Eat your heart out, mining. See how HECS is the real ‘backbone of the economy’

Australia is the world’s biggest liquefied gas exporter, yet it’s our student loans, not tax on our commodities, that increasingly bear the load of our national budget.
In the 2023 financial year, the Australian Taxation Office collected $4.9 billion from students paying back HELP-SFSS loans, which includes HECS.
In contrast, the petroleum resource rent tax (PRRT) generated only $2.2 billion.

On Wednesday, Richard Denniss, executive director of think tank the Australia Institute, called on the government to reform the nation’s “third world tax system”.

“In Australia, we subsidise the fossil fuel industry, and we charge our kids a fortune to go to uni,” he told the National Press Club.
“Choices matter. And the Australian government collects more money from HECS [HELP] than it does from the petroleum resource rent tax.
“Thank you, children! You’re the backbone of our economy, not the gas industry.”
So what does the data tell us?

What is the petroleum resource rent tax (PRRT)?

The PRRT is a tax imposed upon companies that extract petroleum resources, predominantly gas.
Tony Wood, director of the energy program at Grattan Institute, said the idea was for all Australians to benefit from the extraction of these resources, but that the design is flawed.
“It reflects the value that these companies are paying to access the resource. This resource is owned by all Australians,” he told SBS News.

“It’s basically designed around the tax suppliers to profit. Not based on the volume of gas that’s extracted or the value of that gap. It’s profit.”

He said that as the tax only applies to profit, companies structure their accounting in a way to minimise their profit and the amount of tax that is paid.
This includes writing off the cost of big infrastructure investments over decades, until capital cost is returned and taking advantage of uplift factors, which go up each year.
“The resource rate tax is structured to favour the companies … that’s one of the reasons why having a lot of resource taxes would be better applied to the value of the commodity rather than the profit,” he said.
Matt Grudnoff, senior economist at the Australia Institute, said these loopholes mean almost no PRRT is paid by companies, but clarified they do have to pay other taxes like company tax.

“Even at a time when we’ve seen gas prices increase to extraordinarily higher levels, the amount of PRRT that is increased by has only been very, very small,” he told SBS News.

Grudnoff says this is a “missed opportunity”, with other gas exporters like Qatar making 20 times more revenue from commodities such as gas.
Qatar’s economic report revealed that 85 per cent of its government revenue was oil and gas. These commodities generated roughly 253.13 billion Qatari Riyal ($105.87 billion) in 2022.

“They’re exporting similar amounts of gas to Australia, but they collect so much more in revenue from their gas sector,” Grudnoff said.

Should education be more affordable than fossil fuels?

Both Denniss and Grudnoff pointed to Norway as an example of how Australia could move forward.

Acknowledging higher education loans are not a “tax”, Grudnoff said Norway has the right idea by taxing their oil industry at a higher rate while providing free tertiary education.

“A better-educated population is good for the country, so we should subsidise education,” he said.
“Fossil fuel burning causing climate change is a bad thing, so you should tax fossil fuels.

“But in Australia, it appears we’re doing the reverse.”

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