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Is Parker procrastinating or scene setting for fairer tax system?

Written By: - Date published: 3:40 pm, April 27th, 2022 - 49 comments
Categories: capital gains, david parker, Economy, inequality, Politics, tax - Tags: , ,

Is Revenue Minister David Parker’s plan to gather tax data on the wealthy just more procrastination by this Labour government on making the tax system fairer? Or is it recognition the public debate needs a long-term frame to get a capital gains, or wealth tax, over the line?

Hosted by Child Poverty Action Group, the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies of the Victoria University of Wellington, and Tax Justice Aotearoa on Tuesday, Parker was at pains to point out that his government is not remotely considering any tax that might address the inequality and unfairness of the current system identified by its 2019 Tax Working Group.

He even seemed proud to point out that not only does Aotearoa not have a high tax regime by OECD standards, but that the total tax-take as a proportion of GDP at 32% is indistinguishable from its neo-liberalist National Party opponents.

“We have got no secret plan to introduce a capital gains tax, a wealth tax, a deemed income tax, nor others,” he said in his speech.

He said IRD is not even doing any policy work to develop such taxes.

While he claimed “it’s not true that we have failed to deliver” a fairer system, he blamed the inherited housing crisis and the pandemic for failure to address such things as a lack of an inheritance tax or gift duties.

On the question of why they failed to address the TWG’s basic requirement to enact a capital gains tax, Parker said: “We couldn’t get the parliamentary votes to get it across the line, that’s why it failed.”

Asked if he agreed with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s promise of no CGT under her watch, he said they would adhere to that.

In spite of the lack of action over addressing tax fairness, Parker says he is a big fan of the work of local researcher and writer on economic inequality, Max Rashbrooke, as well as French economist Thomas Piketty, author of Wealth in the Twenty-first Century, documenting wealth concentration.

“An important objective of taxes is to redistribute income, as well as the cost of public services, on a socially acceptable basis,” Parker said.

Despite its thumping 2020 election win, because of the government’s perceived failure to get sufficient political support to radically change the tax system, or its lack of will, Parker has turned attention to data gaps IRD collects about different groups pay, in particular, the very wealthy.

Piketty’s research suggests the less information that is collected on tax, the more inequality a country will have, says Parker.

Parker’s plan, according to PWC Partner and former TWG member, Geoff Nightingale, is a very long-term one to set the framework for a future debate on tax where there will be an inescapable imperative to impose more tax on the wealthy because they will be exposed as not paying their fair share.

“It’s attempting to frame a narrative that would perhaps build a political mandate for these kind of things (wealth or capital gains tax),” Nightingale told RNZ.

Parker said he was shocked to learn that Statistics NZ’s Household Economic Survey has, because of the loose way it questions interviewees, has never found anyone in Aotearoa with wealth over $20 million.

“How come in a country with billionaires, our data set, for policy purposes, effectively ignores the wealthiest?… It beggars belief that we currently do not know what rate of tax is paid by the top cohort in New Zealand on their economic income.”

Rough measures of wealth suggests that two thirds of financial assets in Aotearoa are owned by just 5 percent.

It is really opaque who pays what tax, Parker said.

To address that, since last year’s budget, IRD has been given the power and funds to collect information, to research tax paid by the wealthiest, relative to their income.

There is strict security on the information collected and it cannot be used to target individuals.

“Until we have a more accurate picture about how much tax the very wealthy pay, relative to their full ‘economic income’, we can’t honestly say that our tax system is fair. I think the gap will shock some people, but whether my instincts are right or wrong will be proven by the data,” he said.

A second information gap, which IRD is working on, is the amount of GST each cohort pays relative to income. Parker says this is important, because GST is a regressive tax and in Aotearoa, a high proportion of tax is gathered by GST relative to other countries.

Aligned to this work, Parker intends to pass a Tax Principles Act this term, which will lay out principles that underly our tax system. It would work similarly to the Fiscal Responsibility Act, now part of the Public Finance Act.

Parker said the main settled principles are:

  • Horizontal equity, so that those in equivalent economic positions should pay the same amount of tax
  • Vertical equity, including some degree of overall progressivity in the rate of tax paid
  • Administrative efficiency, for both taxpayers and Inland Revenue
  • The minimisation of tax induced distortions to investment and the economy.

