Post-mortem on the RSPT II: observations and lessons

Economist Paul Frijters reflects on the controversial Super Profits tax and the lessons the public and the government can take from the circus that surrounded the issue.

In May of this year, the Australian government announced a tax increase on the mining company whereby all profits over the long-run bond rate would be taxed at 40%, with off-sets for losses. This tax on the rent created by the boom in mineral prices was spent on reductions in the company tax rate and on various overall subsidies. Following a fairly extensive campaign by the big mining companies and their representatives such as the Minerals Council Australia, the government in July negotiated directly with the three major mining companies and reduced the planned tax increases in return for the explicit promise to stop campaigning. If we compare the revenues the tax would have gotten (under the revised price estimates) with the current expected revenue, it seems radio silence has come at a cost close to 5 billion dollars per year. In terms of discounted values, every dollar spent on campaigning by the mining industry seems to have paid off (ball park figure) something like a thousand dollars in less tax.
Elsewhere, I have talked about how the media campaign was made up of false arguments and wild exaggerations. Essentially, jobs and investments in mining were never truly at stake and it was a straightforward fight over money with on the one hand a few dozen billionaires who stood to lose and on the other hand millions of small businesses and consumers who stood to gain but of whom a fairly large slice was scared into thinking they were going to lose.
1. One lesson from this saga is that negative campaigning works, particularly in an election year. The basic recipe for protecting privilege has been applied here: muddle the argument; roll out experts with minor doubts and represent those doubts as sincere opposition; get the masses to believe something unfair is happening and they have something to lose; and never once talk about money. Not once did the media blitz even try to run the argument that it is fair for billionaires to make more money out of Australia’s mineral resources. The eventual outcome, 5 billion dollar less taxes for the mining industry per year, was never put forward as the goal of the campaign. Will the mining companies give this bonanza to charity? Don’t count on it.

2. The super-wealthy stood fairly united. As I remarked in an earlier blog, other wealthy organisations who make their money from rents, like property developers, banks, and most financial institutions, could have expected to be the next in line for tax increases. This is clearly the whole idea of the Henry Tax review. Probably as a result of this, Business Councils did not line up behind the tax even though all non-mining businesses clearly won out because of the reduced company tax rates.

3. Nothing is secret when this amount of money is involved. The mining industry had clearly prepared for this campaign long in advance, even though the Treasury tried to keep the exact plans secret.

4. The dip in Rudd’s popularity was used to settle old scores within his party and his administration. They must have really hated his guts.

5. The media seems to have been a victim in all this, being fed stories about Rudd from within his own circles, being fed all kinds of storylines by the mining interests, and being bombarded with opinions from all and sundry. No wonder the mainstream media had no idea what to believe.


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