The tale of one auction – what it really says about Australia's welfare state

A few weeks ago, I attended an auction in a popular suburb of Melbourne’s inner east.  

The home was an attractive four-bedroom townhouse on roughly 260 square metres of land, and initially quoted at $700,000 ‘plus’ - very typical of the type of accommodation featured in the area.  

As is commonly the case in Melbourne, the quote was ‘stepped up’ in the final week of the campaign to ‘$750,000 ‘plus’ – albeit, the listing agent informed me more than once he had $800,000 “covered”.  A mere blink at recent comparable sales indicated a price well in excess of $850,000, or even $900,000, considering the level of demand and lack of comparable listings being marketed.  

This was confirmed during the auction, when a neighbour I’d casually interacted with leaned over and in little more than a whisper told me: “I know the vendor – she wants $1 million”. Considering the property didn’t reach its reserve until $900,000, I suspect she was correct.  

With competition from nine bidders, the property sold in front of a crowd of 100 or so for $1,011,000, and the agent, delighted with the result, wasted no time swooping in on the ones who missed out, to share information of ‘similar’ listings currently for sale.  

Needless to say, it’s a story that drives many Australians irate, with the focus inevitably aimed at the misleading way in which it was quoted. However, this isn’t what should drive our sense of injustice to kick into gear.  

The undeserving poor  

Debate is currently rife in Australia surrounding the relentless costs of our welfare system, with Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews heralding it ‘unsustainable’, whilst looking for ways the government can cut entitlements to the undeserving poor.  

The review has concentrated primarily on disability payments, and Newstart job seekers allowance, which keeps the ‘income-less’ in relative poverty.  

“Work is the best form of welfare!” was the statement Andrews used. Considering the uptick in unemployment, with industries such as Ford, Alcoa, Qantas, SPC, Sensis, Telstra, Shell and Toyota moving jobs and business offshore, a fall in the participation rate – due in part, to an asset rich, income poor retiring population – and a rise in part time and casual positions over full time positions, concerns are warranted.  

In the 2013-14 federal budget, the government correctly stated that “Australians value a fair society” and underlined its commitment to a tax system that provides a strong and stable funding stream for important public services, such as “health, education and disability care”, while “rewarding innovation and productivity” for economic growth.  On an international scale, our tax-transfer system is perceived as comparatively generous.  

According to the OECD, Australia’s ‘Robin Hood’ economy redistributes more to the poorest 5% of the population than any other member country, whilst the much-criticised policies of middle class welfare are seemingly the lowest.  

We’re deemed to have the most 'unique' and 'target efficient' social security benefits in the OECD, apparently yielding 'significant gains' to both the economy and society. And when compared to the USA, which has the highest income inequality among the ‘rich’ nations by some significant degree, we look comparatively healthy.  

Yet, despite its many reforms, and varying degrees of success, shaped in part by demographic changes (more women entering the labour force, for example) and a small reduction in high end salaries during the GFC, widening disparities between incomes have continued unabated since the mid-1990s. As the labour market struggles, there’s nothing to suggest the trend will stop.  

Mind the gap  

There are all sorts of reasons to narrow the gap between the rich and poor and prevent an ever-widening chasm -one of which is the way that income is invested into the economy and the roll over effect to society.  

Income inequality and economic growth can only work hand in hand when individuals are enabled to strive for greater heights from a foundation of equal opportunity – the basis of which is education.  

As economist and inequality expert Andrew Leigh commented late last year:  

“Education is the greatest force that we've developed, not only for boosting productivity, but also for making Australia more equal,” ensuring “the circumstances in which you're born don't determine the circumstances in which you die.”  

Yet our schooling system is becoming increasingly segregated. The correlation between poor performance and social disadvantage is stronger here than any other comparable Western nation.  If our tax and transfer system were meant to offset this, you’d have to assess its been an abject failure.  


Australia has enjoyed a period of economic prosperity, which over the last 23 years has been nothing short of remarkable.  According to Credit Suisse’s Annual Global Wealth Report, we’re the “richest people in the world,” with a median wealth each of US$219,500.  

Over the past year alone, Australia added an estimated 21,000 millionaires to the population. Yet, contrary to what the textbook version of economic theory would have you believe, household savings reaped from an economy surfing the wave of a commodity boom have not flowed into business investment, or nurtured productivity and education standards in the young.  

As noted in the Credit Suisse assessment, our riches are "heavily skewed towards real assets” a manifestation of “high urban real estate prices”, acquired and generated through the destructive cyclical impacts of a property market. As I emphasised last week, the gains from income growth and investment flow directly back to the land.  

Both homeowner and speculator  

Home ownership is seen as one of the great pillars of our collective culture.  It’s assessed to improve health and school performance in children, activate social engagement as well as reduce local crime.  

However, the way we go about promoting ownership is to nurture a system that teaches rising land values – outside of any productive activity such as renovation or effective utilisation of the resource – is due reward for having saved hard and got onto the ‘ladder’ in the first place.  

Our tax system is skewed toward ownership, with policies, that according to last year’s Grattan report, provides potential benefits to home owners worth $36 billion a year, or $6,100 on average per household through items such as capital gains and pensioner eligibility test exemptions. Investors (or those choosing to rent and invest) reap $7 billion a year, or $4,500 on average each, by way of negative gearing rules and the capital gains discount introduced in 1999. Whilst renters, one in four households, see no gain - unless their income is low enough to require welfare assistance.  

