If I said to you that people should be given the option to pay more tax, and may actually sign up to do so, you might think I’m having a laugh.
As it seems even mentioning “tax” these days in any way other than with the intent of reducing them is like sticking your head above a parapet, I wouldn’t blame you. But hear me out.
We often lament the short-sightedness of modern politics. That it has become this way isn’t the fault of anyone in particular but instead the product of a vicious cycle between the media, politicians, and the public. And each is embittered by it.
The result is a conversation between political leaders and the electorate that is overwhelmingly focused on the short term, and on selling a popular message to us as individuals. Who provides more tax cuts, who best understands “working families”, and so on.
This can be a difficult environment for ambitious, long-term, national projects. And it can lead to a feeling that there are no more big ideas left.
But underneath this cynical surface lies something more. In all my time working on public policy, I’ve seen grand ambitions capture the imagination and excitement every time – e.g. science, big infrastructure, exploring frontiers, or creative Australian leadership on the world stage.
The key to bringing this into the open in a way that might stick is to give the public a sense of ownership.
Imagine this: each year, one national project is chosen. It could be for almost anything – a piece of research infrastructure, a program to boost advanced manufacturing, or a challenge to cure melanoma cancer. It just has to be big, ambitious, and about putting the country in an inspiring new direction.
The project is announced and advertised and, come tax time, there’s an option for you to voluntarily allocate an extra percentage of tax to it. Simple, cheap to administer, and a positive reform in gloomy times. And what it would do that other government initiatives haven’t is connect the taxpayer directly with the project.
An interesting test case would be the Australian Antarctic program. Sometime soon, the government will need to decide what to do with the 20-year Australian Antarctic strategic plan it commissioned last October.
Antarctica is one of the last frontiers on Earth, and Australia has long been a pioneer on the continent. The author of the 20-year plan, Tony Press, will have developed recommendations to keep it that way.
The thing that threatens to bring it undone, of course, is money. Even while Press was developing the plan, the Antarctic division was warned that it needed to seek “alternative sources of funding”. Nominating our Antarctic program as the recipient of a voluntary levy for one year could help. And in the process, the public would be informed about Australia’s Antarctic ambitions and feel involved in its future.
A scheme like this could be a small shot in the arm for productivity. Notwithstanding that blue-sky endeavours can deliver very real economic opportunities, it stands to reason that a society that is fired up by big challenges is likely to be more naturally entrepreneurial.
But more than that, these grand ambitions speak to something deep in our psyche: one half wonder, the other a desire to feel part of something bigger than our day-to-day lives. It may not be as tangible as a tax cut. But I suspect for many people, it is no less valuable.
And in that, the value in a voluntary levy would go beyond the funding it may or may not attract. It would change the conversation between government, the public, and the media in between, and make Australia a world leader in participatory democracy.
Because in its own small way, it would give us all a say in what sort of country we want Australia to be. Do we want to be about the here and now? Or do we want to do interesting things together?
In the answer to that question, there is no right or wrong – only a choice and its consequences. But it would be fascinating to see how that choice might change the way we see ourselves and our country.
Bryden Spurling was an adviser to Australia’s chief scientist and to former Democrats senator Natasha Stott Despoja.
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