The view from Billinudgel

A serious conversation
Jolly Joe Hockey wants to have a little chat with you about taxation

So Jolly Joe Hockey wants us all to have a conversation about tax. He has got to be joking – perhaps he could re-don his Shrek ears just to confirm it.

Normal people would rather converse about root canal surgery than tax. Tax is a subject for lawyers and accountants, and everyday, healthy people don’t talk to them too much either.

“Tax” is not exactly a forbidden topic: it does come up from time to time. Silly people rail about taxation as government theft, and sensible people accept it as the price we pay for civilisation.

But that is not the language of the dining table or the pub. There, people talk about house prices, food, sport, sex – anything but tax. And this is why it is going to be so hard for Hockey to enthuse the masses.

The last person who tried was John Howard, who attempted to engender excitement about the GST back in 1998. Vast amounts of public money were extended towards a system what was, at the time, little more than a thought bubble, and a comprehensively broken promise at that.

We were told that the GST was not actually a new tax (which it was) but a new tax system, as though that somehow made it more palatable. The cynical saw it simply as a retrogressive rip-off. Some even misheard: who needed a newt axe, a hatchet for a salamander? A known drug user, Joe Cocker, was imported to reprise his mournful ditty ‘Unchain My Heart’. We didn’t.   

The fact that a much better salesman, Paul Keating, failed to convince even his own colleagues of the merits of the proposal should have been a warning to Howard, but he pressed ahead, and eventually squeaked across the election line with a minority of the popular vote.

Howard then actually had to legislate and implement the bloody thing, which turned into a dog’s breakfast. The Democrats finally passed the new tax, but with a slew of amendments and exemptions that effectively neutered its real advantages – those of universal and unavoidable obligations – and created a regime at least as confusing and resented as the one it replaced.

To make matters worse, most of the states simply refused to repeal their own taxes, which was meant to be the whole point of the exercise. And the Commonwealth, as was required by law, still had to hand over the loot and cop the public odium for its collection.

Now, some 17 years later, it’s on again: the states want more, the Commonwealth is desperate for revenue of its own and the public, still smarting from being bitten on the bum by a tax levied under false pretenses and apparently not big enough or wide enough anyway, is being asked to begin a polite conversation about how they should once more be clobbered.

Perhaps to soften us up, Jolly Joe could start with a few witticisms about, say, chemotherapy. That should just about set the tone for a bit of friendly persiflage, before moving on the really hard stuff about taxation for fun and profit. 


Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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