Thursday, 29 July 2010

Tax Policies

This is the time of year when Australians avoid thinking about tax. That's not supposed to happen until late October. But we have an election (yay!) so tax is important again.

It's important because it directs how people behave. Taxes are increased as a disincentive, and deductions are given as an incentive. I'm not impressed about incentives, though. They require individuals to learn about the incentive and find a way to game it. If someone works two jobs, they probably will never find out about it. This is probably an argument for the flat-deduction now available.

But let's look at the Big Three and their policies on tax.

The ALP had a specific policy on tax. It was ambiguous, whereas I want some concrete actions. There was even an odd promise about tax breaks for interest earnings. Brace yourselves for, "a new 50% tax discount for up to $1,000 of interest income from saving deposits held with any bank, building society or credit union, as well as interest on bonds, debentures and annuity products." Calculate how much money you need to have in savings to earn $1000 a year (NAB offers 6%pa on 12-month term deposits, for example) and ask yourself whether you would use that money for savings or for paying off the mortgage. But the "50% tax discount" grabs your attention, doesn't it?

The Liberals had a lengthy PDF about economic principles. Reading this thing (it's 48 pages long, by the way) takes more effort than the ALP and the Greens policies, so there's a lot of detail in there. And most of it is about company tax and business tax. To get the most out of the Liberal policy, start your own business. Maybe you can use the savings from your ALP term deposit.

The Greens have a policy on economics too. It's punchy and numbered, like all their policies. Thankfully it's easy to read. The Greens want to place the burden on consumption and the excessively wealthy, with a mention of a "shift in the tax system from work based taxes to taxes on natural resources and pollution." This move away from income tax and towards consumption tax sounds great, except for the apparent opposition to the GST, which is a consumption tax. Some more clarity is required, I think.

But none of them seem interested in raising the tax-free threshold. Even the Henry report called for this.
Recommendation 2: Progressivity in the tax and transfer system should be delivered through the personal income tax rates scale and transfer payments. A high tax-free threshold with a constant marginal rate for most people should be introduced to provide greater transparency and simplicity.

Tax cuts, if applied, should be applied from the bottom up and not from the top down. The beneficial effect on low-income earners is more significant in relative terms, and in absolute terms everyone gets the same cut. Furthermore, since the current tax-free threshold is below the poverty line, the very act of taxing low-income earners is taxing the poor further into poverty.

Currently, none of the three political parties explicitly advocate for this, and some of them are actually opposed to it. I'm disappointed yet again (as I was for the last few elections) that this simple idea remains ignored.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Election ignores marginalised: Anglicare

Time for some election commentary. I like a good election and I have every hope that this could be a good one. So let's start with the most important issue of politics: the marginalised, or the biblical widows and orphans.
"The poor and marginalised will be left out of this year's election debate as leaders focus on middle Australia, the Christian charity Anglicare says.

Recent Australian elections had been fought to 'capture the hearts and minds' of the population's middle 40 per cent, Anglicare Sydney CEO Peter Kell said on wednesday.

'And this election is shaping up to be, unfortunately, no different,' he told reporters in Sydney."
Election ignores marginalised: Anglicare
And there goes my hope for a good election.

If the Anglicare report is correct, then this is a shoddy piece of work by the two major parties, and reflects poorly on the mind of the voter. It shows that people vote through self-interest and not through community-interest. A vote for self-interest asks how the new government will treat my life, my bank balance. A vote for community-interest asks how the new government will treat the community, especially the most vulnerable.

Whereas it's easy to say that the political campaigners are evil and nasty to play the election this way, it's much harder to say that the electorate laps it up. So when you think about your vote, think about how it affects the marginalised, the widows and the orphans.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

ABC Portal on Religion and Ethics

The ABC recently launched a portal for Religion and Ethics and, as should be expected, it's come under fire with the usual line of argument from non-religious people: Why should my taxes pay for religion?

Now I'm in favour of the ABC portal, and not just because it's being edited by someone I know. Here are two reasons why I think it's worthwhile.

First, the portal is about coverage of religious and ethical issues, not the propagation of religion itself. Articles are written both from within and without the religious point of view. Up front is a piece by Rowan Williams as well as the question of whether it is ethical for government to fund religion. Taken individually, both articles advocate a position on religion, but taken together they show a diversity of opinion about a related topic.

