AS the tax forum got under way, the early message was clear: don’t expect much, and don’t expect it soon.
In fact, in their opening speeches in Canberra, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan were more forthright about what they wouldn’t accept than about what it was they actually wanted.
Don’t suggest anything that might prevent the budget’s resolute march toward surplus, Ms Gillard warned.
“We are determined to deliver the fiscal consolidation that our economy requires today and consequently our drive towards a budget surplus continues with determination,” she said.
Don’t propose anything that might stand in the way of the economy’s adaptation to the minerals boom.
“I want to make sure our tax system is not sending them perverse messages as they seek to adapt and change,” she said.
“Indeed I want our tax system to facilitate that change.”
Don’t even think of increasing the tax burden on the less well off.
“We are a Labor government and that means we will never agree with increasing the tax take, the tax burden, on the poorest in our community,” she said.
And if you do propose something that will cost money, make sure you say where the money will come from, otherwise you can forget it.
“It’s not properly paying for things to say `I’ll do the spending and someone else can pick up the tab’.”
If by some miracle anyone can find something that fits these criteria, they should not hold their breath.
The tax forum is a reminder of the diversity of opinions about how the tax system should work.
But one thing that is unlikely to draw any disagreement is that tax reform takes time.
It’s a matter of, as Mr Swan put it, doing the hard yards.
“You can’t just click your fingers and turn that tax system over overnight,” he said.
“It’s painstaking to implement the reforms bit by bit, and it can be a hard slog.”
And the slog will be all that much harder if the government hopes for some kind of consensus because, as the discussion between representatives of business, big and small, and their employees showed, it’s not going to happen.
Never has, never will.
Mr Swan offered some glimmer of hope when he asserted the government’s responsibility to make the decisions, rather than leave it all up to the assembly of vested interests to come up with a compromise position.
“We didn’t get elected to government in order to contract these decisions out,” he said.