All we really need to do to bring about genuine tax reform is to acknowledge the special nature of land. In other words, to recognise that those who make or grow things on land or create developments on land, are entitled to profit from their labour and enterprise, but that the land itself is a finite natural resource, increases in the value of which belong to the community as a whole and should logically be the subject of a community charge. Phillip Day, of Queensland. 'Good Government,' February 1998


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by Phillip Day
From Ockham's Razor, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 26 October 1997

Last October, four Australians from divergent backgrounds made a detailed submission to the so-called National Tax Reform Summit, the Summit jointly convened with considerable attendant publicity, by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Council of Social Service.

The four were a distinguished retired judge and former Chairman of the Commonwealth Grants Commission; a highly-respected academic authority on local government and public administration; an experienced property valuer; and an experienced town planner and former senior public administrator.

In their submission to the Summit they analysed in detail all the deficiencies and incongruities which currently bedevil public revenue raising in Australia.

Things like

The submission to the Summit examined all the shortcomings of our present tax system one by one, and demonstrated that they could all be either eliminated or substantially mitigated by a gradual shift of emphasis, a gradual shift away from income taxes on labour and capital, and towards charges levied instead upon the consumption of our natural resources -- a revenue source that can't be moved offshore, or to the bottom of the harbour.

A persuasive argument was that charging for consuming our natural resources, particularly land, upon which all human activities are based, surely made more sense than taxing the production and consumption of the goods and services which we need and which we want people to produce.

Another argument was that unlike taxes, a charge for the occupation of land was impossible to evade, and all the administrative mechanisms for annually valuing land already existed. Furthermore, like the local government rates which we already levy on land, the compliance costs of such a charge, for individuals and companies alike, would be literally nil. And such a charge would automatically achieve all the desired objectives of a growth tax.

The submission, it should be emphasised, had no quarrel whatever with private property rights. It did not propose the nationalisation of land, or the abolition of freehold title. It merely proposed increasing charges upon the occupation and use of land. In effect, [it was] a gradual increase in the rates already levied on land, coupled with a reduction in the taxes levied on labour and capital.

We -- for I was one of the four authors of the submission -- argued that all we really needed to do to bring about genuine tax reform was to acknowledge the special nature of land. In other words, to recognise that those who made or grew things on land or created developments on land, were entitled to profit from their labour and enterprise, but that the land itself was a finite natural resource, increases in the value of which belonged to the community as a whole and should logically be the subject of a community charge.

Thus we argued that for the purposes of raising public revenue, taxes on manufactured commodities and on food and services and on improvements erected on land should be reduced, while charges for the use of the community's land resources should be increased.

In other words, we argued that a clear distinction could and should be drawn between what was provided by nature and what was produced by human exertion. The former was finite, and needed to be conserved. The latter, human endeavour, provided of course it wasn't directed towards anti-social ends, needed to be encouraged instead of being penalised by taxes which discourage self-reliance and could be evaded by the dishonest.

Governments of course will always want to levy some taxes, on things like alcohol and tobacco for example, and impose user or beneficiary charges for some of the public services they provide. But charging for the use or consumption of the nation's natural resources would go a long way towards reducing the necessity for income taxes on productive labour and capital, which because of all their distortions, inequities and complexity are the taxes which the clamour for tax reform is largely all about.

A charge on the annually assessed use value of all land would have other advantages. It would discourage speculators from withholding vacant land from productive use. It would ensure that increases in land value attributable to public works or to rezoning decisions were captured by the community, and thus ensure that rural land was not continually subject to developmental pressures motivated by the prospect of making huge private profits from the mere fact of obtaining 'development' approval.

Conversely, it would ensure that landowners whose land was devalued by public works or by public planning decisions, were automatically compensated. And charges levied on the annually assessed value of rural land would of course be less in bad seasons, or following a fall in commodity prices.

What's more, while an annual community charge for the possession of land would not solve unemployment, which, let's face it, nothing can do in a society hypocritically committed to a lifestyle dependent upon labour-displacing technology, nevertheless eliminating the private profit component from the price of land would at least make access to land more affordable. More affordable for the self-employed and for aspiring small entrepreneurs, and of course more affordable for housing.

And while still permitting exclusive private possession, acknowledging that land was ultimately a community resource would be a potentially very significant contribution to the reconciliation process.

Our submission, however, did not get to first base at the Tax Reform Summit. It was not even debated. Instead, the programmed economists and tax accountants chose to discourse within a conventionally blinkered mindset. They debated herding existing taxes, like sacred cows, into different bails, but they couldn't agree among themselves on the size of the bails, and weren't willing to consider whether some of the cows might perhaps be suffering from mad cow disease.

At a Summit billed as a forum for the uninhibited canvassing of taxation reform, a GST Goods and Services Tax] was the only rabbit pulled from the hat, without however, any quantitative evidence, or any real consensus about its efficacy or its social and inflationary consequences.

All we for our part really sought to do was to secure a place for resource charges on the national tax reform agenda by inviting attention to the patently irrefutable fact that land was fundamentally distinguishable from man-made goods and services and might just conceivably be the most rational and equitable basis for raising public revenue.

Not all that much to ask, one might think, in response to a comprehensively argued submission. But it was more than the October Summit was prepared even to contemplate.

The reform door of course is still open. And in fact historically, the time is particularly opportune. A century ago the architects of our Federation sought to eliminate land speculation without however, having the public planning and annual land valuation and rating mechanisms which are now available to us.

Paradoxically, therefore, as the new millennium approaches, we have the means to achieve one of the more enduring aims of Federation by initiating, in gradual stages, the simplest and most logical of all taxation reforms, and one which could deliver the most wide-ranging benefits.

Meanwhile, almost daily, the clamour for tax reform continues, and a frustrated, divided and increasingly unequal society gropes for solutions, while seemingly remaining committed to the ever-increasing consumption of our finite environ-mental resources in the frenetic pursuit of infinite growth.

__ END of talk __

To see the ABC version click: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ockham/or261097.htm   If you want a tape, take careful note of the date, Ockham's Razor, and Phillip Day, then click: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/tapesale.htm
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