Will the $8.6 billion tax slug really only hit the top end of town?
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The government is continuing to insist its plan to slap businesses and landlords with $8.6 billion worth of extra taxes over the next four years to help “stabilise” the state’s hulking debt won’t hurt people on low or middle incomes.
Business and property groups see things differently, warning higher payroll taxes will undermine the ability of businesses to hire and hand out pay rises, while higher land taxes imposed on property investors will be passed on in the form of higher rents.
Premier Daniel Andrews on Wednesday rejected warnings that the government’s ninth and “most difficult” budget targeted everyday Victorians.
Treasurer Tim Pallas said while handing down the budget that the new taxes were “targeted at those with the greatest ability to pay following the pandemic”.
But the real question from the tax hike is: should people with investment properties automatically not be counted as everyday Victorians?
According to the government, the land tax changes will hit 860,000 landowners, who will pay an annual average of $1300 in additional taxes.
Tax Office data shows that about 72.1 per cent of property investors in the state – representing 393,350 Victorians – owned one investment property in 2019-20. A further 18.6 per cent – or 101,482 people – owned two.
Nationally, in 2019-20, there were about 770,000 Australians who negatively gear and had a taxable income below $80,000. And about 58 per cent of negative gearing deductions (by value) went to people with taxable incomes less than $80,000.
It’s difficult to say what proportion these people might be considered wealthy, given “taxable income” is very blunt measure of wealth. For example, people in the retirement phase accessing their superannuation may still be very wealthy, and yet still have a relatively low taxable incomes, simply because superannuation is typically not subject to tax in the retirement phase.
On the other hand, a significant proportion of property investors are almost certainly hardworking people on modest incomes, with modest levels of wealth. Some are even first home buyers, using investment properties as a way of getting a foot into the property market.
CPA Australia’s senior manager of tax policy Elinor Kasapidis said it was difficult to be precise, but many of those affected would be middle class, working families, as well as younger people who own investment properties.
“You’re going to either make rental prices inefficient, so people won’t want to invest, and that’s going to be worse for housing supply overall, or it will get passed on in full, because they simply cannot afford it,” she said.
“The assumption I think that every property investor is somehow making lots of money, or can afford to wear even $1,000 on top of the existing taxes … is a fallacy, and it’s quite an insult for a lot of people.”
The land tax measures could also be a double whammy for aspirational Victorians if they also send their children to private schools, with principals reporting fears fees will rise to offset the stripping of their long-held exemption to payroll tax.
Then there’s the impact on rents.
Property Council Victorian executive director Cath Evans argues that most of the state’s rental stock is owned by mum and dad investors who lease their investment properties to Victorian renters.
An investor with a property with a land value component of just $100,000 will see a $975 land tax bill in their inbox from next year onwards, Evans said. “The temporary land tax hikes risk having the side effect of reducing rental supply in the market, leading to upwards pressure on rents at a time when affordability is critical.”
Andrews’ contention is that a shortage of houses is to blame for higher rents in Victoria and, therefore, the solution is to boost supply.
The premier isn’t wrong. Victoria is faced with a housing crisis, and supply is a big part of the problem. But it does not automatically follow that imposing higher taxes on those rental properties will have no impact on rents.
Demand for rental housing is relatively “inelastic”. In other words, demand doesn’t go down much when a shortage pushes rents higher because people have no choice but to find a place to live. Housing, like food, is a necessity.
A shortage of rental properties is the very reason why higher land taxes could force up rents. Landlords effectively have the upper hand to pass on costs because renters have fewer options available to them.
A portion of the added impost could also be passed on to the Commonwealth because state land taxes can effectively be used as a federal tax deduction for negative gearing purposes by reducing net rental income. In other words, there will be a sneaky revenue transfer from the Commonwealth to Victoria.
Trouble is, boosting the supply of houses to lower rents is likely to take years. In shorter term, it is difficult to mount a case that the tax hike will have zero impact on rents. Even if it’s relatively modest, that impact will be felt all the more keenly, with households already under extreme cost of living pressures.
Then there is the question of whether the payroll tax changes will hit employment and reduce economic activity. The government’s COVID debt repair payroll tax levy will only apply to larger Victorian businesses that pay more than $10 million in wages annually, representing about 5 per cent of the state’s employers. The government is also abolishing the tax-free threshold for businesses with payrolls of more than $5 million.
Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chief Executive Paul Guerra argues that the extra taxes on medium to large businesses in particular will be difficult to absorb, given businesses are already operating in a tough economic climate with increased costs in energy and supply chain.
The danger is that these added cost pressures start to hit employment.
If that happens, things could really turn sour, not only for the government’s finances, but for Victorians on low and middle incomes.
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