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About two weeks ago Labour released its tax policy programme that it intends to implement if elected Government come 20 September. Predictably the increase in personal tax rates by 3% to 36%, and the confirmation of a capital gains tax, was widely criticised by senior National ministers as envy taxes and a hindrance to investment.
Whatever one’s personal view, the good news for voters is that for perhaps the first time in a number of elections there are now very clear differences between the two large political parties on taxation policy. While tax will unlikely be the determining factor of which party voters will support, it is at least good to see some very clear and distinct alternative thinking between the two main political parties. The most obvious difference being a capital gains tax.
There is little doubt that a capital gains tax will come to New Zealand eventually. Whether it is in 2015, 2018 or 2028, New Zealand will get a capital gains tax. We are one of the only developed countries not to have a capital gains tax and while it is true that it takes some years before it becomes a significant revenue contributor, once implemented it will influence investment decisions and also contribute towards our infrastructure requirements and social spending needs. It is difficult to rationally argue against a capital gains tax on economic grounds. However, the timing of when such a tax should be introduced, and the immediate impact this might have on investment, are issues that voters will be weighing up.
As someone that has a good understanding of how large companies structure their New Zealand business investments, it’s disappointing that almost all parties continue to seek to score political points at the expense of multi-nationals. Labour is no exception in making its tax policy announcement, highlighting its intention to provide additional funding to enable many specialist tax investigators to base themselves in the downtown offices of those multi-nationals considered to be serial tax avoiders. Apparently some $200 million per annum of additional tax revenue will be raised simply by doing this. Whether this is politics or a genuine expectation on the part of Labour’s finance spokesman David Parker is something that could be debated well into the night. National has not been innocent of similar point scoring and regularly highlights how much extra resource and effort it is putting into the fight against large multi-national tax avoidance.
The actual reality of the situation, however, is that our Inland Revenue Department is already perhaps one of the most aggressive revenue authorities in the developed world when it comes to applying the tax avoidance provisions to collect additional revenue. Where taxpayers legitimately take a tax position that the Commissioner does not like, all too often the response is not one of challenging the technical merits of the position, or recommending to Parliament a legislative response is required, it is to jump straight to applying the tax avoidance provisions to achieve the outcome the Commissioner considers just.
The impact of this approach on new investment in New Zealand is difficult to gauge, however, there is little doubt that foreign investors are not only aware of the “avoidance risks” of investing in New Zealand, they also place a risk factor on New Zealand investment that did not previously exist. Basing many specialist tax investigators at the premises of multi-nationals is therefore highly unlikely to bring in any more additional revenue than is already being collected; and certainly not the $200 million per annum that Mr Parker has budgeted.
Without fundamental reform of how we tax non-residents, there is little that can be done to collect tax revenue from companies that do not have a significant presence in New Zealand. The solution lies in making New Zealand a jurisdiction where multi-nationals wish to be based, not in applying the tax avoidance provisions to those companies that currently are based here.
Remembering that this “tax avoidance” initiative announced by Labour is about ensuring everyone pays their fair share of tax, it was disappointing that perhaps the most obvious source of additional revenue under the “paying your fair share” heading has been overlooked. Rather than seeking to gain headlines at the expense of multi-nationals, a much greater return on investment could be achieved by targeting additional resources at our black economy. Estimated at as much as $20 billion by some economists, if only GST was collected on just 20% of this, an additional $600 million more tax revenue would result. This is greater than all of Labour’s personal tax hike, the capital gains tax and the additional $200 million avoidance revenue combined. If income tax was also collected this additional revenue could potentially double. Reduce the black economy by half, and up to $3 billion of additional tax revenue could be collected.
If Government, regardless of political persuasions, is serious about ensuring everyone pays their fair share of tax, then surely this must be where the significant investment is made. Better use of technology and a more strategic approach to information sharing could result in enormous amounts of additional revenue coming from a large sector of society which illegally operates outside the tax system.
Grandstanding at the expense of multi-national companies, whose investment dollars New Zealand needs if we are to prosper long term, is not a good look and will do nothing to raise additional tax revenue or encourage new investment. Our Inland Revenue officials are already overzealous in their application of the tax avoidance rules and if anything they should be encouraged to pull back a tad rather than become even more aggressive.
Regardless of the winner on September 20, the challenge for the post-election Government is to grow our revenue base in a manner that does not discourage investment and truly does result in everyone paying their fair share. Tax should be used as a tool to encourage, not discourage investment….and anyone operating outside of the tax system should be the focus of significant additional audit activity.
This article is the opinion of KPMG Tax Partner Tony Joyce