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A new report published by the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union analysing the impacts of taking GST off fresh fruit and vegetables concludes that the policy would be expensive, complicated, poorly targeted and would see most of the benefits going to supermarkets rather than consumers.
Using a collection of the leading research on GST and VAT systems from around the world, the report concludes:
> Evidence of significant litigation internationally over the categorisation of certain food products demonstrates the significant cost and bureaucratic complexity of determining whether different items should be zero-rated or not.
> The inherent complexity of a GST system with a zero-rating regime adds significant compliance costs to small and medium sized businesses who currently enjoy the benefits of a system that is simple to calculate and administer.
> Taking GST off fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables will not see a 100% pass through to consumers and is likely to be substantially less than this. Any pass-through of less than 100% therefore leads to wasted money which would be more effectively spent on other social policy tools such as an increase in Working for Families payments.
> The lack of competition in the New Zealand grocery sector means that consumers are even less likely than their international counterparts to see the GST reduction result in lower prices at the checkout.
> Removing GST off food items is a poorly targeted way of reducing the cost of living for those most in need with most of the benefit going to those on higher incomes.
> Undermining the GST system for fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables is likely to lead to a slippery slope where lobbyists push for more exemptions to be made to other products such as other basic foods, sanitary products and children’s nappies which would further erode the efficiency and simplicity of the current system.
In response to the report, Taxpayers’ Union Campaigns Manager, Callum Purves, said:
“A flat-rate GST system with few exemptions is one of the few things economists have been able to almost universally agree on as being good policy. It is a shame that certain politicians and political parties are willing to go against the overwhelming consensus for a policy that supposedly focus groups well.
“The Finance Minister’s own comments in relation to GST before the policy was announced shows that he knows creating GST exemptions is a bad idea, a sentiment which was also shared in earlier comments from former Revenue Minister David Parker and former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. The Labour Party strategy seems to be one of simply hoping that New Zealanders are too silly to see this policy for what it is.
“If the Government wants to bring down grocery prices for struggling New Zealanders, they should focus on removing overseas investment barriers for supermarkets, particularly those relating to the purchase of land, and also cutting the red tape in our resource management system that make it so costly and complex for any major developments to occur.”
The Taxpayers’ Union can reveal that as part of the Tax Working Group appointed by Grant Robertson, and chaired by the late Michael Cullen, Treasury and IRD conducted analysis on what percentage of exempting GST from certain goods would actually be passed on to consumers.
The expert advice paper, concluded that while cuts to GST/VAT rates are passed on, exemption or multi-rate policies see just 30% of the tax relief passed on to shoppers.
This research estimated that changes in the general VAT rate were on average fully passed through to consumers. However, changes in rates for specific goods and services were on average not fully passed through and had an estimated average pass through rate of approximately 30 percent.
Taxpayers’ Union Executive Director Jordan Williams said:
“A pass through rate of 30% to consumers means that 70% of Labour’s GST carve-out would be captured by the supermarkets. Labour costed the policy at $2.2 billion over the four-year forecast period, so supermarkets in effect get a tax cut of $1.54 billion while consumers enjoy just a fraction.
“This isn’t just a hole, it’s a weevil in Labour’s fruit and vege policy. Supermarkets already enjoy super profits thanks to regulatory taxes like the RMA that prop up their duopoly and put off newcomer competition. They are the last group that Labour should be supporting.
“Here at the Taxpayers’ Union we want tax cuts more than any other group. But we shouldn’t sacrifice what is the best GST or VAT system world over in terms of compliance costs and complexity. We favour income tax relief and other measures that cut out the middle man, and let kiwi workers keep more money in their pockets.
“This will be one of the many reasons Grant Robertson does not like this policy. Deep down Chris Hipkins will also know the policy is shoddy. He should put good policy over good focus group feedback and abandon the folly in favour of policies that will really help those struggling to afford the groceries.”
Greg Harford, the General Manager of Public Affairs at Retail New Zealand has drafted the following on proposals to reduce the threshold for GST for imported goods purchased online.
Many people agree that tax is a necessary evil that we need to provide core Government services. Many people also think that, if we have taxes, they should be as low as possible, and enforced both fairly and consistently.
