Ordinary Australians are being screwed by the tax system – but don’t tell anyone.

We try not to indulge in conspiracy theories here at Crikey – but can’t resist a game of join the dots and have been doing a bit of thinking.

Remember all that fuss last November when Peter Costello invoked rarely used suppression powers to refuse a Freedom of Information request from the Oz for “key records reflecting directly on his performance as Treasurer”?

The Australian’s Freedom of Information Editor, Michael McKinnon, went to town.

He told how he had “spent more than 10 months attempting to obtain, under FOI, publicly unavailable Treasury documents concerning the operation of the first homebuyers scheme, income tax bracket creep and baseline information used in the preparation of the intergenerational report on population ageing.”

The Treasurer, however, had frustrated his request by issuing what is known as “conclusive certificate”.

McKinnon explained, “A conclusive certificate, according to Butterworths legal reporting service, has the effect of establishing that any given document is exempt from the FOI Act.”

And he told how “administrative law experts… said the only occasion on which they could recall a minister issuing a conclusive certificate involved former industrial relations minister Peter Reith’s denial of Labor access to consultants’ reports on the Howard Government’s waterfront reform program in 1997-98”.

In December, the Oz reported “The Administrative Appeals Tribunal was yesterday forced to abandon hearing appeals by The Australian to gain access to potentially damning Treasury documents after Peter Costello used extraordinary powers to suppress them.

“The Treasurer has moved to prevent the newspaper receiving 40 documents detailing the rising tax burden on ordinary workers.

“Claiming the release of the estimates might be ‘misleading or confusing’, Mr Costello has invoked special powers to block material sought under Freedom of Information laws.”

News Limited Chief Executive John Hartigan gave Costello a belting over the matter in a speech to the Australian Press Council at the time, and the matter faded from our minds.

Until the last few days.

The Saturday before last, the Australian ran big with an item headed “Howard’s battlers losing out”.

“John Howard’s battlers are going backwards, with new tax research showing that lower and middle-income earners suffered a reduction in real incomes of up to $430 a year between 2000 and 2001,” Patricia Karvelas and John Kerin reported.

“Analysis of Australian Taxation Office figures carried out by the Opposition, which adjusts earnings against increases in the cost of living, has found the incomes of Australia’s middle class shrank by between $150 and $430 a year.

“The figures also show the gap between the rich and poor has widened, with the incomes of the wealthiest 5 per cent of taxpayers increasing by $4159 a year in real terms over the same period and their average taxable incomes increasing from $146,661 to $150,820.

“Australian taxpayers on the average middle income of $31,066 lost $150 a year in real terms over the period, their income falling to $30,916.

“Further up the middle-income scale, the largest decline was suffered by those in the $50,000-to-$55,000 bracket, whose average taxable income fell from $52,471 to $52,041.

“Even those towards the top of the middle-income bracket suffered a decline. Those in the $63,000-to-$80,000 band saw their average taxable incomes fall $245 from $70,470 to $70,225.”

The article quoted Opposition Families spokesman Wayne Swan – but an idea has got stuck in our heads and just won’t go away.

Swan might have produced the research – but what if he had stumbled across the information after following a trail laid down by someone else? What if he’d followed a map drawn by, say, McKinnon?

It looks very much as if the documents Swan was working from are the very same documents as the ones McKinnon was pursuing.

The idea is intriguing.

We’re not alleging collusion. McKinnon is a dogged sleuther who clearly enjoys the backing of his bosses. Indeed, it’s a tick in News Limited’s favour that they are prepared to resource and support a Freedom of Information Editor. He’s clearly done all he can.

Swan however, is a Labor MP from Queensland – with all the colourful connotations that entails. We saw some of his links explored in quite a lot of detail by Chris Pyne’s Electoral Matters Committee not that long ago.

In the wake of that, is it too much to speculate that Swan might have some handy links, some inside running that let him get his hands on the goods McKinnon had chased for so long?

The documents he’s got are dynamite. You can see why Peter Costello is refusing the Australian’s requests if they are the one and the same.

The Treasurer is in a real bind.

He wants to be Prime Minister. John Howard won’t move on, and either he won’t or hasn’t yet been able to come up with some alternative policies that could give his leader a push out.

Instead, it seems from all this evidence that Costello is stuck defending Howard policies that are screwing the very people the little runt claims to champion – and being forced to take desperate moves to do so.

Peter Reith wanted to be Prime Minister, too – and he came to a very sticky end.

If he’s the only person who has previously done what the Treasurer is now doing, then Peter Costello must be sitting on a really dirty little secret.

You can find details of the Australian’s December round legal of legal combat at http://theaustralian.news.com.au/printpage/0,5942,8067066,00.html

The Swan research is at http://theaustralian.news.com.au/printpage/0,5942,8362346,00.html

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

12 weeks for $12