Each year the government increases income tax rates, and most people don’t notice. They do this through “bracket creep” where workers are moved into higher tax brackets due to inflation. For example, if your income jumps from $37k to $38k to compensate you for higher prices, then you will be pushed up a tax bracket so that you are now paying a 35.5% marginal rate (instead of 20.5%) leaving you with less disposable real income.
This implicit tax increase could be easily removed by indexing the tax brackets to inflation.
To work out a rough estimate of the size of bracket creep, we can make the simplifying assumption that income tax should grow at the same rate as nominal GDP growth. Looking at the coming three years, nominal GDP is expected to increase by 16.9%, while income tax is expected to grow by 25% over the same three years. The difference can be attributed to bracket creep, and amounts to a total secret tax increase of $13 billion over three years.
If the government does not offer at least $13 billion worth of income tax “cuts” over the next three years, then they will actually be increasing income taxes.
Historically, the government has been happy to allow bracket creep to continue as it gives them extra tax revenue each year which they can then give away to special interest groups or loud lobby groups in the hope of buying an election victory. Because the tax increase is not well publicized and not well understood, the government is able to increase the tax burden with a relatively low political cost. But while it might make for good politics, the continuous increase in income taxes has been squeezing family budgets, reducing work incentives, and slowing down our economy.
In the long run we need to have income tax indexation. In the meantime, we need to demand at least a $13 billion income tax cut.
Note: If the government introduced an inflation indexation on income tax rates, that would ensure that nobody was pushed into a higher marginal tax bracket due to inflation. However, there would still be a gradual increase in average tax rates as real economic growth pushed more people into higher tax brackets. To ensure that there is no increase in average income tax rates it would be necessary to index tax brackets to nominal wage growth. But that is a topic for another day.
Each year the government releases a budget that outlines our income tax system (among other things), and each year they hide the truth. Instead of simply reporting the marginal tax rates, the government reports three different sets of numbers (basic rates, medicare levy, LITO) and then leaves the reader none-the-wiser about how they interact to produce the actual income tax rates. The first time I publicly complained about this silliness was back in 2009.
In 2011 the government announced a series of changes to the income tax system as compensation for the impending carbon tax. At the time, I ran the numbers to show how they would change the actual tax rates.
Now that the 2012/13 Budget is out, it’s time to run the numbers again to strip away the magic and report the honest marginal tax rates faced by Australian workers. These numbers are quite similar to the numbers I reported last year, except for an increase in the threshold for the Medicare Levy. Last year I had pointed out that the Medicare Levy was going to kick in at a lower income than ordinary income tax starting in 2012-13… and it’s good to see that somebody in Treasury has noticed this problem and fixed it.
The government has announced their plans for a new carbon tax, and the related compensation payments and tax cuts. The good news is that the government is increasing the tax-free threshold and winding down the confusing and misleading “low-income tax offset” (LITO). Next year the tax-free threshold will increase to $18,839.
Unfortunately, the government continues to hide the actual marginal tax rates by reporting the LITO and medicare levy separately from the “headline” marginal tax rates. The actual marginal tax rates for 2011, 2012 and 2015 are at the bottom of this post. As you can see, they are as confusing as ever. Some points to note…
- The government is claiming to increase the tax-free threshold from $6000 to $18,200 and have an effective tax-free threshold of $20,542. This is misleading for a number of reasons. First, the current TFT is actually $16,000 and so the increase is not as large as they say. Second, while normal income tax may not kick in until $20,542 the medicare levy kicks in at 10% for people earning over $18,839. This was a great opportunity for the government to scrap the mis-named medicare levy, or at least get rid of the regressive 10% bracket ($18,839 to $22,163). So the actual change in the TFT is from $16,000 up to $18,839. That’s the first bit of good news.