There will be many men assembling tomorrow in Canberra to discuss the tax system they think we need. There are some women, almost half of the community contingent, but well below in all other categories except the ALP contingent, making maybe 50 out of 187 attendees. The gender imbalance reflects male domination in most top jobs in business and the other organisations that have most of the seats at the forum.

This affects the agenda because too few feminists engage in tax and transfer debates to advocate for concerns about its social impacts and some who make the top jobs take on the current macho biases. A few men recognise the importance of social input e.g. Ken Henry, who stated in 2009 that the tax and transfer system should be ”a reflection of the kind of society we aspire to be”.

It appears social and gender equity will be well down the agenda. There may be the odd mention of women, in particular how to ensure we contribute more paid work, but little or no mention of whether society will have the resources to be, and be seen to be, fairer so government may be more trustworthy. The recent Scanlon survey showed a rapid diminution of belief in our government’s goodwill, with nearly 70% failing to believe that “government could be trusted to do the right thing for the Australian people almost always or most of the time”. This is a drop of 20% in the past couple of years!

Given our good economic data, it is likely that social unease is the basis of this distrust. Therefore, the tax forum should prioritise systems with good social objectives, which makes it a feminist concern. This does not mean a focus on narrowly defined “women’s issues” but advocating for the forum agenda to include often undervalued “soft” feminised social policy priorities. The current primary players, powerful business lobbies and political organisations, set macho priorities, even when the leaders include a few women. Their economic goals are limited because the ideology values markets, so policy is not the  means for making society more civil, but as wealth growing ends beyond question.

Just increasing wealth may result in a more unequal and unfair society, with little attention to the valuing of care, both paid and unpaid, decent wages, good social relationships with mutual respect and a sense of belonging. These connections between people are the basis of a good society, so the tax transfer systems need to contribute to the public’s view of how fairly money is collected and distributed. The 40-odd community representatives will be the only group pushing for adequate payments for those not in paid work, reduced tax avoidance via inequitable tax concessions on super and rich people’s investments to create enough money to fund growing social needs.

The message to the rest is think through some components of a fairer tax system. Like:

  • Adequacy: ensuring there is enough total tax collected to meet the diverse needs of an equitable public sphere: Australia is a low tax country, sixth from the OECD bottom rung and so we spend less than comparable countries on many services such education, early childhood, income support and health care.
  • More progressive taxation, rather than flat or regressive taxes such as the GST, and stop offering tax cuts when we need more cash in the public kitty.
  • An integrated system of payments, concessions/subsidies and taxation valuing tax foregone, and direct welfare payments on a similar basis, as this balances tax foregone in concessions for the rich and direct welfare payments for the less well off.  As more women than men draw welfare and family payments, and more men avoid tax through  super and other earnings concessions, this is a gender issue too.
  • Better funding for not-for-profit community and social services so they can pay fair wages and payments to often female-dominated workforces rather than relying on the goodwill of workers and their commitment to their clients (equal pay for work of equal value).
  • Recognising the time demands of parenting, sole parenting and carer roles by ensuring payments are adequate and fit with often reduced paid work options
  • Offering a decent basic income for all, including working age people who can’t access employment rather than using inadequate income to “force” employment.
  • Making sure withdrawal rates on means-tested payments do not create poverty traps for taking on or increasing paid work income.
  • Reviewing the fairness of assumed couple interdependence in the transfer system versus individual income imposts in the tax system.
  • Retracting the 9% compulsory superannuation contribution being raised to 12% as it increases unfairness and disadvantages low-income earners in their current incomes and later savings.

Increasing our tax take as a proportion of GDP to cover growing social needs is not easy in times of neurotic desire for cuts and surpluses. However, fairness requires more money in the public pot as well as trusting government enough to be willing to pay more tax. Hopefully, something visionary will emerge rather than self-interested wealth grabs.

Peter Fray

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