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Tax reform in NSW can no longer be a moveable feast

4 May 2020

In 1922, some four years before Ernest Hemingway published his first novel, his then wife Hadley was traveling on a train carrying a precious case filled with the aspiring writer’s latest work. The case was stolen, the work was lost, never to be recovered. Hemingway was not impressed.

As a state treasurer who has spent the last three years working to keep the NSW budget firmly in the black, I can relate. So too, I’m sure, can the federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.

At the very moment the federal government was poised to deliver the first budget surplus in decades, a global pandemic has swiped all that good work away.

We will never know what gems Hemingway lost on that fateful day in 1922. What we do know is that he went on to produce some of the 20th century’s most powerful literary masterpieces. It may well be that the theft only propelled the talented writer to greater heights.

There is no doubt we have an economic and fiscal Everest to climb. The temptation for politicians will be to take the easy political options, dumping an ever greater tax bill on the most productive parts of the economy, to our collective detriment.

I say, like Hemingway, the best is yet to come if we have the resolve to make it so.

The question I have been asked most often in the past two months is “What will be impact on the state’s bottom line of COVID-19?” – the reality is we won’t know that for many months, perhaps far longer.

While we will never lose sight of the need for a strong budget and restrained spending, now is not the time to concentrate solely on the figure at the bottom line of a spreadsheet.

Rather, it is the time to find ways to take the handbrake off our economy, and reforming stamp duty is near the top of that list – a rare issue where it seems most people are in furious agreement.

We don’t have all the answers, but we are committed to finding a better and fairer way which lowers the tax burden on people and creates more freedom and choice. That’s why we started the Thodey review last year, and I look forward to taking up the conversation in earnest with my state and federal counterparts this year.

If there is a bright point amidst the many challenges of COVID-19 it is that in this moment of crisis, Australians are trying things that have never been tried before.

We’re funding services in new ways, and smashing through regulatory roadblocks – like trading and delivery restrictions for supermarkets, red tape for doctors and pharmacies, and takeaway restrictions for restaurants – so people can get on with doing what needs to get done.

We’re finding ways for the different parts of our economy – employers and workers, landlords and tenants, government and industry – to work together for the benefit of all. And we are harnessing technology to enable remote health and medical services, learning, and working.

So many of these innovations will stay with us long after the virus has passed, changing the way we live and work for the better.

The question for governments is: will you be part of the revolution? The answer must be yes. Because in my view, what lies ahead is more than just an opportunity to do things differently. It’s an obligation.

Of course opportunists of all political stripes will seek to demonstrate that their preferred “ism” is an uncannily perfect fit for the new world order. Nationalise everything, some will say. Deregulate everything will be the catch-cry for others.

Dogmatism of any kind will not neatly match the shape and size of the challenge ahead. Instead, imagination coupled with pragmatism is our best hope.

For governments, this is an opportunity to go back to square one, examining every root and branch, and clearing the dead policy wood that will only hinder our recovery.

We must be open to new ideas from every quarter. We must not be afraid of change. We must conserve all that is valuable, and be prepared to experiment with the rest.

In the depths of NSW Treasury, these questions are already being posed, and while our first priority is the successful implementation of immediate support measures to keep people in jobs and businesses in business, we are already turning our minds and imaginations to the economic future of our people.

The economic forecasts making headlines at present are understandably dour, and the road back to fiscal and economic strength will not be easy traveling. Having lost everything, Hemingway had to begin writing again. What a grueling and seemingly insurmountable task.

But begin again he did, and from his loss he generated brilliance.

Hemingway’s first collection of short stories was titled “In our time” published just a couple of years after that fateful train ride.

Now, in our own time, let us resolve to do as he did: begin again, writing an economic future more brilliant than anything we have lost.

Treasurer Dominic Perrottet with Ken Henry (left) and David Thodey (right)


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