Well this won’t do much to dispel the impression of a cautious, indeed risk-averse, government.

The politics of tax reform are always complex. Winners barely raise a murmur, while losers shout through a media megaphone.  Scare campaigns are up and running before simple facts about economic efficiency and social equity get out of bed.

And the last mob that risked really serious reform came within an ace of becoming a one-term government.

The Government’s solution is to structure its package based on minimising the losers and maximising the winners.

The losers? Resource companies.

The winners? Well, pretty much everyone else, led by small businesses and the rest of the corporate sector.

Even the states are winners — especially WA and Queensland. If you were under the impression State Governments had been bribed quite enough of late, bad luck: they’ll be getting their mitts on yet another Commonwealth handout, in the form of a three-quarters of a billion-dollar infrastructure fund intended to help meet the cost of major resource-related developments.

Not much thought for the environment or climate change here, by the way — this is all about getting better road, rail and port facilities to help dig up our stuff and ship it out to booming Asian economies.

The Government is even hoping it can split the resources sector by offering more help to smaller companies and more marginal projects, while going after the billions earned by the BHP Billitons and Rio Tintos.

As we saw during the CPRS debacle, the big resource companies are among the most powerful lobbyists in the land. The Government has promised an extensive consultation period on the new super profits tax — virtually guaranteeing significant aspects of the new system will be watered down as the Minerals Council, the coal companies and BHP and Rio swing into action. The Western Australian Liberal Party can look forward to a surge in donations.

The superannuation changes will win much favour within the union movement, and might further weaken financial services industry opposition to the slate of reforms announced by Chris Bowen at the start of the week, courtesy of the additional billions that will be pumped into super from 2014. But it doesn’t have a lot to do with the Henry Review’s attitude toward retirement incomes.

There’s enough material in the Review to furnish a scare campaign of sorts for the Coalition, particularly around road user charges, but the Government has taken the more violently politically offensive issues off the table, including the explosive issues of imposing a Commonwealth land tax on family homes or returning to the (completely sensible) indexation of fuel excise abandoned by the Howard Government in a panic in early 2001.

But really, the Government’s response will ensure that it’s more or less the Coalition and the big miners that are entirely hostile, and no one else. The Government has even tried to undercut a looming Coalition campaign to win support from small business, by giving them a company tax cut earlier than everyone else and providing a handout of a $5000 instant depreciation.

All the talk in recent months has focussed on how politically damaging the Henry Review would be for the Government. But tax reforms are never innately damaging — it’s their packaging and selling that wins or loses votes. By concentrating on a low-impact, limited-loser set of reforms, the Government has ducked the harder work of achieving a significantly more efficient tax system, but also minimised the political damage it will sustain between now and the election, which is the only game that really counts for Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd.

Having abandoned the CPRS, and knocked off health reform, and having finished dealing with the effects of a little thing called the GFC, the Government finds itself in need of a narrative to take to the election, a story that explains why it wants a second term and what it will do with one.  It started the year emphasising health, productivity and participation in an intergenerational context. Its response to the Henry Review kinda sorta fits into that, particularly with the increase in compulsory superannuation. But in some ways it’s a throwback to one of Labor’s major themes of the 2007 election: that the mining boom had been squandered by the Howard Government.

A compelling narrative it ain’t, but there’s few monsters here to frighten voters either.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey