Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about tax, debt and approach to law changes.
Twenty plus years ago I came back to New Zealand a little bit pregnant. And before 1992 – unless you were in the public service – pregnancy meant (job) resignation. A stage up I guess from marriage or engagement meaning resignation but pretty antediluvian even with today’s – Is Jacinda having a baby? – eyes.
Parental Leave had come in two years before I came back but couldn’t apply to me as I had left a job in the UK – not New Zealand. I was also more than a little over being an accountant – I was young what can I say – and fascinated by economics. Again young.
So decided I would use this time to retrain as an economist. I mean seriously how hard could raising children be? Again young. And of course in reality studying was a blissful break from domesticity – not the other way around.
One of the super perks of studying was the Student creche. Super high quality childcare; very reasonable pricing and super flexible. Why sure Andrea: Tuesday 10-1; Thursday 3-5; and all day Friday is completely fine. Please pay by the hour. One child or two?
And at that creche there were two types of mothers – yes mothers; men appeared only occasionally. There were the middle class married women – like me – late twenties early/ mid thirties doing post graduate work or retraining and then there were the late teens/early twenties single women who were at university for the first time.
The young women had a number of things in common:
- Straight A students;
- Determined and resourceful;
- Highly motivated; and
- Dirt poor.
The other thing they had in common is that pretty much all of them were lying to WINZ in some form. Part time undeclared untaxed income was very common as was parental financial help. I don’t remember extra flat mates but I am sure that was in the mix. Because resourceful.
But all of this just meant that they could have their kids nits treated as I did, pay rent and eat. Although I do remember one of them brightly telling me that just eating potatoes for a week was an easy way of managing when unexpected bills came in. Right ok.
So in other words they were all Metiria. And the actual amounts of money involved were absolutely trifling. $20 or $30 a week max for a relatively short period of time. But it was the difference between sinking and not sinking. Swimming didn’t come into it.
Of course this was when there was a training incentive allowance to help with creche fees. And while it was post Mother of all Budgets the relative value of the welfare system was more than it is now. So I guess the current generation of young women just don’t go to university. Social Investment anyone?
And from time to time I run into them. Also like Metiria they are now professionals, (re)partnered and have other (step) children. Taxpaying, respectable pillars of society.
Now into this discourse has come Lisa Marriott’s seminal work on how we as a society treat tax evasion v welfare fraud. And I have nothing to add to this. Coz yup she is right. Nailed it.
But the two things I would like to add to the conversation – assuming there still is one now Jacinda has arrived – is a bit of a comparison with how we treat tax debt and how we treat widespread tax non-compliance.
In the early days of the last Labour government changes were made to the rules governing tax debt. Basically the intent was to get the department to calm the F down in terms of collecting tax debt. The rules were changed so that debt will not be recovered if it:
- is an inefficient use of the Commissioner’s resources or
- would leave a taxpayer in serious hardship.
And note the all important or. Not only should the Commissioner not pursue debt when there isn’t a bang for the buck but even when there is – if it would be unkind. At least these are the rules that apply to Working for Families overpayments.
But looking at some of the cases taken by WINZ, clearly these criteria are not in their legislation.
The other thing that made me realise how differently tax is treated to welfare are situations where there is widespread non-compliance. Either through a misunderstanding with how the law applied; wilful blindless; or a desire to put the past in the past; the law can be changed to make the illegal legal. And at times retrospectively.
Because they are doing it already; not in the forecast; can’t audit our way out or taxpayer friendly. The latter of course meaning friendly to specific taxpayers rather than friendly to taxpayers as a whole. Examples include:
- GST registration for body corporates was made optional. Of course meaning will only register if can get refunds;
- Use of tax pooling was allowed in circumstances that weren’t previously allowed for in the legislation;
- Canterbury Earthquake employee accommodation allowances were specifically made tax free;
- crews on super yachts income was made tax free;
- The contingent liability associated with conduit relief was extinguished.
Now these are just a few examples. Most tax bills contain versions of these. And all have good reasons behind them and help make the tax system breathe. I am comfortable with – pretty much – all of them.
But all were at some stage against the legislation. In all cases, at some stage, some people were ‘incorrectly’ on the wrong side of the law. Usually individually or cumulatively with quite large amounts of money at stake. Far more than a trifling $20/ week.
But rather than ruthlessly enforce the ‘incorrect’ legislation; the legislation changed. It changed following representations made to Ministers and officials by affected parties. In the same way I see welfare advocates make similar representations. The only difference is that the tax advocates get listened to. Because structural imbalances.
So even though tax and welfare are mirror images of each other, this is another case where public policy talks out of both sides of its mouth. And unfortunately as there is little or no overlap between the two worlds; joined up government just means easier detection of welfare discrepancies.
Now finally in case I have been a little too subtle:
To all the people baying for Metiria’s blood – did you ever do babysitting; lawnmowing or car washing when you were younger and not put it on your tax return? I know that is me.
Well that is what tax evasion looks like. We committed a tax crime. We lied to Inland Revenue. FFS #WeareallMetiria.
Should we fall on our swords. No. We should get on with our taxpaying lives. And section 176(2)(b) – the bang for buck provision – quite correctly stops the department from chasing us.
Shame the same approach can’t be taken to Welfare.