Alan Tate, “Conservatives grab tax issue and run,” The Sydney Morning Herald, July 2, 1985, p. 7.
As delegates and demonstrators gathered at Parliament House yesterday, they could reflect on the fact that, even if it produced little else, the tax summit had provided Australia’s “new conservatives” with a rallying point.
Tax is the key to their existence, and when the Prime Minister offered it to the public for debate several months ago, they grabbed it and ran.
Representatives of the “new conservatives” are both inside Parliament House as delegates and, more noticeably, outside in the ranks of the rural demonstrators.
Three organisations have been the most prominent of the “new conservatives”, calling for smaller government, less welfare, and huge cuts in taxation: Tax Payers United; Centre 2000; and the Australian Adam Smith Club.
All three have chosen to operate outside the party political process, sharing a deep distrust of politicians and government.
The intellectual wing of the “new conservatives” is headed by the Centre of Policy Studies, or the “Monash Think Tank”, whose director, Professor Michael Porter, is presenting his own for tax reform at the summit. This involves abolishing the tax-free threshold to finance major cuts in marginal tax rates.
None of the groups has been more evangelical in the current debate than the Queensland-based Tax Payers United, whose leader, Mr Viv Forbes, said his organisation had helped the farmers formulate their tax policies in the lead-up to yesterday’s mass demonstration outside Parliament House.
Tax Payers United was formed a year ago and has about 1,000 members. A large part of the organisation’s advisory council is made up of pastoralists, financial executives, and former politicians.
“We agree with the Thatcher/Reagan line of economic policy,” explained Mr Forbes. “We believe people should be able to keep as much of their money as they can, consistent with the maintenance of a minimal State which protects the right of people to go on about their lives without being imposed on by others.”
Tax Payers United’s objective is to limit government to a level required only to run the “essential functions”.
Mr Forbes has links with the Sydney-based Centre 2000, which likens itself more to the “think tank” mould than does Tax Payers United.
Centre 2000 is a breakaway group from the Australian Adam Smith Club, which takes its name from the influential right-wing Adam Smith Institute in London. Centre 2000 was founded two years ago and works from a bookshop in Young Street, Sydney.
The centre undertakes consultancy work for individuals and companies and places great importance on having its literature in schools and universities.
Its philosophy resembles that of Tax Payers United — government should be limited — but it also promotes policies encouraging greater freedom and “freedom of movement and capital and labour throughout the world”.
“We are a rallying point for those who are beginning to believe that common sense has been almost completely lost,” said one of the founders, Nadia Weiner.
“We support lower taxes and we have been finding a lot of sympathy from law-abiding citizens who get caught up in abiding by the tax laws and paying a lot of tax.”
Centre 2000 receives financial support from companies such as Western Mining Corporation, Shell, and one of Australia’s largest retailers.
Two weeks ago, in conjunction with the Australian Adam Smith Club, Centre 2000 mounted a national campaign against high levels of tax. They called it “Tax Freedom Day” and 120,000 “notes” with a value of 55.5 cents (representing all that was left of the dollar after tax) were handed out by hundreds of volunteers.
The day finished with a dinner in Sydney co-hosted by Centre 2000 and the Australian Adam Smith Club, which was addressed by Mr Forbes.
The Australian Adam Smith Club is most active in Melbourne and Sydney, where it produces a magazine in conjunction with Centre 2000 called The Optimist and hosts dinners.
The most recent dinner took place in Melbourne three weeks ago and was addressed by the executive director of Western Mining Corporation, Mr Hugh Morgan.
The club sees the major economic problem in Australia being the increase in the number of Australians dependent on welfare and the “largesse” of government handouts.
“The current debate in Australia on taxation and the farce that is called the ‘the tax summit’ seems to be dealing only with rearranging taxes — even introducing new ones — more neatly so that the taxpayer may not notice that he is still paying the same or a greater amount of taxation,” says the editorial in the latest edition of The Optimist.
The “Monash Think Tank” was set up in 1977. It makes heavy use of a group of young economic rationalists and distinguished overseas visitors and has strong connections with US academics.
“Our objective is to study the relative roles of markets and government in achieving economic and social goals,” Professor Porter said.
“On each project we get, the idea is to mix together theoreticians of world standing with local people. We run a bit of a rent-a-brain operation within Australia and we have a core staff of a dozen here.”
Critics of the “new conservatives” believe their populism depends on taking a genuine problem and applying a simplistic solution.
“Take the farmers,” said a Melbourne professor of political science. “They are encouraging these people to say they have to be protected and that they need a fair go.”
“Our export industries are going down the gurgler; there is an over-production of milk and sugar; we are going to be shut out of the beef market; and there is a crisis coming in the wheat industry whereby prices will fall about 25 per cent.”
“The logical answer is to get a lot of people to leave the land. These groups [the ‘new conservatives’] are quite willing to encourage protection for these people while demanding it be dismantled for everybody else.”
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