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Two well-known tax experts try to write a concise and intelligible book about tax. For the most part they succeed. This book is also intended to be part of a moral conversation about why we pay tax. In fact, its main contribution is to highlight some of the more technical aspects of tax in New Zealand, and make some useful comparisons to overseas practice.
The central part of the book involves explaining why the taxation of savings has gotten so complex and arbitrary. This affects both Kiwisaver and the Government’s Superannuation Fund, which appears to pay an inordinate amount of tax. Meanwhile, the country’s ‘love affair with property’ sees that go effectively untaxed, while the regular reviews of tax put a comprehensive capital gains tax (CGT) in the ‘too hard basket’, and the Treasury and IRD can’t agree on how to formulate a CGT in any case.
These chapters on the taxing of investment, and absence of tax on land and housing, are essential and could have been expanded. As it is there are many unfamiliar concepts to explain, and there is a risk of getting confused in all the acronyms. After learning about the ‘financial arrangements regime’, there is Tax, Tax, Exempt (TTE) policy; the Foreign Investment Fund (FIF) regime; the fair dividend rate (FDR) method; and the Portfolio Investment Entity (PIE) regime, before we get into Kiwisaver.
In particular, the FIF regime appears to have been rather baffling from the start in the 1980s, and has had to be re-booted a number of times. This points to the underlying theme within the narrative of the book. A lot of the key changes stem from the mid 1980s when there was supposed to be a simplification process, and the basic principle was to have a ‘broad base and low rate’ across all forms of income. However, examples like the FIF regime appear to be based on a theory of their own specific to the idiosyncrasies of New Zealand policymakers, especially in Treasury, as does the trust law change from the same period.
The trust law is mentioned a few times in the text, and both authors discussed the foreign trust regime in public debates during 2016, after the release of the Panama Papers. They seemed to agree that this had created a tax haven operation, but, rather curiously, they do not use the term at all in this book, even when discussing the tax-dodging multinational corporations. There is instead a nuance, when referring to the forms of income in ‘foreign trusts’ that goes untaxed; and this is apparently due to a loophole in the law. In truth, it was not a loophole at all, as the creation of the ‘foreign trust’ category was quite deliberate, and went against the advice of overseas experts in the crucial 1987-8 period. The only real question is why it remained unnoticed for so long, and why it was not reformed as well.
Although the book is apparently about fairness, the familiar terms for this – tax being more or less ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’ – are never actually used in the text. Instead the concepts of ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ equity are introduced, and are mentioned a few times in the detailed chapters. However, it is a pity that the concepts in the opening chapters, and the ‘moral conversation’ idea in the final chapter, are not necessarily integrated with all the technical detail.
Nonetheless, this short book is a credible effort in a very tricky conceptual minefield, and makes a good case for reforms.
Reviewed by Simon Boyce
Tax and Fairness (A BWB Text)
by Deborah Russell & Terry Baucher
Published by BWB
Good review. Every time I attack my tax return I go in thinking it can’t be that hard and then come away thanking the world for tax accountants. Does it need to be that hard?