How much income tax did you pay last week, even within a few hundred dollars? You don’t know. Approximately how much GST did you pay last week? Again, you don’t know. Australians’ utter and rampant cluelessness about the amount of tax they pay is the single biggest reason our governments have ballooned to such monstrous and inefficient sizes.

Cartoon: Peter Nicholson

“Fiscal illusion” is the reason voters do not have an apoplectic fit every time politicians proffer yet more open-ended, feckless spending schemes, that history shows are guaranteed to be delivered late and over budget.

By accident or perhaps design, governments have become masters of obscuring the true tax burden from voters, tricking them into seeing value in government spending where they should observe gross inefficiency. Keynes, whose name is routinely invoked to promote yet more spending, wrote in the 1920s that a level of taxation at 25 per cent of national income was probably “the maximum tolerable proportion”.

It is around one third today in Australia, and almost half in Europe. But Keynes may well have been right. Governments were far smaller then and yet to learn how to spend big and seem small.

When income tax was introduced in Australia in 1915 only the richest paid and even then only a rate of 3 per cent. Crucially, taxpayers received a bill from government and paid in a lump sum at the end of the financial year.

In 1942 government forced employers to withhold their workers’ income tax payments and send them directly to government – what we call PAYE in Australia. Now even the poor pay up to a third of their income in tax.

“The individual who does not have possession of income before paying it out cannot ‘sense’ the real cost of public services in a manner comparable to that experienced in a genuine act of out payment” writes James Buchanan, one economics Nobel laureate long seized of the impact of ‘fiscal illusion’.

The Treasury writes: “the PAYE system was more convenient for taxpayers, created a more even flow of revenue for government, and improved compliance as evasion was more difficult with income taxed at source”. More convenient for taxpayers, how considerate!

No decision has been more lethal to prudent government, here and elsewhere, than withholding workers’ income tax at source – an idea ironically pioneered by a young economist Milton Friedman in the United States Treasury in the 1940s.

Another masterly technique is to levy a small tax nominally meant to pay for something popular. The Medicare Levy, perhaps the biggest fraud on the Australian community, is levied at 1.5 percentage points on personal incomes but raises under $10 billion a year, around one sixth of the federal government’s rapidly growing total health spending.  It has no connection with actual health spending whatsoever.

‘Company tax’, which is set to raise over $70 billion this financial year, is another classic. Companies pay as much tax as your pet does – zero. Dispassionate economic studies consistently shows that the burden of company tax falls mainly on workers through lower wages and greater unemployment. Shareholders suffer lower dividends and consumers pay higher prices too.

Given a choice, why are politicians drawn to lifting rates of consumption tax, such as Australia’s GST, rather than income tax? The cost of paying a consumption tax is overwhelmed by satisfaction of buying goods or services.

“The individual is likely to be quite ignorant of the amount of [consumption] tax that is paid, and in some cases unaware of the tax altogether especially when it has existed a long time” Buchanan writes.

Economists rightly moan about Australia’s massive stamp duties on property transfers, which cripple labour mobility and stifle sensible exchanges of assets. But it makes perfect sense for bloated governments to levy taxes on transactions that bring joy, in turn swamps any pain from paying the tax.

Australian governments extract over $400 billion a year in tax – around $17,500 for every man, woman and child – but few people ever actively transfer a cent to the government’s bank account. Australia’s having over 120 taxes may be irrational, but it ensures taxpayers can only calculate their own contribution tax with great difficulty.

Imagine if nothing changed except the manner of tax collection. Rather than being “considerately” relieved of your earnings before you receive them, at the end of the year the government sends you a bill for between and third and near a half of your annual earnings to the government.

Imagine also if every few months the government sent you a bill for 10 per cent the value of everything you had bought.

If the government cannot raise the same amount of tax perhaps the existing system is immoral.

If the Medicare Levy were a genuine reflection of Australia’s spiralling health costs and the rate commensurately adjusted every quarter. Would the Gillard government’s plan to expand public dentistry be so popular?

The best taxes are not necessarily ‘efficient’ ones but simple, clear, salient ones.

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEDT.

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    • Mahhrat says:

      09:59am | 30/11/12

      Fantastic article.

      While I’m for taxation to provide needed services, I’m also for accountability on how that money is spent.

      MAIB is a great example.  We should know how much it costs to run our road networks each year, and we should pay a tax through registration that helps cover that.

      Same with the judiciary.  What does it cost to run the courts?

      The public service gets too big because it’s not held accountable.  This needs to start at the top - in parliament.  If we can force them to be accountable, they’ll force their departments to be accountable.

      My question is:  How do we force poltical accountability?

    • Markus says:

      10:23am | 30/11/12

      On the contrary, the public service grows because it is held more and more accountable.
      Every grant, every project, every contract is accounted for.
      All outputs are measured, to the point that every single thing, even the decisions made by the most senior people, is micromanaged.

      In a delicious irony, about as much money is spent on accounting for the money spent on implementing programs as is actually spent on implementing the programs.

    • Mahhrat says:

      10:44am | 30/11/12

      @Markus:  Aye, but the reporting done does not equate to the accountability actually enforced.

      You can have all the good metrics in the world, if you’re not going to do anything with them.

    • Markus says:

      11:07am | 30/11/12

      It equates to Risk Management being taken to its ultimate logical conclusion - don’t do anything.

      You can’t be held responsible for the fallout of something that never actually got implemented. Especially if you have millions of dollars worth of reports and statistics to justify why no action was taken.

    • Bear says:

      12:28pm | 30/11/12

      After the initial clean out of any potential Labor scum the PS gets bigger because Howard realized the bigger the army of minions to do your bidding the better. He also bought in lots of contractors and consultants, a culture now sadly ingrained.

    • PJ says:

      01:06pm | 30/11/12

      Well with the Mining Boom packing up and off to Africa, the Gillard Government is going to have to come and get our dosh to pay for the 4 budget deficits and $300 Billion debt.

      There are a lot of promises out there, but you allow the Gillard Government to continue to refuse to answer how they are to be funded, given our current debt.

      I’m talking about:

      Asst Child Care $1.3 Billion per year
      NDIS was $10.5 now blown to $22 Billion per year
      Gronski $6.5 Billion per year
      Submarines $35 Billion per year
      Nauru repairs $2.1 Billion
      More Illegals $1.7 Billion per year
      Dental Scheme $4 Billion per year.

      The Government’s total investment in the NBN project has blown out from $27.5 Billion to $30.4 billion.
      The Operating Expenditure has blown out from $23.2 Billion to $26.4 billion.
      And of course it’s behind schedule.

      How are you going to pay for all this Aussie? How about giving over your Super? You’ll be old and the Gillard Government will be long gone by the time you come to your impoverished retirement.

    • acotrel says:

      03:55pm | 30/11/12

      ‘It equates to Risk Management being taken to its ultimate logical conclusion - don’t do anything.’

      What you are talking about is ‘risk avoidance ’ NOT risk management !  Read AS 4360- Risk Management, it is not open to your construction.  In fact Risk Management in four major areas, is what this is about - Quality, Safety, Environment, Security as they relate to best practice in project management. What it comes down to is senior public servants and politicians who are incapable of leading and delegating effectively.

    • acotrel says:

      04:06pm | 30/11/12

      I saw a few small projects in a public establishment where all of the available funds were spent on developing the scope of the project because a middle manager could not make a decision and kept requiring a rewrite..
      ‘The system runs on bullshit’ ! It is often about empowerment and fear of making a mistake, which might be career limiting.

    • acotrel says:

      04:30pm | 30/11/12

      ‘My question is:  How do we force poltical accountability?’

      It is easy. -  Require every public serviice department to maintain an ISO9000 documented risk management system as a training aid, and have them independently audited by Quality Assurance Services .

    • John A says:

      10:03am | 30/11/12

      Common sense suggests the more people who pay tax, the less each has to pay to reach a given target.
      So the logical way to go is to introduce a Financial Debits Tax, while at the same time removing all other forms of taxation.
      If this was done we would all pay tax, but at a very low rate, there would be no escape and no black money.