In effect, we’re an economy that relies on ever-rising values of irreplaceable fixed assets to fund the individual wealth of its nation – and this is only achievable if policies are in place to ensure values remain high and climbing, and debt levels ‘affordable’.  

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Capital growth  

Speculation and investment are two sides of the same coin. When we assess a good business model for example, we speculate that the productive activity that flows from that investment, will build on a growing base of demand, and through competition and diversity, go onto produce a profit.  

Yet the capital growth in land values does not occur by way of some abject force of nature. Everything that makes our cities liveable comes from the collective investment of our taxpayer dollars to provide the social amenities needed to form the base from which we can all progress.  

This would include: community services such as, transport, parks, roads, trains, trams, medical facilities, and most importantly, schools.  

Yet, it is also these facilities that produce the needed demand for real estate that pushes values upwards.  Not through the efforts of the individual home owner, but the productive efforts of the taxpayer – renter, home owner and investor alike.  

Housing on its own is worth nothing without the infrastructure that surrounds it and rising land values are ‘reward’ for nothing other than unwontedly buying into a system that – under the current structure - promotes inequality and forces social polarisation.  

Unlike our business model above, we can’t ‘make’ more land in a particular location to fulfil the demand produced from the facilities our tax system both funds and maintains.  Therefore effective utilisation of the resource is vital.  

However, the speculative process alone, along with the added impact of a tax system that impedes turnover by way of stamp duty at one end, and capital gains at the other, simply feeds a process of hording.  

This is because most advantage best from investment into housing through the process of “buy and hold” – leveraging the equity to produce needed funds, rather than selling. This is a system that drives underutilisation and ‘land banking’.  

But land is fixed in location; therefore we must always hop over it to find the next predicted hotspot to raise our families, until this too becomes out of reach through the process described above - like a cruel game of musical chairs.  

Back to the beginning  

Let’s go back to the case study I cited at the start of this article.  The reason the four bedroom townhouse attracted such strong demand in the first place, is because it’s located in a top government school zone.  

Only high-income earners can afford to live in this zone and no doubt they feel – through their income tax contributions alone – they pay their fair share toward facilitating the opportunity for their children to obtain that higher education. As the OECD said, our tax and transfer system is high progressive – the “rich” pay more.  Or do they?  

Allowing for stamp duty, the new owner who purchased the townhouse would have paid $1,066,605 yet despite two years of effectively stagnant growth in 2011/2012, the median price in the suburb has escalated close to 60% from $850,000 in December 2009, to $1,355,000, therefore they probably assess it a worthy investment.  

As for those who arrived early in the process, to paraphrase what one home owner relayed to me some time back, she has earned more from the capital growth of her home over the past 10 years or so, than she has in earnings.  

Outside of a market crash or the demise of the education facilities provided, there is nothing to suggest prices in this school zone will drop. From the tight zoning regulations alone and rising population of immigrants and local buyers looking to advance their children’s education, the very ingredients to attract a constant source of buyer demand are set in place – and rents will rise accordingly.  

The taxpayer continues to subsidise the school, whilst the gains are capitalised in rising land values, which flow directly to the individual home owner not the school or community, keeping values high and placing further pressure on the public purse to fund additional services. Meanwhile, underfunded schools in the over populated fringe suburbs, start to produce an English style education class divide.  

Under such a system, we are not subsidising the poor, we are paying the wealthy.  Yet, it’s clear, if we’re to navigate the structural changes ahead and keep unemployment low, whilst at the same time, reduce the projected burden on the ‘welfare state’, our economy is reliant on maintaining a highly skilled work force. For this to occur, an elevated level of tertiary education and business investment is vital.  

A better model of welfare  

Notwithstanding, the correct way to fund local schools would be via broad based and effectively administered land value taxation. In its purest form, as advocated by the classical economist, Henry George, it would result in a single tax on the unimproved value of land to replace all other taxes which hamper productivity, the most significant being income tax.  

George’s ideas won favour amongst many, including the great economist and author of Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman as well as other influential figures including Winston Churchill, Adam Smith, and more recently chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, Martin Wolf, and author and economist Fred Harrison. Notwithstanding, a single tax would be unlikely to hold water in current political circles.  

The Henry Tax Review commissioned by the government under Kevin Rudd in 2008 concluded that “economic growth would be higher if governments raised more revenue from land and less revenue from other tax bases”, proposing that stamp duty (which is an inconsistent and unequitable source of revenue) be replaced by a broad based land tax, levied on a per-square-metre and per land holding basis, rather than retaining present land tax arrangements.  

Whilst arguments over school funding will likely continue, centred in the political battle over funding of the suggested Gonski reforms. Unless we narrow the gap in education, we’ll never narrow the broadening gap in income and consequently, the growing burden on our welfare state.  

Therefore – when times comes that the chatter around affordability finally evolves into real action, a broad based LVT should form an important part of both the debate, and the solution.  

Catherine Cashmore is a market analyst with extensive experience in all aspects relating to property acquisition.

Catherine Cashmore

Catherine Cashmore

Catherine Cashmore is a market analyst with extensive experience in all aspects relating to property acquisition.

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