Officials would be required to report on whether these principles are being adhered to, in particular, whether the rich are being taxed enough, or poorer cohorts are paying too much tax relative to income.

Economist Geoff Bertram, of Victoria’s Institute of Governance and Policy Studies pointed out the principles approach is only a cross section sample and, because of the lack of inheritance and gift taxes, fails to capture information on wealth transfer.

Asked what Labour will actually do when, if as he suspects, the data shows the wealthy are not paying their fair whack, Parker was extremely cagey for fear of provoking a Muldoon-style dancing Cossacks fear-campaign.

“Let’s wait and see. I didn’t want to have it misrepresented that we are planning six or seven taxes. We’re not.”


Simon Louisson, a former journalist, reported for The Wall Street Journal, AP Dow Jones Newswires, New Zealand Press Association and Reuters and also worked as a political and media adviser to the Green Party.

49 comments on “Is Parker procrastinating or scene setting for fairer tax system? ”

  1. Ad 1

    Sunlight.

    It's a start.

    I can't wait for Ardern to leave – she's just a concrete roadblock.

    • Alan 1.1

      Really Ad?

      Ardern is the sole reason labour is in power, if she goes, it is all over.

      The current government less Ardern will struggle to get 25% of the vote in the next election.

      • Ad 1.1.1

        Also true.

        But then, all of Labour's ambition in tax left them in the first term when Ardern actively killed it.

        Since tax is the key lever to shifting wealth in NZ, and Ardern has said there will be no further tax reform while she leads, Ardern needs to go.

        Better for Labour to dump Ardern and take responsibility for this stupendous wealth transfer to the top 5%.

        • pat 1.1.1.1

          Its almost a certainty they will not command the Treasury benches after the next election….and they will largely have themselves to blame.

        • roblogic 1.1.1.2

          Labour would have to be really cratering in the polls before considering such a radical move. Even then they would probably ask her to gracefully resign. And I can’t see anyone in their lineup with a tenth of her charisma. Andrew Little would be my guess. (Definitiely not Robbo!) Very hard to follow the inspiration that was Jacindamania.

          But it seems that cratering in the polls is becoming more likely as the economy falls off a cliff of our own making by over leveraging in housing investment. It’s 50/50 at this point, but if mortgage rates & inflation rises much further then public unrest will folllow, and the government will be tempted to bail out troubled homeowners, making the wealth transfer in this country even worse.

          It’s a nasty dilemma with no easy answers, because we allowed shit to get worse instead of playing out in the 2008 GFC. Forest fires are a necessary cleaning mechanism that gets rid of dead wood and fertilises the soil for regenerative growth. Putting them off guarantees a much bigger and unstoppable conflagration in future.

          The only solution I can see is a New Deal for NZ, not more austerity. Which wil be (correctly) perceived as class war by the NZ Herald and wealthy Nactoids. They are used to winning the class war by fair means or foul and will have a massive tantrum if they have to give an inch.

          • James Thrace 1.1.1.2.1

            Kieran McNulty and Kiri Allan are probably the top two contenders for leadership of Labour.

            Robertson will be well beyond his use by date when Jacinda leaves.

            Labour requires renewal, not retreads, beyond Jacinda. It’s as if they haven’t heeded the lessons following Helen Clark’s departure.

            Kieran has done great work as an MP, and also as a party whip. He’s extremely affable and relates well to many people.

            Kiri has the mana and the chops to get done what needs to be done. Many were impressed by her stand ups following the east coast earthquake a couple years ago, quickly followed by her cancer disclosure. Having that in her mind, whilst being cool, calm and collected as the Civil Defence Minister during that period, isn’t an easy balance.

            Kiri and Kieran please.

          • Ad 1.1.1.2.2

            Agree it's a nasty dilemma. But it is one of their own making.

            Labour Central under Robertson has for 9 years killed off new blood MPs who dare to think in hard concepts.

            And I sure as shit ain't saying that the Greens have New Deal coherence in them either.

            Ardern's political epitaph will be: ride high, crash low.

            • tc 1.1.1.2.2.1

              +100

              When she blanket ruled out a CGT it signalled popularity over long overdue reform.

              Doing nothing just makes it worse.

          • arkie 1.1.1.2.3

            Forest fires are a necessary cleaning mechanism that gets rid of dead wood and fertilises the soil for regenerative growth. Putting them off guarantees a much bigger and unstoppable conflagration in future.

            Very apt.

            Those used to systemic advantage express themselves most frequently through tantrum and it will not be limited to Nactoids. They have had two flavours of advantage since 1984 and they're addicted to the taste.

            I would welcome a New Deal-style solution but I cannot see the modern NZ Labour party being prepared to weather the heat that comes with the proposal of such a policy. They have largely seemed to govern by reacting to media narratives and ruling out action that would turn the narrative against them

  2. tsmithfield 2

    I think one of the key points with any effective tax system is that it is simple and easy to administer. The more complex a tax system is, the more loopholes it tends to create, and tends to become an administrative nightmare to admister.

    Simplicity is the beauty of GST. It is very difficult to avoid and relatively easy to administer. In effect, GST tends to tax the wealthy more because they tend to buy more expensive things.

    So far as a capital gains tax is concerned, I think the bright-line test provides a relatively simple proxy for a CGT. It is quite simple and easy to understand. And it captures the most substantial asset that most people own.

    So far as a more general capital gains tax goes, I think that has the potential to become extremely complex and burdensome to administer. For a start, it will be God's gift to valuers who will have an enormous task valuing all the qualifying assets to ascertain opening values.

    Then, are realised gains only to be taxed, or are unrealised gains to be taxed also. If it is the former then the CGT may not produce much for a long time because many people hold on to their assets.

    If unrealised gains are to be taxed, then it becomes even more God's gift to valuers who will have to routinely revalue assets and then people getting taxed on assets they haven't any cash benefit for at that time.

    Also, what qualifies as an asset for tax purposes? Houses and shares obviously. But what about fine art, precious metals, furniture, mundane motor vehicles (which tend to depreciate in value), compared to classic/vintage cars that may go up in value etc etc.

    What about the distinction between whether personal assets (e.g the family home) should incur CGT compared to say a rental property. I can see that distinction as overly complicating an already complicated tax. And causing a lot of loopholes. For instance, people owning assets in their personal name rather than by their company for instance.

    • Simon Louisson 2.1

      The advantage of simplicity over fairness is often bought up by accounting experts whose job often entails devising complex ways for people to avoid paying tax.
      Re CGT, all of the TWG unanimously agreed on the need for a CGT although there was a minority view on its application.
      Re valuation, all houses are currently valued for rating purposes.

      • tsmithfield 2.1.1

        Ratable values aren't true values. They don't take into account many things that affect house values as a valuer doesn't physically visit the property.

        So, from the point of view of a CGT, it is essentially meaningless.

        • lprent 2.1.1.1

          Most prices have very little to do with underlying values or even profit margins. Mostly what it has to do with is how much people are willing to pay for it.

          But if you’re after simplicity, then adding GST to all interest payments seems like a no-brainer. That’d make it more equitable as well. Often the wealthier a person is, the more they spend in interest payments – often largely untaxed.

    • Ad 2.2

      GST may well be simple, but it is far more destructive to the poor than inflation at 5%.

      Imagine the price of everything decreasing by 15% overnight: electricity, rates, fuel, food, medicine.

      Imagine to replace some of that lost state income, a tax of 50% on all-income over $200k per person.

      GST is a disgusting perpetual weight upon NZ society that has ground us down for two decades.

      • Foreign waka 2.2.1

        I think rather than tinkering around, 3 things could happen straight away with very little cost to the taxpayer:

        1/ GST on levies and taxes that are payable to the government should go

        2/ Trusts should be fully taxable

        3/ Religious organizations are taxed as everybody else

        I think this would be agreeable with most folks and would actually be a fairer approach than what is happening now.

        • Belladonna 2.2.1.1

          Iwi taxed too?

        • Craig H 2.2.1.2

          Trust income is taxable other than for registered charities. While some charities are shams, most are legitimate organisations trying to improve lives and society.

      • tsmithfield 2.2.2

        “GST may well be simple, but it is far more destructive to the poor than inflation at 5%.”

        I think that problem is better dealt with from the government support side of the equation for with family support and the like.

        And there isn't any guarantee that removing 15% GST would mean that prices would always drop 15%.

        A simple tax system is most efficient in generating revenue, so in the end is better for everyone as it means there is more available to help the poor.

        • Nic the NZer 2.2.2.1

          Measuring the efficiency of taxation is extremely stupid. Its extremely efficient to setup a self assessment regime because it barely needs any enforcement for honest people to pay in. It also lets all the people taking liberties just pay whatever, so your basically punishing honesty.

          • tsmithfield 2.2.2.1.1

            That example is false equivalence with GST. GST is both very simple and very difficult to avoid, which makes it completely different to the example you have given.

            • Nic the NZer 2.2.2.1.1.1

              You claimed efficiency was a sensible (and general) measure of taxation policy, and as I highlighted, its not. And my example is not even far fetched the US income tax regime broadly fits the description, being all of relatively cheap to run, bureaucratic and ineffective at collection.

      • roblogic 2.2.3

        GST is a disgusting perpetual weight upon NZ society that has ground us down for two decades.

        Yup. It's Roger Douglas/ACT wet dream of a flat tax that in their tiny selfish minds is "fair". The greedies think it is their sacred right to stomp on the faces of the poor and hoard everything for themselves. They forget that we live in a community, and by virtue of this community (and by exploiting it) that they have become rich.

    • lprent 2.3

      I think one of the key points with any effective tax system is that it is simple and easy to administer. The more complex a tax system is, the more loopholes it tends to create, and tends to become an administrative nightmare to admister.

      The problem with GST is what it doesn't cover. For instance if it covered the sale and rental of personal property then it'd go a long way towards equalising inequities.

      However that is seldom the case unless the wealthy wish to do so – usually to recover costs. Like for rentals which are usually ~5-10% higher depending on mortgages to recover the GST on costs.

      Basically the flaw in your idealised environment is that the people who have the highest GST as a percentage of what they earn are also the people who are least able to afford it. That is because they are unable to evade it.

      To make it simple – GST should be on everything, including the purchase and sale of all property.

    • mikesh 2.4

      If unrealised gains are to be taxed, then it becomes even more God's gift to valuers who will have to routinely revalue assets and then people getting taxed on assets they haven't any cash benefit for at that time.

      Unrealised capital gains are not a problem since the values would already have been calculated for rates purposes.

  3. roblogic 3

    The strategy is sound. Labour has an uphill battle to convince the majority of Kiwis that our system is deeply unfair. Maybe Labour should have let more people experience the joys of WINZ instead of handing out special Covid payments.

    For the informed Left however this looks like more procrastination and incrementalism. So it's another insult to those hoping for real change after the findings of the working groups from Labour's first term.

  4. roblogic 4

    Here are a few things Labour must do before the next election to counter their present inertia over the cost of living crisis and to counter some of the more egregious and obvious inequalities impacting ordinary Kiwis

    • Ad 4.1

      That would be a great start given how regressive GST is.

      Parker's proposed legislation is a piss-poor alternative to actually doing something.

      That degree of price regulation for fruit and vegetables would need a far stronger Commerce Commission than we have now. We've not seen any sign of strong price regulation from this government, after multiple chances.

      Parker's initiative is something you would do in your first year of your first term, not a long excuse for your third term.

  5. Tiger Mountain 5

    Well outlined Simon; but two more things…
    • flogging dead horses (awful but effective metaphor)
    • once in a generation majority MMP Govt.–opportunity for retiring Rogernomics squandered

    The NZ Labour Caucus is essentially neo Blairist. The PM who I greatly respect re COVID, could not manage to finish a volume by mild critic of Capitalism–Thomas Piketty. Ideological failure from NZ Labour, action comes from thinking and a class analysis. Capitalists have this sussed!

    The numerical voting power begins to shift from boomer to new gens in 2023, and will be solid by 2026, that is the hope for change. X,Y, Z have to step up.

  6. Dennis Frank 6

    The correct answer to your question is both, I reckon. Labour incrementalism is by design due to their perception that most voters progress like turtles (slowly). The merit of such pragmatism lies in the fact that progress is indeed happening, yet insufficiently fast to freak out the mainstreamers. And you’re right that "public debate needs a long-term frame" because one that is realistic and well-designed would provide an ideal ideological basis for rational policy.