    • tez says:

      11:23am | 30/11/12

      The GST was ment to minimise the black money, the cash economy is still huge

    • John A says:

      12:03pm | 30/11/12

      You are correct, but the GST does not tax money at it’s source, a FDT does. There is no escape from a FDT.

    • Achmed says:

      02:47pm | 30/11/12

      I have the glimmer of a memory when this was proposed many years ago.  Though I’m not sure it was on debits, I seem to remember it was you paid a tax every time you deposited money.  I could be mistaken.
      The rate was something like 0.07% and it would raise money than the current tax system with a lot of individuals paying less then they do currently.
      If that is the rate make it 0.35% for money going either way

    • Markus says:

      04:04pm | 30/11/12

      I don’t agree with applying it to deposits. Saving money is fiscally responsible and should not be discouraged through taxes. All that would do is encourage people to hoard their savings in personal safes, completely removing that money from the economy

    • John A says:

      04:09pm | 30/11/12

      In fact the tax is taken when you debit your account, so every time money is transfered/debited from an account be it private or business the tax is applied.
      Needless to say banks and big business hate the idea, but it’s the fairest system I know of.

    • Achmed says:

      06:37pm | 30/11/12

      I think its a great idea.  Especially if also applies to businesses.

    • JTZ says:

      06:59pm | 30/11/12

      John A there is a way to tax the FDT. The reason we have a black money market is because of the cash economies that exsist. How can you monitor this economy. There is no paper trail and no way of tracing this money or taxing it. The govt can trace any electronic payment yet it cant trace cash money. Note that over the next few years watch the major ramp up by the govt in business investigations. Also note the ATO will begin auditing business’s every three years and using bench marking as a way of seeing assesing business’s.

      Also note if you are caught cheating the ATO in relation to GST you will soon find that you wont be allowed the deductions.

    • BVMKingmaker says:

      10:05am | 30/11/12

      I wouldnt mind so much if it looked like it was being spent in the right places

    • Big Bigger Biggest says:

      10:34am | 30/11/12

      In travelling the world I have never seen a country with as much government as Australia.
      Since I have lived here it seems to have grown exponentially.
      After all you need more Government bodies to look after the Government bodies.

    • Igor says:

      10:40am | 30/11/12

      You nailed it on the head. The best article I’ve read on ‘The Punch’ so far

    • Max says:

      10:54am | 30/11/12

      It is estimated that the average Swede pays around 70% of their income in tax after consumption and all other taxes. I reckon we would be around 60% at a guess after GST, payroll, income tax on investments etc.

    • Bear says:

      12:22pm | 30/11/12

      Way to pluck numbers out of the air and try and pass them off as something like facts. Libs are experts at it which is ironic seeing they think they don’t lie but do as a bodily function.

    • Steve of QBN says:

      01:46pm | 30/11/12

      @ Bear,

      “Libs are experts at it which…”

      And the article mentions this does it?  And Max has mentioned it as well?

      Whereas the ALP never tells lies hey Bear.

    • Fred says:

      02:29pm | 30/11/12

      @ Bear, nowhere in Max’s comment does he alude to being a liberal voter.
      Way to draw a very long bow to suit your obvious anti LNP swill.
      Maybe you should join the other blogger John and read the Idiots Guide to Trolling.

    • Tubesteak says:

      10:57am | 30/11/12

      Companies don’t pay tax?
      If that was the case then I wouldn’t have a job.
      Unless you’re going with the simplistic notion of the explanation of the imputation system then there is no reasonable basis on which to state that companies pay no tax.

      In reality, it’s companies that pay the lion’s share of the tax take along with superannuation funds.

      If people apprised themselves of government spending then there would be riots in the street.

    • N8 says:

      11:58am | 30/11/12

      I think the point was more that companies don’t pay the tax, the people that own them do i.e. the company pays the tax, makes less money, provides a smaller dividend, person at the end makes less money.

      I think the point he was making in the end is a company is owned by people, and those people pay the tax, but as with income tax, it is done before they ever see it.

    • Mike says:

      12:23pm | 30/11/12

      Too right; companies DO pay tax (because otherwise, those fully franked dividends that superannuation funds love just wouldn’t exist, would they now ?)...unless of course, (allegedly) you are a UK arm of some companies…go and search “pays no uk tax” and see what you find !

