What should Scott Morrison do with his first budget tomorrow? Here are seven ideas to return Australia to fiscal responsibility.

1. Land tax

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A tax that raises billions, targets the wealthy ahead of the poor, and doesn’t inhibit activity we want to encourage. The name of that tax is land tax, and it is very much overdue.

The sticking point will be the cash-poor, asset-rich grandma who would be forced to eat rice and beans to pay an enormous land tax bill. Whatever ugly exemptions or fat payments are necessary to make that problem go away are tiny compared to the long-term upside. Just do it.

REVENUE: $15 billion-plus a year.

2. Carbon tax

Defund Direct Action and replace it with a broad-based carbon tax linked to the global price. This will have superior fiscal, environmental and economic effects and is likely to have the support of just about everybody (except maybe a few editors at certain tabloids).

EXPENSE/REVENUE: Neutral after compensation.

3. Infrastructure bonds

If this is not in fact the centrepiece of Tuesday’s budget I will be shocked. This government needs to splash some cash in order to win votes — the lesson of the austere 2014 budget will not be forgotten. The only way it can appear to do so without also blowing up the deficit is by having debt held off-budget, for example, by an enlarged and empowered Infrastructure Australia funded by bond issuance.

There has never been a more exciting time to raise funds on global markets; global long-term interest rates are stuck down in the weeds. With inflation currently dangerously low and falling, there is room for big projects in the Australian economy. One crazy idea I’ve heard around the traps is a high-speed internet network that reaches every home in Australian. Perhaps that is just the sort of wild idea global bond markets would fund?

EXPENSE/REVENUE: Neutral on the budget.

4. Competition reform, including road user charging

Where possible, shifting the economy towards making use of price signals makes very good sense.

For example, instead of using “willingness to wait in traffic” as your criterion for who gets to drive on the freeways in peak hour, we should use pricing. Much like there are Wallys with Water, we also have Trevors in Traffic. Some of these people can and should travel at other times or on other routes to get out of the way of people who can’t. Price signals will help sort this out.

Other areas where competition reform could be valuable include pharmacies, aviation, coastal shipping, airport parking, patent and copyright protection.

REVENUE: $10 billion-plus from charging to use government-owned assets.

5. Universal basic income (UBI) scoping study

Optimising the use of markets — for carbon, roads, etc — is important for anyone who wants to use resources efficiently. But it has risks; markets are efficient, not kind, gentle or moral.

The more we use markets, the more we need to actively prevent disadvantage. We ought to invest in the world’s best health and education systems. Our welfare net could also use reform. The best way may well be a UBI. This is an idea whose time has come — it is getting a lot of attention around the world.

It works as basically a big payment to all Australians. For those with no market earnings it comes as cash. For those with earnings, it essentially operates as a negative tax rate. It would be very costly. But a big study would help us figure out how and when it can be afforded.

EXPENSE: $50 million.

6. Federal ICAC

Much like an inquiry into trade unions, a royal commission into banks will likely find a few bad apples in a few places and a range of bad practice that we already kind of know about. A proper, independent, permanent commission against corruption could achieve far more.

EXPENSE: $50 million each year.

7. Sew up the gaping holes in our tax system.

The Panama Papers show us only a tiny fraction of what is likely to be an enormous global issue: personal tax avoidance. Company tax avoidance is in the spotlight, too.

It is true the rich already pay by far — by far — the most tax. Maybe we would simply be overwhelmed by revenue and could easily lower taxes on companies and the very wealthy if we were collecting what they owe — who knows?

Let’s start this process by first chasing down every last cent they owe and then deciding.

REVENUE: $? But potentially heaps.

Other strong ideas might be to fund Gonski; delay major defence acquisitions; address super tax concessions; shut Manus and Nauru; broaden the GST; legalise and tax low-risk recreational drugs; fund CSIRO and researchers, and cut subsidies to private schools.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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