Politics changed, facts haven’t

Sir Michael Cullen is being paid $1000 to sell the capital gains tax.

It’s a task made more difficult by records of his views on a CGT  which the parliamentary library holds from his time as an MP:

Stuff reported that although the chairman of the Tax Working Group once called a capital gains tax “extreme, socially unacceptable and economically unnecessary”, he has since changed his mind.

New documents compiled by the Parliamentary Library for the ACT party reveal just how far he shifted since leaving Government in 2008.

The 84 pages of research included every reference Cullen ever made in the House in reference to a CGT between 1987 and 2008. . . 

They include:

. . . “I think it is extremely hard to make that connection between a capital gains tax and the affordability of housing, insofar as there has never been a theoretical argument put forward about a capital gains tax on housing. It is more in the direction of a level playing field around investment; it is not around the notion that it will make houses cheaper. Indeed, it is very hard to see how it would necessarily make houses cheaper,” Cullen said at the time.

On June 20, 2007, when Bill English asked Cullen about explicitly ruling out a capital gains tax, he responded saying: “One of the problems with a capital gains tax – apart from the fact that if it were done, it should apply to all asset classes—is that countries overseas that have capital gains taxes have significant inflation in house prices on occasion”.

Then on June 21, 2007, he was asked about the possibility of combining ring-fencing with a capital gains tax on all investments except the family home, and more Government investment in low-cost rental housing.

He responded saying: “I think it is fair to say that, if one was looking at a capital gains tax, which I am certainly not, it would apply to all asset classes. I think the arguments in favour of such a tax, which probably 20 years ago were quite strong, become much, much less strong in the intervening period of time, for a whole host of reasons. So I think that that is actually not a very worthwhile avenue to explore, not least because it comes, in effect, at the end of a process, rather than trying to address the over-investment at the start of the process”. . . 

He says he was Finance Minister at the time and following the government line.

When asked why he changed his mind, he quoted John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind”.

What facts have changed? It wasn’t a good idea then and it still isn’t, for the same reasons.

As Robin Oliver, former deputy head of Inland Revenue, former Treasury advisor, an expert on the tax system, and one of three dissenters on the Tax Working Group said:

There’s a strong argument for taxing capital gains, as you put it, in theory, the problem is the practicality and of making it work. . .

Kathryn Ryan asked him if, all things being equal and as a tax expert would it be good to do it and her replied:

In the actuality of what you have to do to get such a tax in place, no.

Most of the arguments in favour of a CGT are theoretical ones based on a notion of fairness, whatever that is.

Most of the arguments against it are practical based on facts including that it has done nothing to rein in house prices elsewhere and has led to overinvestment in housing, underinvestment in business, and acts as a handbrake on succession.

The politics have changed but the facts haven’t.

A CGT with exceptions as recommended by the TWG would be expensive to administer, contain loopholes which would only provide work for lawyers and accountants, promote over-investment in housing, stifle investment in productive assets, and result in lower tax revenue in tough times when capital gains fall.

One Response to Politics changed, facts haven’t

  1. adamsmith1922 says:

    Reblogged this on The Inquiring Mind and commented:
    Pertinent

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