A consistent feature of opinion polls on issues of the day is the way voting intention skews people’s reactions — Labor voters don’t like what Coalition governments do and vice versa, regardless of their merits, particularly if you refer in the question specifically to a government initiative rather than describing it in more general terms. Issues on which there is voter unanimity, therefore, are unusual and deserve closer examination.

One such issue is company taxation, and in particular taxation of large and multinational companies. We’re in the midst of yet another push from groups like the Business Council of Australia to lower the company tax rate and shift more of the burden of taxation onto individuals — a long-standing goal of Australia’s biggest companies and the various commentators and lobby groups who represent them. But Australians have also become much better informed over the last 12 months, primarily due to the hard work of Fairfax journalists like Michael West and Neil Chenoweth, of how widespread tax avoidance by multinational corporations operating in Australia is, from the media to mining to IT.

This appears to have affirmed voters in their view that large companies, rather than needing to pay less tax, should pay more tax — or perhaps even just the tax they’re supposed to pay. This week’s Essential Report poll looks at views on taxation (full results here), and the unanimity among voters on certain sources of revenue is noteworthy. Labor and Coalition voters are indistinguishable in saying large international companies don’t enough tax — 74% Labor and 73% Coalition. Just 8% and 10%, respectively, say they pay the right amount; 2% each say they pay too much.

There’s not quite unanimity, but Labor and Coalition voters also broadly agree about large corporations. Some 72% of Labor voters and 60% of Coalition voters believe they don’t pay enough tax; 8% and 21% respectively believe they pay the right amount. They also agree on small business taxation: 40% of Labor voters and 36% of Coalition voters believe small business pay the right amount of tax; 39% and 43% believe they pay too much. They even agree on mining companies: 75% of Labor voters and 63% of Coalition voters believe they don’t pay enough tax; 9% and 18% believe they pay the right amount (demonstrating just how ineptly Labor prosecuted its mining tax agenda in 2010).

Another tax target also unites voters: 54% of Labor voters and 53% of Liberal voters think religious organisations don’t pay enough; 15% and 21% believe they pay about the right amount.

And even in areas where you would expect significant differences between Labor and Coalition voters, they’re not that big. Some 33% of Labor voters and 26% of Coalition voters think wealthy retirees don’t pay enough tax; 29% and 38% respectively think they pay the right amount; 66% of Labor voters and 56% of Coalition voters think people on high incomes don’t pay enough tax. The biggest difference is that Labor voters are much more likely to believe people on average or low incomes pay too much tax, whereas Coalition voters are more likely to say those groups pay the right amount of tax.

The common thread through this, of course, is that people want others to pay more tax, and in particular groups they believe have capacity to pay more without any serious impacts. Taxing companies more is a kind of victimless crime for voters, who don’t accept the idea that higher taxes on companies might affect employment. Voters are united in believing that taxing multinationals more would be good for the economy — 65% of Labor voters, 61% of Coalition voters, 66% of Greens voters and  62% of other voters believe forcing large multinationals to pay more tax would be good for the economy. The view that people on high incomes don’t pay enough tax may also be partly driven by people’s tendency to think that their own income level, even if high by Australian standards, is merely average — it’s people earning even more than them who should be paying more tax, not themselves.

This is why Labor has moved into this territory recently, pushing rules to address the use of debt by multinational companies to avoid tax. Inevitably, Labor’s proposals were attacked by business lobby groups like the Business Council, which given the measures had been criticised by some as not going far enough to make a substantial difference to multinational tax dodging, is in effect the seal of approval for them. It’s also why Joe Hockey, who has talked a lot of about multinational tax avoidance but done little about it, criticises Labor’s proposals at his peril. The mining tax debacle showed that Labor can stuff up anything, but there’s strong voter support for hitting multinationals much harder.

Peter Fray

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