Can Mr Hockey be saved by a big idea?

There’s a very interesting article in The New Daily today, about what our Treasurer Mr Hockey might be up to.

It suggests Mr Hockey’s insistence that Australians spend six months working for the government is a deliberate ploy to turn us against income tax, which will dovetail with an idea from the Commission of Audit:

“providing the States with access to part of the Commonwealth’s personal income tax base.”

The Commission expands on that idea like this:

“A further option to increase State source income is a combined Commonwealth-State personal income tax, which could include providing the States with a designated share of personal income tax raised, or allowing the States to levy a State income tax surcharge (with the Commonwealth ‘making room’ so that overall income tax rate need not rise).”

The article‘s logic linking recent statements to this policy idea may be a tiny bit convoluted, but that doesn’t make it necessarily false, and it is well worth remembering that there is a Federation White Paper lurking, due for completion this year.

The first issues paper of the Federation White Paper was released just prior to Christmas (and I mean just, it came out on the 23rd of December). The amount of coverage it got was slightly less than the NORAD Santa tracking radar. Is the idea that the Abbott government going to reform our whole federation as fictional as the man in the red suit?

Maybe it’s the best idea this government has left.  States spend all the money, but can’t raise enough. This is bad from an accountability perspective, and also because it diverts effort to rent-seeking. States spend time scrapping over the GST shares and the conditions on Specific Purpose Payments.

States don’t appear set to introduce a land tax, which I reckon is the only other solution. So giving them the power to raise their own income taxes is a potentially sensible move. This is a classic small-l liberal solution, allowing each state to set the income tax that best suits its needs, and also encouraging competition between jurisdictions. Vertical Fiscal Imbalance could be over!

(I’ve always thought Vertical Fiscal Imbalance was a terrible bit of terminology and it should be known as something more catchy. I quite like calling it the Federal-State Tax Mismatch.)

This could be the high-minded idea that the Coalition need to administer a shock to the electorate, to make people realise they are actually full of ideas, not just a team of cutters. If done right it could deliver positive media alongside well-liked (probably Labor) state premiers.

The only problem now is that the narrative is all but set. Mr Hockey is seen as a hardline right-wing ideologue, so even a rather sensible plan to optimise subsidiarity will likely be seen through that lens. Will Mr Hockey gamble and introduce this idea – doubtless new to many voters and potentially confused with a tax hike – in these conditions?

What would really happen if we gave more tax and spend power to the states?

I published this controversial piece a while ago: Four really awesome, quite left-wing ideas from the Commission of Audit.

I got a lot of thoughtful responses on the twitter.

The audit suggested giving ten percentage points of income taxation to the states to raise or lower as they pleased. I argued:

Putting more tax and spending power in the hands of a demonstrably more left-wing level of government will likely lead to more spending on – and better outcomes in – health and education.

ACTU economist Matt Cowgill wasn’t going to let that wash, and tweeted:

MattCowgillMay 02, 11:11am via Web

@jasemurphy I completely disagree that giving income tax powers to the states would be “left wing” or have progressive results.

A bunch of other comments followed.

This is what’s awesome about the information superhighway. You get to talk to super smart people who have done a lot of thinking, who compel you to think deeper and refine your views.

I concede my analysis was partial.

But today’s comments by Martin Parkinson, Treasury Secretary, have brought me back to this topic.

“the Budget flags that potentially significant changes in the distribution of responsibilities for schools and hospitals could arise from the forthcoming Federation and Tax White Papers.”

Is it a good idea to give more taxing and spending power to the states? Now I’ve thought more about it, I’m not going to die in a ditch for the idea. But I think it deserves to be considered, not dismissed out of hand.

Here’s a list of possible outcomes, arranged into pros and cons.

PROS

More tax and spend at state level

When I first wrote on this topic, nobody took issue with my point that letting states set taxes would lead to more tax and spend.

Just this week, My old boss Mat Dunckley published a piece about former premiers’ support for a higher GST. There’s mixed evidence, given Mr Napthine’s comments in the press about not raising the GST but it’s hard to imagine Labor state governments would not tax more – whether on income or goods and services – to spend more if they could.

If you believe publicly provided services are good, you may believe this would lift national living standards

Because Australia’s poor states are also small, I contend extra money for state schools in rich states would be more useful for the disadvantaged than extra money for state schools in poor states.

Sure, a smaller proportion of Victorians are very poor than Tasmanians. 15 per cent of Victorians rely on the government for 90 per cent of their income, compared to 21 per cent of Tasmanians.

But the absolute number of people in need in Victoria is seven times higher. (15 per cent of the population of Victoria is 750,000 people. 21 per cent of the population of Tasmania is 100,000 people.)

Keeping one’s focus trained on equalising between states may distract from equalising between people.

Self determination

Consider Europe. Would it really be a good idea to equalise funding between Sweden and Greece? You’d help Greece, but dim a beacon of quality in publicly-funded systems, and disenfranchise the people of Sweden.

I have in the past been accused of excessive parochialism, and I really do identify as a Victorian, but I think letting different states set different priorities can be good. Should not Victorians be able to set our taxing and spending policies without being compromised by Queenslanders?

Imagine if our federal government set health policy, but health funding came from ASEAN or the G20, along with a range of rules. Would that really be satisfactory?

More accountability for state governments.

State governments are a bit of a joke at the moment. A technocratic solution would be to kill them off and locate responsibility for everything with the federal government. Given that won’t happen, and we’re stuck paying state MPs salaries, can we not use them?

Politicians with big goals and deep skills play the game federally. Relatively little press attention is given to state governments. This is a shame because they have domain over much of what one thinks of as the role of government.

A system that really gave state governments power would simultaneously create an expectation for them to deliver.

More opportunity for innovation

State governments are bundled up inside the COAG system, and trussed with conditional grants. Their policy making freedom is curtailed, by decree of the level of government that holds the purse strings.

But smaller governments can excel. If this were not true, Malaysia would be a disaster compared to Vietnam, Switzerland a shambles compared to Germany.

Left alone to experiment, Australia’s states could model their education system on the Finnish system, the Korean system, a version of the Montessori method, or indeed become the next global model themselves. No doubt some would go backwards for a time, but neither is a the status quo an iron-clad defence against standards slipping.

CONS

Differences in outcomes between jurisdictions.

Matt Cowgill tweeted a link to a terrific story he wrote about the US school system. He uses the HBO show The Wire to demonstrate how a poor area can be left behind under a system where small jurisdictions each fund their own education system.

This is a powerful point. But Matt’s argument –  People of equal means and need should have same access to services regardless of state – sets a bar we do not currently clear.

Poor states go into suffering spiral.

The reason we have “horizontal fiscal equalisation” is that without it smaller, poorer states will tend to get further and further behind the rest. Lacking both economies of scale and a wealthy population, they face a tough choice between high taxes and good services, or low taxes and bad services. Both options will hurt living standards and the outcome gap between a Hobarter and a Sydney-sider will grow even wider.

Sorting effect

After a few years of differential tax and spend settings, a possible “sorting” effect could emerge.

People who want more services move to left wing states (e.g. Victoria) and people who want less tax move to right wing states (e.g. Queensland). This could polarise the whole nation, a la Americana.

I’m not going to try to tally the pros and cons column here. But I hope you feel, as I do, that this has been a useful exercise. Feel free to engage in another round of debate!