      Speaking of super, the overspending is our fault.  People with the attitude of “eeeeh, I paid taxes all me life” and expect to blow all their super, then go on the age pension (SKI) are to blame for this…well, sorry chum, but it ain’t gonna happen that way !  It’s called the Entitlement Mentality, and so many Europeans, Aussies and Americans have it.  On the other hand though, people don’t contribute to super because they know they will just get the goalposts moved by the next lot in charge, so in a way, you can’t really blame them, but you can. 80/20 QED.

      “Another masterly technique is to levy a small tax nominally meant to pay for something popular”...yes, like the QLD flood levy.  Thanks Gillard, you have lived the adage of save $1 to cost yourself $5 later by destroying all the goodwill that people (like me) had when we donated to the cause.  If you had gone and allowed an exemption for those who contributed (in excess of their required payment), I might feel differently.

      Next time there’s a natural disaster, I won’t bother, because I’ll just get taxed anyway by whoever’s in charge.

    • Craig says:

      04:05pm | 30/11/12

      By the same logic I don’t pay income tax, my company does.

      If the tax wasn’t incurred and I was paid the same amount in the hand, the company would just pocket the difference, I wouldn’t see it.

    • Fred says:

      10:58am | 30/11/12

      Now we have the added layer of government complexity labelled the Green Layer. It adds substantial more time, cost, and delay to project approval to an already highly regulated environment. All funded by Green Taxes that do nothing more than refil the empty coffers of big government.

    • Stephen says:

      11:18am | 30/11/12

      The issue is compounded by the propensity for governments to use the tax system to implement social programs, or to control community behaviour, such as taxing cigarettes to reduce smoking.

      As noble as any of these causes might be, using a system intended to pay for our utilities and services is entirely inappropriate, and becomes a standard modus operandi for a range of government interferences in our lives.

      Then there is the folly of the carbon tax.

      The culmination, of course, is that we now have three layers of government sucking at the public teat, all making laws and regulations, thus creating a complex, confusing and ultimately highly stressful society, who’s patience is wearing very thin indeed.

      Scrapping State governments is not an option. It is a necessity. Besides being an anachronism, they are unnecessary, particularly weighing up cost v benefit. Councils must be reduced in number to reduce their cost burden.

      And we must remind Governments, emphatically, that their role is NOT to increase taxes and stress, but to REDUCE them.

    • Esteban says:

      11:33am | 30/11/12

      “Company tax’, which is set to raise over $70 billion this financial year, is another classic. Companies pay as much tax as your pet does – zero.”

      I have to confess that I didn’t understand that sentence. Is it that the pet owners pay the GST on behalf of the furry mates with after tax income?

      Apart from that I enjoyed this article along with the others by this writer that very effectively make the case for smaller Government.

      Once again I call for Adam Creighton to join the political fray to try and promote his ideas within parliament.

      You can only get so far with clever articles. at some point we need to move beyond talking about smaller Government and actually doing it.

      In the mean time keep up the good work young Adam.

    • Ged says:

      11:33am | 30/11/12

      Great article…and places emphasis on why we should all be far more outraged at the misuse of our funds underwriting the crap being played out in parliament from both sides at present

    • Cobbler says:

      11:36am | 30/11/12

      Underpant gnome economics are getting as lot of air time recently.

      Imagine suggesting that ‘Stamp duty’ has actually discouraged anyone from selling property in the last 15 year?  Our property market is so overblown that if anything, stamp duty has been an ineffective brake.

      Taxation makes society function.  The author asks us how outraged we’d be if the government sent us a bill every 12 months instead of taking it at the source.  He’s right we would be outraged because JB Hi-Fi has changed us 30% more for products and then had no money to pay off our tax debt…...........

      Yes, medicare levy is inadequate, yes it should be increased.  Maybe if we stopped paying private health insurance which 99% of the time just goes into some fund managers pocket as opposed to paying a doctor’s or a nurses wage, then maybe we wouldn’t have to spend that much more than we do now?

