It’s like some Dallas inspired meta-event. Tuning in to the drama called National Affairs, only to find that the last season of federal politics with its poor ratings, asinine plot arcs, infantile dialogue and characters so vacuous you wonder how they escaped from their bumper sticker — well, it was all just a bad dream.

We simply awake to find that we have a tax forum, filled with experts — experts that aren’t derided because of their expertise — constructively discussing  the problems we face with our current tax system, and doing so with a manner of civility and gravitas that we’ve all recently become unaccustomed to.

Yet even more unusual compared to the recent past of our nightmares — it was a debate by experts and not pretenders.

We now have an expert committee that over the short term will explore mechanisms to constructively treat business losses in a volatile economy struggling to adapt to the dislocative effects of a resource boom. And over the medium term it deals with broader business tax problems and explores whether a program of targeted measures rather than an homogenous corporate tax cut might produce superior results.

Treasury, the ATO and the Council for Small Business will bang heads together and create a blueprint to reduce tax complexity for small business. NSW and Qld start the long national process of reforming the menagerie of inefficient and often deleterious state taxes. The Not-For-Profit Reform Council has been told to analyse reform options for the state support of the massively important  non-profit sector. An independent Tax Studies Institute will be created to look into the wider architecture of the tax system itself, and to undertake serious empirical research into ways it can be simplified, using the best intellectual resources from our universities and elsewhere. The government will start to investigate annuities and deferred annuities being brought into the retirement system to provide more income certainty to the provision of private pensions. They’ll appoint an independent chair of the advisory board overseeing the ATO, anchoring the tax office into a bit more commercial reality. And finally, the government will lift the tax-free threshold to $21,000 when the fiscal position allows, enabling the removal of the Low Income Tax Offset.

While some of these initiatives were in the works earlier, others were not, and this provided the opportunity to collate related issues and programs together into a single thought orbit. Yet a forum such as this — bringing national debate back into the hands of people that actually know what they’re talking about — also produced some benefits many of us might not realise.

Many of the participants at the tax forum aren’t actually used to debating in challenging environments, spending most of their time either speaking to friendly audiences and preaching to the converted, or waging “debate” through media releases, media releases pretending to be newspaper columns or through short five minute interviews on current affairs programs that no one watches and fewer still care about.

Over the last two days, these folks had to confront some of their vested interests being dismantled before their eyes. There was no slick advertising to fall back on, no market tested slogans to fill capability gaps — it was naked policy debate where people had to own what they were selling. When their products started to stink, they had to own that too, in front of everyone.

A more healthier thing for public policy you will never see.

The government shouldn’t stop here — every four to six months they should convene a similar forum on a different topic (ageing population would be a good suggestion since sectors don’t talk to each other and are independently all trying to reinvent the wheel). Again, filling it with experts and not pretenders, filling it with people highly knowledgeable in their field and letting public policy ideas flow, letting solutions to problems be suggested and letting problems be exposed that the government might not even be aware exist.

Importantly, don’t invite politicians — not everything about government is about electoral politics. Let the Coalition or the Greens send a friendly think tank on their behalf. The absence of juvenile politics was one of the key reasons why the tax forum worked so well in the first place.

The other was that it was debate by experts, not pretenders. Debate by professionals, not professional noise makers in politics, the media or various flavours of rent-a-hack  — which goes a long way toward explaining  just why so many of the pretenders over the last few days are acting so aggrieved.

If you want to improve the debate in Australia, if you want real public debate in this country rather than the dismal sloganeering of the unhinged, this is a marvelous template. Debate informed by professional knowledge, professional experience and professional conduct.

On the other hand, if you want more Ray Hadley, Alan Jones, The Australian and the rest of the low-rent zoo peddling horseshit as a substitute then you know exactly what to do — absolutely nothing.

Peter Fray

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