    A classic case of Parker being clever whilst doing his usual bank-clerk impressions to bamboozle the Nats. Problem is, he's up against the bureaucrats, who have a vested interest in preserving their antique byzantine methods of handling tax. Operating a simple system is a notion sufficiently radical to spook them severely – yet it could have the unforeseen benefit of triggering managers into a lunge for early retirement.

    • Craig H 6.1

      Parker has the experience and ability to deal with bureaucrats – he's one of the most capable ministers in Cabinet although we don't see much of him in public.

  7. Robert Guyton 7

    I'm backing Parker. I think Labour are going for it (nothing to lose, to late to muck around).

  8. Sacha 8

    Parker will never be described as bold. Nor Robertson at this rate.

  9. tsmithfield 9

    Further to some of the points I made above, I wanted to frame my position in terms that we hopefully could probably all agree on.

    Firstly, the objective of a tax system is to maximise the amount of revenue available to meet government spending needs. One of those key needs is sufficient funding to maintain and continually improve our core social services and responsibilities.

    There are three key requirements to achieve that goal. Firstly, to set an optimal tax rate that maximises tax return from taxable income. The second requirement is that tax liability is very difficult to avoid. The third requirement is to minimise the amount of churn required to administer the tax system.

    I want to focus on the churn aspect here.

    The first point is that money spent on administering the tax system is a deduction from the money available to meet government spending needs.

    The second point is that money spent on administering the tax system takes resources away from otherwise productive activities.

    For instance, people employed to administer the tax system might be more productively used in marketing NZ products overseas for instance. If they were used in productive activities instead of essentially unproductive ones, then NZ companies would become more productive and therefore generate more taxable income. More taxable income would mean more revenue the government has available to meet its various responsibilities including the social ones.

    Therefore, it is key that along with the other two points I mentioned at the start, (optimal tax rate and low avoidance) that our tax system should be as simple as possible and easy to administer.

    The result of that should be increased income for the government which will provide more income to meet social needs in NZ.

    So, from which ever perspective it is considered, a simple tax system, set at the optimal rate, that is difficult to avoid, and easy to administer, is the ideal tax scenario, and something that should be aimed for.

    • Craig H 9.1

      I don't think there is any current belief in Labour or National (or ACT) in maximising tax revenue – I'm sure tax revenue would be higher if taxes were increased, even if it wasn't a straight 1:1. To quote from the Laffer Curve article linked:

      There are some fundamental problems with the Laffer Curve—notably that it is far too simplistic in its assumptions. First, that the optimal tax revenue-maximizing tax rate T* is unique and static, or at least stable. Second that the shape of the Laffer Curve, at least in the vicinity of the current tax rate and T* is known or even knowable to policymakers. Lastly, that maximizing or even increasing tax revenue is a desirable policy goal.

      Minimising (not eliminating) administrative complexity is admirable, not least because punishing genuine mistakes tends to be counterproductive, but tax systems will always involve some level of complexity.

      Practically, NZ could quite easily increase GST and the lower brackets of income tax by a few % at least with no real ability of people to avoid either of those and little-to-no additional administrative burden, but don't because maximising tax revenue isn't really a current goal.

      • tsmithfield 9.1.1

        I see the Laffer Curve as more of a concept than an exact science.

        Sort of similar to arguments about more public holidays increasing efficiency. Obviously there is not a one-to-one correlation in such an argument. Otherwise 100% public holidays would equal optimal productivity, which obviously is nonsense.

        I suspect the Laffer Curve is specific to economies or even economic sectors, so that the optimal tax rate may fall at different positions on the curve depending on contingencies in particular economies.

        • Craig H 9.1.1.1

          Fair enough, it's certainly a reasonable point that there's a maximum amount of tax revenue a country can raise before avoidance/evasion outpaces additional revenue.

  10. Molly 10

    If we wanted a equitable tax system why don't we create one, and provide clear guidelines for?

    A reasonable tax system would also assess the externalities of a business – social, environmental, as well as the external benefits.