Retail NZ was interested to see that the Taxpayers’ Union is running a poll on whether the Government should reduce the threshold at which GST is collected on imported goods. At the moment, a loophole in the law means that if you buy $399 worth of books from your local bookshop, you pay GST, but if you buy them from a foreign website, GST is not paid. This means that those shopping in local stores pay more than their fair share of GST, while those shopping online from offshore don’t pay their share. It also means that the New Zealand Government is effectively applying a reverse tariff against New Zealand businesses, and that it’s harder for Kiwi firms to compete for Kiwi business.
Retailers have long argued that the Government should close this loophole. New Zealand (and Australia) are well out of line with international best practice on this, and it is time for change.
It has been suggested that the arguments against this are that collecting GST would be administratively burdensome, that the tax collected may be less than the cost of collection, and that consumers will be forced to wait longer for the delivery of products.
The administrative question is a bit of a red-herring. Retail NZ and Booksellers NZ have been lobbying for the GST registration of foreign companies selling to New Zealand – so GST would be collected by foreign websites in exactly the same way that it is collected by New Zealand-domiciled retailers. This would largely remove administrative cost (the cost would be no different to the costs imposed on domestic businesses), ensure that the tax collected is greater than the cost of collection, and ensure that most goods would flow freely across the border, without delay or inconvenience to consumers.
The big foreign etailers are all in a position to “switch on” sales tax collection for New Zealand (they do it for some other jurisdictions). If the major etailers registered for GST, this would mean that GST would be collected on the vast majority of items imported into New Zealand.
The current process may, however, be required for goods purchased from boutique companies that do not register for GST. However the volume of items processed in this way is expected to be very small. This would, we expect, lead to a substantial reduction in costs to Government overall, which would be good news for taxpayers.
No tax system is perfect. GST is not a new tax. It has long been a tax on the consumption of goods and services in New Zealand. Some people may wish to have an argument about whether GST is a fair or appropriate tax system for our country. But if we have such a tax, it should be levied universally, irrespective of where the transaction takes place.
I was slightly concerned to read in a Taxpayers’ Union email that foreign websites could be banned from trading in New Zealand. To my knowledge, this has never been mentioned in the debate either here or in Australia, and we would certainly not support such an approach. We are not against online shopping, but we are concerned about a tax that is unfairly applied and seriously disadvantages New Zealand businesses.
Our point in relation to the 'banning' of foreign websites is that it is the inevitable conclusion if a foreign domicile website (say one offering music downloads) simply refuses to apply NZ's tax law. We of course hope that it never happens!
In recent days we have heard how NZ First leader Winston Peters wants to take GST off some foods, but not others. While any reduction in the tax-burden should be welcomed, this picking and choosing of which items should include a sales tax causes unnecessary confusion for suppliers, retailers and consumers.
Take the humble burrito.
It’s a Mexican staple; a food that’s becoming increasingly popular in New Zealand. And in New York State there is significant debate (think tax lawyers and accountants) on the question of whether it counts as a sandwich for tax reasons.
When politicians pick and choose sale taxes willy-nilly there are often unforeseen circumstances. In New York this has meant that the eight percent “sandwich tax” has become applicable to burritos. It’s also led to numerous hours of government officials and tax experts debating the trivial point of just what constitutes a sandwich.
At a cost of at least $3 billion, removing GST on items of Mr Peters’ choosing is a big-ticket policy. But as with New York sandwiches, there would be endless regulations, descriptions and exemptions.
If politicians want to truly reduce the tax burden facing New Zealanders, they should start by cutting sales or income taxes across the board. Playing politics with your pantry is an expensive exercise that leads to some truly bizarre outcomes.
This morning's NZ Herald covers an opinion poll it commissioned on public support for lowering the threshold GST is applicable to for purchases made on foreign websites:
A Herald-DigiPoll survey this month found that almost 55 per cent of the 750 New Zealanders polled had bought goods from foreign websites.Of those surveyed, 53 per cent said the $400 exemption should not be removed as the tax would be too inconvenient to collect.
Surprisingly, just under 40 per cent - 38.5% - agreed with the view of the Retailers Association that the 15 per cent GST should be applied to all overseas online purchases to level the playing field for local retailers.
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