Just how taxing is Labour’s income tax announcement?


(Sung to the Telethon tune) “Thank you very much for your kind taxation. Thank you very very very much”

The above was a National Party advert criticizing the proposed tax policy of then Prime Minister Helen Clark’s government in 2005. Dr Don Brash was leading the National Party, which had finally found its voice to the delight of National’s conservative base.  As the 2020 election campaign begins to ramp up, the political parties are starting to release their major policies after a considerable concern that the 2020 contest was not going to be about ideas.

Interestingly enough, Dr Brash’s proposed tax policy in 2005, despite being leader of the National Party was actually steeper than the announcement yesterday by Treasurer Grant Robertson. Dr Brash had proposed the following brackets (but not as steep as those of Dr Michael Cullen (bold)):

  • Up to $12,500 = 15% ; Up to $9,500 = 15%
  • $12,501-50,000 = 19% ; $9,501-38,000 = 21%
  • $50,001-100,000 = 33% ; $38,001-60,000 = 33%
  • $100,000+ = 39% ; $60,001+ = 39%

In contrast, social activist John Minto once upon a time proposed a 100% income tax on income over $250,000. In other words if you earned that much money, you did not get to see a cent of it. For obvious reasons, aside from Mr Minto not standing for Parliament, his proposals never went ahead. But it was that kind of extremism that prevents me ever supporting a bid by him to stand for public office.

I mentioned my own thoughts about income tax rates in June.

Many on the right will grumble about wealth being taken away from successful, hard working New Zealanders. Wealth and income are quite different classifications. Income is the hard money that your bank account sees, whilst wealth is ones cumulative assets – house/s, car/s, luxury items like boats, expensive jewellery and so forth. One might not have a huge day to day income, many have a share portfolio, investments in gold and so forth.

National and A.C.T. will invariably grumble, as will the Taxpayers Union. What these parties and the T.U. will never admit is that even some prominent former New Zealand politicians, such as former Prime Minister Jim Bolger believe high income New Zealanders should be paying more tax. Which is why it will be all the more interesting to see what their tax policies are and how they will fund expenditure.

Some on the left will grumble too. For entirely different reasons, namely they do not think the changes go nearly far enough. This will include the left-wing of Labour, the Green Party and social activists. They will argue that the Government is not serious about using income taxation to reduce poverty.

Others like me, however, will argue there are other ways in which poverty can be reduced. Tax is certainly useful as a lever to encourage, discourage certain behaviours and to fund programmes, but anyone who has studied poverty in depth will know there is a lot more to it than just this.

 

Taxation in 2020: my thoughts on a socially taxing matter


Tax. A three letter word of a thing whose collection was the job of someone Jesus apparently had sympathy for when nobody would. A thing loathed by libertarian and right wing parties, but seen as essential by many on the left. So, about this interestingly controversial thing called tax, that gets peoples hackles up for different reasons without fail at every election. I believe New Zealand needs to revisit that Tax Working Group report and make some serious decisions.

But before then, we have an election campaign approaching and I think in light of the Green Party tax announcement on Sunday, it is time to state my thoughts.

Goods and Services Tax (G.S.T.) is one tax that people from all parts of the political spectrum seem to agree is a hindrance. For the low income earner the few extra dollars that is paid as a result of G.S.T. is possibly the difference between being able to afford an essential item and having to scrounge around for a couple of extra dollars. Lower income earners also as a result find it much more difficult to invest and/or save. I personally believe G.S.T. should be cut to 10%. I will explain later where I believe the other components of the tax system can make up for the subsequent loss of revenue.

Every election, National and A.C.T. have campaigned on doing something about lowering income tax. One can be fairly confident that the 2020 election will be no different. Not surprisingly they will target the upper income tax brackets – shown below – and say that the tax cuts will benefit all New Zealanders. The current brackets are:

  • $70,001+ = 33%
  • $48,000-$70,000 = 30%
  • $14,001-$48,000 = 17.5%
  • <$14,000 = 10.5%

Instead of further cutting the top tax bracket and giving higher income earners an even bigger slice of their incomes, I propose broadening the income range across which the tax brackets are applied. I would support something similar to the brackets below:

  • $150,000+ = 37.5%
  • $67,001-$150,000 = 30%
  • $33,001-$67,000 = 20%
  • <$33,000 = 10%

But simply fiddling around with the income and goods and services taxes is not imaginative and ignores other potential tax instruments that may assist this country. At this point, I give New Zealanders four options from which one needs to be chosen:

  • A Capital Gains Tax. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has already ruled it out under her watch, but would she have second thoughts if Labour found themselves reliant on the Green Party for support or in the improbable position of governing alone? And this is certainly not to say there are no supporters for a C.G.T. The New Zealand Herald explored some of the arguments they were putting forward.
  • A Wealth Tax. Graeme McCormack of the Human Rights Commission wrote an article for Noted last year in which he explored how a wealth tax might work in New Zealand – his suggestion was for a 1% tax on citizens net assets (excess of assets over liabilities), exceeding say N.Z.$10 million
  • A Land Tax. Bernard Hickey wrote a column for Newsroom which looked at how a land tax could work in New Zealand. He envisaged a low level broad-based one as being the fairest method. Mr Hickey thought that it would cause an immediate 10-20% drop in land prices. Thus if a section were worth $200,000 land only before applying a land tax it might now be worth $160,000-$180,000.
  • A Luxury Goods Tax. I would assume luxury goods to include vehicles worth over say $150,000; boats worth more than $100,000; any privately owned helicopter, aircraft that is used for non-work related; jewellery worth more than $100,000.

I acknowledge a C.G.T. is a double-edged sword and even if one did get introduced, if it was poorly planned then the wrong parts of the tax payer spectrum might be unfairly targeted. Having a politician no encumbered by coalition partners might be a prerequisite as well. Whilst for reasons of levelling the playing field enough that low income players enter drive a C.G.T., its complexity may be its undoing. The McCormack article article examines a wealth tax, which could be set on net citizen assets exceeding $10 million. This along with the potential land tax explored by the Bernard Hickey article seem to me like the most promising ways in which tax reform could contribute to a fairer society. A luxury goods tax is perhaps the most vulnerable tax to critics who claim it is about envy since the chattels involved will be specifically items that the lower and middle class can only dream about, never mind trying to save enough for one.

 

New Zealand’s $1.4 billion money laundering problem


New Zealand has long been viewed as a soft spot for money laundering, high end fraud, among other crimes. Across the last few years numerous examples of money laundering activity in New Zealand or linked to New Zealand businesses have appeared

  • In 2016 an expert said that New Zealand banks were missing large numbers of suspicious monetary transactions
  • Also in 2016 the so called Panama papers showed how a steady flow of foreign cash into New Zealand became a flood as its holders sought to avoid it being taxed in the proper jurisdictions
  • The same year John Shewan’s report found 12,000 foreign trusts existed in New Zealand – a number that plummeted to 3,000 within a year suggesting many were used for money laundering or other improper monetary purposes
  • In August 2019 $9 million was seized in an anti-money laundering sting in Auckland
  • Just a few days ago the Chief Executive Officer of Westpac resigned after allegations that Westpac failed to pick up 23 million individual breaches including payments to Philippine based child exploiters

Now it has emerged that New Zealand has a N.Z.$1.4 billion money laundering problem. This estimate does not include the domestic cheats who do not pay due taxes to Inland Revenue Department. Globally it is part of what the International Monetary Fund believes to be a $6.5 trillion problem.

New Zealand needs to crack down hard on money laundering. As the resignation of Mr Hartzer shows, money laundering can be linked to some extremely dark criminal activities including child exploitation. A significant part of the crack down would need to ensure a long term budget increase for the police unit investigating financial crime. There would also need to be a revisit of the amendments made to the Anti Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism Act 2009.

The Government seems to be rising to the challenge. It has made changes that took effect in January for real estate agents. In August changes for the racing industry and businesses with high value products regarding the need to comply with the A.M.L.C.F.T. Act took effect. In 2018 the obligations for businesses providing trust services, lawyers, conveyances and accountants were changed.

But there is more that can be done. I believe that tightening the sentencing regime for those convicted of money laundering, conspiracy to participate in money laundering and providing support for those involved in it can be tightened up. Whereas many of the people who commit offences against the human body are disturbed, come from messed up backgrounds or may simply not have had a loving family to show them right from wrong, organized crime is quite different. The victims of money laundering – although individual victims certainly exist – are whole communities, businesses and in the worst cases the reputation of entire nations.

Whereas the impacts of rape, murder and so forth – certainly not trying to put any of these crimes down in terms of their gravity – on the individual, the family and their lives are well documented, how well do people know about the absolute worst of white collar crime? How well do we know what we as a society, as a nation and as a people are missing out on by not tackling money laundering and the people who engage in this kind of activity?

I fear the answer is not very well at all.

Can we still address poverty in New Zealand?


New Zealand has just ruled out one of the best measures for helping to address poverty. Is it still possible to do so?

Good question and one that irrespective of governing coalition, New Zealand must try to. The country that likes to think it is egalitarian and that the spirit of giving people a fair go is alive, has no choice if it wishes to reasonably continue thinking this.

It is a question that will rankle the supporters of the Labour-led Government of Jacinda Ardern. It will rankle many of them because the C.G.T. to many was a fundamental part of any policy platform for dealing with poverty. It would appear New Zealand wants to address poverty, but is absolutely loathe to introduce any sort of measure that check the unsustainable wealth accumulation by the top 5-10% of income earners. So, to cut to the chase, what are the options?

