Should Federal Labor consider cutting GST?

In the current global economic environment, governments across the world are looking for ways to stimulate spending in their domestic economies. Consequently, the beleaguered British Government is set to temporarily cut the rate of their VAT (value-added tax) for a one to two year period, in the hope that it will stimulate spending in the immediate term. Toby Helm and Heather Stewart have the details that are at hand for the moment in The Guardian:

Alistair Darling will make a high-risk bid to lead Britain out of recession tomorrow, when he is expected to cut VAT and entice the British people to go on a pre-Christmas spending spree.

Last night, as Darling put the finishing touches to the most important financial statement of Labour’s 11 years in government, there was speculation that he might slash the rate to 15 per cent [from 17.5 per cent], a move that would cost the government about £12.5bn a year.

This is an interesting development because it raises a few questions about the Australian Labor Party’s stance on the local GST. Historically, of course, Labor opposed the introduction of the GST at the 1998 election and fought a second unsuccessful election campaign in 2001 on a policy of GST “rollback”. Now that the GST has been in place for practically a decade and is firmly part of the architecture of federal-state funding, it would appear unlikely that the Rudd Government would seek to manipulate it at this juncture. Cutting the rate of GST in Australia would have considerable implications for state funding, given that all revenue generated by the tax flows through to the state governments. In short, for the rate of GST to be reduced, one would have to think that the existing federal-state funding framework would need to in the least be padded by some non-GST contingency funding from the Federal Government – or perhaps reframed altogether.

The other part of the puzzle worth considering is whether lowering the rate of GST would realistically have any effect on consumer spending at all. Let’s say that the rate of GST was cut by the Federal Government tomorrow from 10% to 5% – an astronomical 50% cut. Consumers presumably would have more money in their pockets every week as a result of their reduced weekly spending – money that may or may not then be reinvested in more goods and services, stimulating the economy. Given present consumer confidence and the vast uncertainty that still exists with respect to the global economic situation, it is questionable as to whether cutting GST would actually result in a positive outcome, a fact that Peter Mandelson points out in the Guardian article with respect to the proposed British VAT cut.

In any case, it would appear that the Rudd Labor Government could not realistically afford a rate cut of anything like that magnitude without going into deficit. The revenue generated for the states from the GST in 2008-09 was projected at $45.5 billion, meaning effectively that funding such a 50% GST rate cut would cost in the ballpark of $22.75 billion; a figure already exceeding the now optimistic total budget surplus of $21.7 billion projected back in the May Budget. Without some credible evidence suggesting that cutting the rate of GST even by a small amount is definitely going to deliver results, it would be a highly risky endeavour for the government to pursue it.