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UK 'Open for Business' While Australian Tax Reform Languishing

17/07/2015 11:28 BST | Updated 16/07/2016 10:59 BST

The tax reform measures announced on budget night in the UK set a new benchmark for a government demonstrating to the world that it is indeed 'open for business.'

Only a few years ago the UK economy - like many others in the region - was reeling from the fall-out from the global financial crisis. However it is now bouncing back, assisted by the Government's response in tax and other policy areas.

Its latest tranche of initiatives in the tax arena, announced by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in his budget speech last week, are aimed squarely at bolstering competitiveness by stimulating productivity and jobs growth.

They included the introduction of a 'tax lock' prohibiting increases in the main rates of income tax, national insurance and VAT for five years, a small increase in the tax free personal allowance rate that will be indexed to rise in line with the minimum wage, and also some small cuts to other personal income tax rates.

But the real attention-grabbing reform will come from the proposed cuts to the company tax rate - to be shaved down from 20 per cent to 19 per cent in 2017, and then to 18 per cent from 2020.

Impressive - given that in 2010 the UK's corporate tax rate was at 28 per cent.

Also of note is that the annual investment allowance, originally introduced as a temporary tax break for small and medium sized businesses, will be set at £200K permanently from January 2016, up from the current £100K.

The UK government is also getting on with the job of creating a knowledge economy through a range of innovative policies, including the 'patent box' which involves concessionally taxing income streams and capital gains arising from innovations developed and patented in the UK. These policies increase the attractiveness of companies undertaking risky R&D in the UK and help the UK retain and attract internationally mobile capital, especially in key industry sectors such as pharmaceuticals and digital technology.

Compare and contrast the UK's initiatives with the Australian tax reform experience. While the Australian economy largely dodged the economic fallout of the global financial crisis, and for some years rode high on the wave of the greatest mining boom and terms of trade it had ever experienced since the 1850's gold rush era, business confidence is muted overall.

The Australian Government has announced its intention to comprehensively examine the tax system, but the actual review is behind schedule. As it labours on, as always, the political and economic challenges ahead could thwart any meaningful outcome.

In the meantime the corporate tax rate in Australia remains stubbornly stuck at 30 per cent, for large companies at least, where it has been since 2002.

That is not to say nothing is going on in the tax arena in Australia at present. To its credit the Australian Government recently introduced an immediate capital asset write-off for certain small businesses - a measure that was generally well received and will be beneficial in certain quarters. But in the light of the UK's proposed annual investment allowance and taking into account the Australia business eligibility tests, as well as the limit of less than AUD$20,000 per item, this tax break looks rather small beer.

Also the immediate asset write-off in Australia is set to expire in 2017, whereas in the UK the annual investment allowance is proposed to be a permanent feature which will no doubt provide a greater confidence boost to UK SMEs.

On some fronts, however, the UK still has work to do. For example, it only introduced a tax general anti-abuse rule in 2013 - over 200 hundred years after income tax was first implemented in the UK in December 1798 as a temporary measure in preparation for the Napoleonic Wars.

The UK has also been slow to respond to domicile/ residency tax-rorting over the decades. But these are further tax issues the UK government either has now or proposes to address.

Mr Osborne described his 2015/2016 budget as 'A Budget that sets out a plan for Britain for the next 5 years to keep moving us from a low wage, high tax, high welfare economy; to the higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare country we intend to create.'

He also said that countries "cannot afford to stand still while others rush ahead." The message for other countries, like Australia, is clear: in an ultra-competitive world it's up to all of us in business and the community to redouble our efforts to ensure tax reform is not allowed to slip down the reform priority list.

Alex Malley is Chief Executive of CPA Australia

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