

Last week’s budget, and the forecast return to surplus in 2020-21, was predicated in no small part on very robust wage growth.

On budget night I wrote that these wage growth assumptions were bullish and unlikely to eventuate. 3% going to 3.75% annual wage growth looks really aggressive against a stagnating 1.8 – 1.9% (counting the public sector’s slightly stronger growth). When wage growth is lower than it has been since the mid 1990s, how can one forecast with a straight face that the growth rate will double?

Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s certainly understands this. It almost grudgingly reaffirmed Australia’s AAA credit rating this week, but cast doubt on the projected return to surplus, saying “budget deficits could persist for several years, with little improvement, unless the Parliament implements more forceful fiscal policy decisions”.

Figures released Thursday showed the unemployment rate fell from 5.9% to 5.7%. This is seemingly good news, although this ABS series has been notoriously unreliable in recent times.

The workforce participation rate was steady at 64.8% – and this may be a better and more relevant measure of short-term fluctuations in employment.

There was also a continued shift to part-time employment. Total jobs were up 37,400, but people in full-time work fell by 11,600 and the number of part-time jobs was up 49,000.

Consumer confidence weakened a little in May according to the Westpac-Melbourne Institute Index. It was down a point to 98.0 in May (recall that for indices like these 100 is the level at which optimists and pessimists are in equal supply).

Westpac chief economist Bill Evans said:

Respondents’ confidence in housing and the outlook for house prices deteriorated sharply, while the assessment of the budget around the outlook for family finances was decidedly weaker.

And why wouldn’t it be? The budget contained essentially nothing to address the housing affordability crisis, further fuelling concerns that there will be a messy correction to prices.

Meanwhile, the government’s best ideas for how to grow wages and incomes were to waive a white flag about spending restraint, whine about how the Senate won’t pass their legislation (“this is a Senate tax”, said the treasurer on budget day), and launch a populist attack on our five largest banks.

And that attack – the bank tax – will be passed on to consumers, just like the last increase in regulatory capital required by APRA.

So the government raised the taxes of most Australians and blamed the cross-bench. That doesn’t fill me with confidence. And it seems I am not alone.

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

$89b shipbuilding plan is a major step forward – but sovereignty remains a problem

File 20170518 24325 7fkw17
The naval shipbuilding plan is undoubtedly a major step forward for industrial capability in Australia.
AAP/David Mariuz

Graeme Dunk, Australian National University

Australia’s long-awaited naval shipbuilding plan, released earlier this week, claims it is a national endeavour: The Conversation

… larger and more complex than the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme and the National Broadband Network.

Irrespective of this particular claim’s validity, the investment of A$89 billion for nine new frigates, 12 submarines and 12 offshore patrol vessels is a substantial commitment to Australia’s security. The plan is a comprehensive approach to establishing a continuous program for building these platforms in Australia.

Apart from the future introduction of these and other vessels into service, one of the plan’s key outcomes is a “sovereign Australian capability to deliver affordable and achievable naval shipbuilding and sustainment”. The development of a sovereign capability is stated as “the government’s clear priority”.

But what is sovereignty in this context? And is it attainable from the naval shipbuilding plan?

Two clear weaknesses

The plan has two interconnected weaknesses when it comes to sovereignty.

First, the Australian defence industry environment is dominated by companies whose parentage and ultimate control rest offshore. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But given the shipbuilding plan’s focus on Australian jobs and resources, it is a reality that needs confronting.

To that end one might have expected to see, both in this document and in earlier ones, a definition of Australia’s defence industry – what it is and, importantly, what it is not.

The UK’s 2005 description of its defence industry embraces the combination of local and offshore companies contributing to defence outcomes in terms of:

… where the technology is created, where the skills and intellectual property reside, where the jobs are created and sustained, and where the investment is made.

A similar definition for Australia would provide a foundation for sovereignty in the shipbuilding environment to be properly assessed. The plan suggests the Australian subsidiaries of offshore companies will be considered as sovereign without discussing how local control might be maintained, and how Australian sensitivities might be tackled.

The proposed definition for defence industry also highlights the second weakness of the shipbuilding plan: it is focused on building and sustaining the structural component (the “float” and “move” aspects), rather than the total capability the ship or submarine represents.

The lists of skills cited as necessary are those primarily associated with building and sustaining the structure. The shipbuilding plan gives scant coverage to the important combat system and weapons elements upon which the war-fighting capability rests.

The plan does not address the industrial capabilities necessary for the local maintenance and improvement of these ships. Access to the detailed design information for the combat and sensor systems in particular is required so that such systems can be upgraded locally if required. An offshore equipment supplier may not give the same priority to our needs.

The plan for naval shipbuilding in Australia says it will source many systems of the future frigate and other naval platforms from the US. However, the closest it gets to recognition of this reality in the context of sovereignty is that:

Australia’s alliance with the US, and the access to advanced technology and information it provides, will remain critical.

The plan therefore implies that sovereignty is sought for the “float” and “move” aspects of the naval capabilities, but not necessarily for the important “fight” aspects. This means the systems elements of ships and submarines will be tackled in some other context – outside the naval shipbuilding plan.

More than just ‘doing stuff’

The naval shipbuilding plan is undoubtedly a major step forward for industrial capability in Australia.

A successful implementation will provide significant benefits for the Navy in terms of force structure, for industry in terms of a long-term enterprise upon which to grow overall capability and capacity, for innovation, for workers in terms of continuity of effort, and for the development of shipbuilding-related STEM skills. These are all worthy outcomes.

But sovereignty is more than just “doing stuff” in the country.

If the plan really wanted to tackle sovereignty, it should have provided a foundation on which aspects of industrial and operational sovereignty could be properly assessed, prioritised and managed. It would also have addressed the systems aspects of ships, rather than just the structure.

Graeme Dunk, PhD Candidate, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.