From what I know about the editor - a theologian who is critical of church and state equally - and the little I know about the ABC charter, a biased approach to coverage of religion and ethics would just not eventuate. For as long as religion and ethics are part of the life of people in Australia, there should be coverage of it.

And that leads to my second reason to have the portal. The argument that the portal is an abuse of tax dollars looks like this, "My tax dollars pay for X despite my opposition to X." In light of what I've written above, perhaps it should be, "My tax dollars pay for coverage of X despite my opposition to X." If I look at the ABC site, I see coverage of a wide variety of things. Some interest me, some don't. Some excite me, some disgust me. Nonetheless, they are all features of Australian society and the issues they contain should be covered by the national broadcaster. Certainly there will be a threshold of interest (I'm sure there won't be a portal for flower arranging) but for features of significance like sport, children and environment there is enough societal interest to warrant this expenditure. Imagine a person who is opposed to further population of the planet and who thinks we should stop having children. If the argument that "my tax dollars should not be spent on things I oppose" were valid, there would be no 'children' section on the ABC website. Australia has children all over the place, so the ABC has a section for children. Australia has religious activity all over the country, so the ABC has a section for religion.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Campers too Camp for Christian Camp

On the problem of pluralism and morality, today's story is about a campground run by Christians and a homosexual camping group who tried to make a booking there.
"MARK COLVIN: Can a corporation have religious beliefs? Is there a Christian doctrine against homosexuality? And can a commercial operation be exempt from discrimination laws?

Those are just some of the questions being raised in a discrimination case being brought against a camping group run by the Christian Brethren. It refused to take a booking from a group called Way Out, which was set up to tackle homophobia."
PM - Rejected campers file gay discrimination case 07/07/2010

This will be interesting to watch. From what can be read in the ABC report, most of the right questions will be asked. Admittedly, they'll be from the point of view of civil liberties and not theology, but in a secular system of law with legislation about discrimination, that line of questioning makes a lot of sense. I expect that a key issue will be whether the campsite a business or a religious organisation, and whether it's necessary to enforce that distinction. The second issue will be how religions treat people who intentionally break the moral tenets of that religion. Unfortunately, it might just turn out to be a repeat of previous arguments with nothing new added to the debate.

The problem is about judgements and authority, though. Do the campground owners have authority to refuse service to people who contravene a particular sexual ethic? If they do, I wonder whether they would refuse a booking from the Sweatshop Owners Association (James 5:1-6), or the Debt Collectors Society (Luke 6:30-35). The Christian bible has more to say on both those issues than it does on homosexuality.

Regardless of how the courts decide, the constant association of Christianity with the policing of sexual activity is wearisome.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Universally addressed to the individual

The gospel is a message of repentance. As Paul puts it in Galatians, it's the call to turn way from a life according to the flesh and to turn towards a life according to the spirit. Especially interesting is that the gospel is also the pathway to the kingdom of God on earth. In short, the gospel calls people to repent and promises to manifest the divine reality.

It operates on two levels, both as the critique of how we currently live and as the vision for how we ought to live. The vision always seems to display a picture that is utopian, a new world in which all problems are solved. The lamb will lay down with the lion, the hungry will be fed, the sick will be made well, etc. These kinds of images give hope to plenty of people that God cares and that God is going to act, and rightly so, but there's a catch. This utopian vision isn't separate from the call to repentance, but is necessarily linked with it. In fact, the call to repentance is the necessary prerequisite to the kingdom.

Perhaps a more clear way of looking at it is to say that the gospel is a call to repentance so that the kingdom of God can be real. All the biblical promises of a new world of peace, etc., are contingent upon the biblical call to repentance. Repent of your former way, live the new way, and you will see the kingdom of God.

Looking at it like this means that the gospel is universally addressed to the individual. That is, the gospel is not addressed to humanity as a whole, but is addressed to every human individual so that all of humanity will live in the divine reality. Ultimately, the response and responsibility is in each individual. No theocracy required. No hierarchy required. Just the single individual obeying the call to repentance.

(This post was brought to you by Kierkegaard and Badiou)