LATER THIS WEEK, the recommendations of the Tax Working Group will become public. It is highly likely that a Capital Gains Tax (CGT) of some description will be near the top of the Working Group’s “To Do” list. How should Labour handle this extremely hot potato? The tax which all the experts tell us we have to have has much to recommend it theoretically, but, in the bluntest of practical political terms, it could very easily destroy this government.
The most important aspect of the CGT issue, and the one the Coalition Government should keep in mind at all times, is that the expectation of capital gain is now “baked in” to the economic expectations of a huge number of New Zealanders. One might even say that it is the beating heart of this country’s economic culture. The prospect of collecting a tax-free capital gain at the end of a life of hard work and deferred gratification is what keeps “Middle New Zealand” going. The farmer, the small businessperson, the professional couple who diligently paid off their mortgage and then leveraged the freehold into a second property: these are the people whose undying enmity will destroy any party foolish enough to enact a CGT.
Only those who conceive of our society as some sort of mechanism could possibly advocate a CGT. These are the people who believe that with a just few, judicious adjustments to the social mechanism everyone’s lives will be immeasurably improved. Doubters will find themselves wondering what all the fuss was about when they see how brilliantly the technical changes are working. Opponents, however, should be ignored. They just don’t get it.
Anyone who lived through the “technical adjustments” of the Rogernomics era knows that this line of argument is complete and utter bollocks. The “short-term pain for long-term gain” mantra advanced by the Fourth Labour Government (and amplified to ear-drum rupturing levels by the news media) was a lie.
Very few of New Zealand’s social indices have registered a clear improvement in the lives of New Zealanders as a result of the so-called “Rogernomics Revolution”. The wage-earner’s share of company surpluses has reduced in comparison to the shareholder’s. The number of New Zealanders owning their own homes has declined sharply. The dramatic surge in average life expectancy that distinguished the 30 years following World War II has plateaued.
The explanation for New Zealand’s resolute refusal to be improved by the Fourth Labour Government’s neoliberal “reforms” is very simple. Society is not a mechanism, it is an organism. Ripping things out from, or cutting them off, a living system doesn’t improve it. All that happens is that the system is left wounded and bleeding. Given sufficient time, an organism may adapt to the loss of a limb, or an organ. Wounds do heal. But attempting to pass off the maimed subject of your surgery as a vast improvement over what existed before, is a fool’s errand. Trauma endures.
Has this government, dominated as it is by the Labour Party, learned anything from what happened between 1984 and 1999?
If it politely receives the Tax Working Group’s recommendations, only to consign them, quietly, to the archives, then we may be confident that Labour has absorbed the lessons of its recent history. If, however, Labour presses ahead: proclaiming, once again, the mighty improvements that are bound to follow the suggested adjustments to the mechanism; then we must anticipate the same disastrous consequences.
What farmer (who is not a corporation) will persist with the heartbreak and stress of extracting value from the land, if the tax-free reward awaiting him at the end of his stewardship is transformed into a crippling tax bill?
Will the small-business owner be content to pay herself less than the staff she employs; will she continue to pour her blood, sweat and tears into her enterprise; if a third of the capital gain she hopes to realise at the time of its eventual sale is payable to the IRD?
Will the professional couple with some capital to invest continue to put it into a rental property if a CGT is introduced? Will they go on putting-up with the often appalling behaviour of delinquent tenants? Will they continue to spend a small fortune keeping their properties warm and watertight? They might as well put all their savings into KiwiSaver.
Which is, of course, exactly what the economists want them to do. But will KiwiSaver rent out properties to students? Will it give young tradespeople somewhere decent to live while they amass the capital resources necessary to fulfil the Kiwi Dream of becoming one’s own boss?
Money flows around the social organism we call New Zealand in a unique way. We are not Germany, with its hugely facilitative regional banking structures and its comprehensive tenant protections. Nor are we the USA, with its vast domestic market and its middle-class households’ longstanding propensity to invest in stocks and shares. Ours is an economy driven by delayed gratification: by putting in the hard yards now, on the promise of tax-free capital gains later. Rip that expectation away from aspirational Kiwis, and the economic organism will suffer yet another massive trauma.
Those responsible for inflicting a Capital gains Tax on New Zealand should not expect to be re-elected for a generation – at least.