The Productivity Commission has released an Issues Paper on remote area tax concessions and payments (link here) as part of a review into these issues commissioned by the Treasurer.
The APO web site (link here) summarises the review in the following terms:
This study focuses on three long-standing measures that provide support to individuals and businesses in remote areas, namely the:
· zone tax offset (ZTO)
· fringe benefits tax (FBT) remote area concessions
· Remote Area Allowance (RAA).
There have been concerns within the community that these measures have failed to keep pace with demographic, cost of living and infrastructure changes in Australia. In response to these concerns, the Australian Government has asked the Productivity Commission to evaluate these measures’ objectives, design, operation and effects, and to consider alternatives to them.
The issues paper is an early step in the review and identifies a range of potential issues requiring consideration. One of the obvious issues that will require detailed research is the absence of data relating to both the demographic makeup of recipients of each measure, and the costs to the budget of each measure. Other issues at the core of the review will be policy rationale, policy design, and alternative options for meeting existing or new policy objectives.
The three measures under study are each mainstream measures, and are available to any residents of the relevant geographic areas (which span most of remote Australia) who meet the relevant criteria.
One of the potential issues embedded within the Productivity Commissions remit is the impact of the measures in meeting broader Indigenous policy objectives, noting that remote Indigenous citizens remain amongst the most disadvantaged citizens in Australia.
Commendably, the Productivity Commission has acknowledged this, stating in the issues paper at page 7:
Due to this study’s focus on remote areas, we will evaluate the effects of remote area tax concessions and payments on remote Indigenous communities, as well as any interaction with other government policies designed to assist those communities.
I don’t propose to undertake a detailed analysis of the Issues Paper and the issues it raises for Indigenous policy, but note that there is a substantial overlap insofar as remote Indigenous citizens are affected (for better or worse) by each of the three measures. Indigenous employees / taxpayers are recipients of the zone tax offset, Indigenous businesses take advantage of the FBT concessions, and Indigenous citizens make up a substantial proportion of income recipients who are entitled to the RAA.
There are however a number of obvious issues which will need consideration and attention.
The RAA was originally introduced to provide an equivalent payment to welfare recipients to extend the benefits of the ZTO to non-tax payers in remote Australia. Given the over-representation of Indigenous citizens in the income support cohort, and the under-representation of Indigenous citizens in employment, the disparity in rates between ZTO and RAA impacts disproportionately on Indigenous citizens, and deserves to be reconsidered.
A further potential issue relates to the impact of conditional welfare in remote Australia (ie the CDP program: link here) and the increasing evidence that as a result of punitive penalties (link here), significant numbers of remote Indigenous residents are not accessing their welfare entitlements and thus not accessing RAA.
One of the challenges is assessing the utility of these policy measures, is that they were primarily devised to assist and benefit mainstream interests, particularly mainstream taxpayers and businesses. Consequently, it can be easy to overlook Indigenous perspectives in assessing the changes in underlying rationales over time. As the Commission notes:
A range of justifications have been advanced for special assistance for people living and/or working in remote areas (box 3), although many of these are contentious. For those justifications drawing on the isolation and arduousness of life in the outback, the changes in transport, communications and living conditions over the past seventy years mean that their strength has diminished (at least in many parts of the country). Such arguments have also been challenged on the basis that ‘individuals have a free choice whether or not to live or work in remote areas and to compensate them, if they so choose, would lead to resource misallocation and reduced growth for the country as a whole’ (see Cox et al. 1981, p. 15).
While there have been improvements in the circumstances of remote citizens, the circumstances of remote Indigenous citizens are still highly disadvantaged. Moreover, they may not have the same level of flexibility in their choice of residence as mainstream citizens. These are less obvious factors that the Productivity Commission will need to grapple with as it progresses its review.
I am sure that as the review progresses, a range of new issues of relevance to Indigenous interests will arise. Hopefully the various Indigenous peak bodies will step up and lodge submissions to the review.
Perhaps the substantive take out from the release of this issue paper is to reinforce once again how mainstream programs and policies are increasingly important for any assessment of Indigenous wellbeing and opportunity.