Is New Zealand even agreed on a definition of poverty?

To me poverty is the inability to afford and access the essentials for a life of dignity. What is life if it cannot be lived in a state of dignity where a human being is not degraded? To me, nothing. It is when one is unable to afford basic medical care, shelter, food, transport and education.

In one respect New Zealand is making progress, in that we are enacting a progressive increase in the minimum wage. It rose last year from $15.25/hr to $16.50/hr; from 1 April this year to $17.70/hr; from 1 April next year to $18.90/hr; from 1 April 2021 to $20/hr.

One thing New Zealand can do is ensure that the benefits administered by the Ministry of Social Development are fixed to a Consumer Price Index or other appropriate measure, and adjusted annually on 1 April each year. The rules for administering the schedule of benefits should be reviewed at the same time.

New Zealand can also try to implement the nearly 100 other recommendations that were made by the tax working group.

I still believe though that New Zealand should broaden its income tax regime. Currently the brackets sit at:

  • 10.5% for income up to $14,000
  • 17.5% for income between $14,000-$48,000
  • 30.0% for income between $48,000-$70,000
  • 33.0% for income above $70,000

A top tax rate of say 37.5% could take effect on incomes over $250,000 per annum, whilst the others are more evenly spread instead of a tight range covering just $56,000 between the end of the lowest bracket and the start of the highest.

No mention in the T.W.G. report appears to have been made of a luxury goods tax. Some might call it a jealousy tax. I disagree as it would be on assets that probably out of the reasonable reach of 95-99% of the worlds population. How would it be implemented and at what financial value does something become a luxury good? To be clear to me a luxury good is something that is surplus to the reasonable maintenance of life, and purchased simply because the buyer wants it for reasons of prestige and can afford it. As for what passes as a luxury asset, it would be any car, property, jewellery, aircraft, helicopter, rare items such as art works, other collectables. One can discuss valuations at which such assets can be defined as luxury goods upon inspection, however I think the following could be a good start (and exclude family homes, immediate business assets):

  • vehicles worth $250,000+;
  • yachts worth $1 million+
  • property other than the family home worth $1 million+
  • any helicopters, private jets

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Government will regret abandoning C.G.T


This afternoon, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made a stunning announcement.

It was stunning for all of the wrong reasons, but perhaps first and foremost how it seems to have caved into the lobby group with the loudest megaphone, namely the Tax Payers Union, which is a right leaning group. It was a stunning announcement, because it was a complete u-turn to the image that the Government has been cultivating as one that wants to address poverty, the huge wealth imbalance in the country and the social disparities that it is causing. The Government will regret its move to abandon the C.G.T.

I saw this article from Craig Elliffe and Chye-Ching Huang after the failure to do anything about enacting such a tax in 2009-10. I cannot help but wonder what they would say now.

Not surprisingly the Green Party is disgusted. A C.G.T. was to be the corner stone of any plan to address poverty, which is high their agenda.

I am disgusted myself. New Zealand is the only country in the O.E.C.D. not to have a C.G.T. and possibly for as long as the next 18 years – with the exception of the Keith Holoyoake-led National Government of 1960-1972, and the war time Savage/Fraser-led Labour Government, no government has lasted more than 3 consecutive Parliamentary terms. And no National-led Government is going to introduce such a tax. Before then they would prefer to cut income tax or raise goods and services tax (G.S.T.).

How much did New Zealanders honestly know about a C.G.T.?

My guess is probably not a lot. I wonder how many of them have learnt to critically evaluate something, instead of just reading about the pros and cons. I never took accounting or economics at school and only did a first year economics paper at University that immediately screamed “give it up, Rob – you’re not an economist!”. Which I heeded – I haven’t touched an economics paper since.

So, what do I believe the consequences of this are?

In a purely political sense, provided they do not do anything dumb between now and the 2020 General Election, the Greens stand a good chance of enjoying a bit of a surge in support. It will come from those on the left flank of Labour who are not quite in the Green Party camp, but do not really feel as though they belong with Labour.

In a financial sense, Labour has squandered perhaps its best chance to enact something that addresses a long standing and well known problem – our treatment of capital gains is inconsistent, unfair and inefficient. The Government has indicated that most of the other 100+ recommendations made by the Tax Working Group in their report will be implemented or examined further. The question, though is whether the sum of these apparently lesser measure will be noticed. Nor is C.G.T. a new idea, having been examined by Governments in 1967, 1978, 1982, 1987, 1988, 1989, 2001 and 2009-10.

In a social sense, the potential support for those trying to get on the property ladder for the first time has been taken away by failing to address those who buy multiple properties to use as a money making scheme. It also sends an improper message to those who do indulge in this behaviour that the Government does not care much for making sure you pay due tax.