    We already have a method of calculating this with the SROI – Social Return on Investment, but the IRD can define others if necessary.

    Businesses can submit to a standard assessment, created and monitored by IRD, such as the B-Corporation does, and receive a rating – and a notice of what documents they need to provide to maintain that rating every year. Ratings can be reviewed in full every three years or so.

    https://www.bcorporation.net/en-us/certification

    B Corp Certification is a designation that a business is meeting high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials. In order to achieve certification, a company must:

    • Demonstrate high social and environmental performance by achieving a B Impact Assessment score of 80 or above and passing our risk review. Multinational corporations must also meet baseline requirement standards.
    • Make a legal commitment by changing their corporate governance structure to be accountable to all stakeholders, not just shareholders, and achieve benefit corporation status if available in their jurisdiction.
    • Exhibit transparency by allowing information about their performance measured against B Lab’s standards to be publicly available on their B Corp profile on B Lab’s website.

    It would be important to standardise both assessment and documentation.

    Benefit for businesses that have higher ratings in terms of the beneficial impacts on people, place and well-being? They pay lower taxes. After all, they are requiring less government resources in regards to any externalities.

    For smaller businesses a more streamlined process would be appropriate.

    Any business that didn't want to be rated when the opportunity came to do so, pays a standard 40% tax. So would any business where ownership is not in NZ, or uses an overseas entity to operate, which is not transparent.

    Another solution will have to be found for multi-nationals.

    (GST should be eliminated. It is the lower waged/beneficiaries income that effectively end up paying GST as an additional tax. They are the ones most likely to spend all their income from week to week, and they have no access to a tax vehicle to avoid it at all. If you wanted to retain GST on luxury items, then that's the most equitable place to do so. Items that have no particular benefit, and may be causing harm to produce or use.)

    Then look at the personal income rates of people, and how they earn to decide what their rates should be.

    The added benefit of using a sliding scale is particularly relevant in addressing climate change.

    Climate change transition – via tax reduction

    Without the need for targeted grants etc, those businesses who can show they are reducing their carbon footprint, are encouraged in that by their reduced tax. It is the most equitable way of supporting businesses who contribute to their community and the environment.

  11. Bearded Git 11

    Parker has ruled out a wealth tax so the review is a complete waste of time. Only a WT will gradually address the massive wealth disparity between the top 5 per cent and the rest

    • Craig H 11.1

      Even Piketty has given up on straight wealth taxes – too easy to dodge by moving to another country along with most of one's assets (particularly easy in the EU). Land taxes could be done though since land can't be moved.

      • Bearded Git 11.1.1

        Agree Craig that land tax is another option….moving counties is a pretty drastic way to avoid taxes.

        • Binders full of women 11.1.1.1

          It's not that drastic in that they probably mean 'move where your comapny is registered' to another country- not necessarily yourself. I know two individuals who operate businesses in NZ– one is an Aussie company, the other has an Israeli parent company.

          • Bearded Git 11.1.1.1.1

            Good point.

            This sounds a little like the ridiculous and scandalous "non-dom" scam in the UK.

            I still think a WT, like the one that was in the Green’s manifesto at the last election, should be part of the mix.

  12. DukeEll 12

    Taxing the wealthy more so this government can engage in more low value schemes with no outcome in mind, just to increase inflation and hurt the poorest more.

    It's hard to believe that you can give a government a majority and they fuck the country up this badly. soundest argument for removing the MMP threshold i've ever seen

    • roblogic 12.1

      you have the drivers of inflation wrong, the present difficulties are due to a pandemic and global instability and excessive profit taking by unregulated capitalist greed. i can’t see any alternative nz govt dealing with that better than Labour, frustratingly slow as they are

  13. McFlock 13

    HES doesn't pick up billionaires, but (by definition) it doesn't pick up homeless people, either. It's a rough snapshot of the population, with little detail in the fringes, because it's a survey of a few thousand households out of 1.8million. It has its uses, but looking at trace elements of the population isn't one of them.

    That aside, find 'em and tax 'em.

  14. mickysavage 14

    Scene setting but I suspect it was a personal effort and not a centrally coordinated one.

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  • Health volunteers recognised at Parliament
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  • New Zealand leadership contributes to significant progress at the WTO
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