The stream of leaks about Tuesday’s budget suggest that the process was still in turmoil until the last minute. If the last round of leaks are broadly accurate, it looks like a budget that will fit fairly neatly into a class war frame. On the tax side, the government has long been floating a cut in company tax rates and the removal of the budget emergency levy on incomes above $180k. At the last minute, they have apparently decided on an increase in the threshold (currently $80 000) for the 37 per cent marginal tax rate.
Presumably, Morrison and Turnbull think that this will be a vote-winner for people concerned about being pushed into higher tax brackets, or already in the higher brackets. How may such people are there, and who are they? Let’s suppose that the budget measures compensate for the bracket creep since Labor left office. The income tax statistics for 2012-13 showed that, at that time, 18.6 per cent of tax returns reported income of $80 000 per year.
Assuming a 10 per cent increase in nominal incomes since then, I estimate that around 5 per cent of taxpayers would have entered the 37 per cent bracket since then. Of course, most of these would be paying 37 per cent on only a tiny fraction of their income, but people don’t always judge these things sensibly. Still, a budget measure targeted at 5 per cent of taxpayers (a good deal less than 5 per cent of the electorate, even taking account of the fact that many are in couple families) doesn’t seem like an election winner.
The real punch of the measure is that everyone on incomes currently over $80 000 will benefit. Assuming a 10 per cent increase, the full benefit of $360 per year (the 4.5 cent difference in marginal rates, applied to $8000) would go to everyone with a taxable income above $88000. That’s about 25 per cent of the 12 million who file income tax returns or 3 million people.
Those above $180 000 will also benefit from the removal of the 2 per cent emergency levy, which is a much bigger deal for the beneficiaries. Anyone earning over $200k will gain at least $400 from this measure, more than from the tax cut
The threshold change I’ve calculated would cost around $1 billion a year to benefit a relatively small group of voters, most of whom are already Liberals and the rest of whom (including me, for example) are unlikely to be all that responsive to tax cuts.
As a political strategy, this doesn’t make obvious sense. I suspect, however, that most politicians and political commentators (particularly, though not only, on the conservative side) make their political estimates on the basis of people they know, many of whom are exercised about bracket creep, and very few of whom make less than $80 000 a year. I recall studies where members of the political class were asked to estimate the median Australian income, and got the number drastically wrong. The social bubble is reinforced by the intellectual bubble created by an increasingly fact-free rightwing world view.
Bubble thinking isn’t exclusively a problem of the political right. But it’s more prevalent there than at any time in the recent past. It may well prove the Turnbull government’s undoing.
* Peter Martin makes the same point about median incomes. After seeing a lower number in his article, I’ve corrected my original estimate of the budget cost, which was too high.