      Taxation is awesome, it reduces the cost of goods and services (by virtue of us having less income) and provides many more for free.  If you don’t like it maybe you should move to Africa.  I hear there are plenty of underpant gnome economists running that place now.

    • St. Michael says:

      02:27pm | 30/11/12

      “Taxation makes society function.”

      No.  People who make things make our society function, because they create the wealth which is then taxed by government.  Taxation is parasitic.  If you turned off the taxation tap tomorrow, government would be shut down, but the private sector in many areas would take over and do a damn sight better job of it.

      “Taxation is awesome, it reduces the cost of goods and services (by virtue of us having less income) and provides many more for free.”

      Right, so how’s that stamp duty working out to make buying a house house lower? For that matter, if taxation reduces the cost of good and services, haven’t you just detonated excise theory lock, stock and barrel?

      And you seem to be missing one rather significant economics 101 lesson when you say government provides things for “free”.  There is no such thing as a free lunch.  Your taxes are still paying for all of it.

    • Ged says:

      11:40am | 30/11/12

      We have a population the equivalent of one large state in the US, yet we have three layers of Government (Local, State, and Federal) with countless elected officials and two layers of parliament at State (ex Qld) and federal Level.

      Can anyone tell me what the Politician per capita rate is in Aust compared to other countries?

      A thorough review of all levels is necessary, particularly in response to the two areas that require a large chunk of State Resourcing (Health and education) heading toward national models

    • Gordon says:

      03:25pm | 30/11/12

      I think the question is why do we demand so much government? Australia’s national question is “Who said YOU could do THAT?”.
      So nothing happens without a set of laws and regulations, policy and a Department to submit approvals to, and wait for questions, objections and bally-hoo from, followed (usually) by a last minute political override because the 7:30 report films some total fwit doing it wrongly and the switchboard lights up.

      Have good weekend everybody.

    • Tchom says:

      11:44am | 30/11/12

      Damn, if I didn’t pay so much tax, I could go to Bali every year! Why can’t it be the 1920’s again?

    • Mitch says:

      11:59am | 30/11/12

      ....I agree completely, we need to go back to the way things were in the 20’s! Then 10 years after that we will be the most prosperous….. oh wait…

    • Debbie says:

      12:04pm | 30/11/12

      Do you really want to earn five quid per year ? Bali would most likely cost ten quid.

    • Esteban says:

      12:13pm | 30/11/12

      Mitch. Are you suggesting that low levels of taxation caused the depression?

    • As a Young Liberal I... says:

      11:56am | 30/11/12

      I too, long for days when governments are so poor they cannot afford to build basic infrastructure. When the mighty free market capitalist captains of industry rule unrestrained by government regulation agencies (because they can’t afford them). For days when everyone is made to pay for their own medical care and education. When socio-economic mobility depends on the planning of 3 generation previous. Taxes are robbery at gunpoint and one day the Australian people will wake up and see how much they are being stripped of their wealth!

    • P. Walker says:

      11:57am | 30/11/12

      What has always amazed me is when rnovations are required of a government building the costs soar to the rediculous.  All the usual “tender jumkies” are in on it taking turns.  We had a reno done to a building that would possibly equate to a 24 squre home.  The cost could have got us a 10 bedroom mansion from the likes of any project builder.  This needs to be fixed now!  They are the habitual thieves at work.  The BER waere goreat examples but the public needs to know that this is normal practice for governments.

    • tez says:

      01:45pm | 30/11/12

      The admin required and the scraped knees for final payments when taking on government work justifies the costs.

    • P. Walker says:

      03:34pm | 30/11/12

      tez, BS, I “know” this is NOT the case!  If you have been informed that this is the reason you have been lied to.

    • Monty says:

      12:01pm | 30/11/12

      “When income tax was introduced in Australia in 1915 only the richest paid and even then only a rate of 3 per cent. Crucially, taxpayers received a bill from government and paid in a lump sum at the end of the financial year.

      In 1942 government forced employers to withhold their workers’ income tax payments and send them directly to government – what we call PAYE in Australia. Now even the poor pay up to a third of their income in tax.”

      I wonder if something happened between 1915 and 1942 that forced a massive rethink in the way we handle taxes, wealth distribution and finance?  If only I could remember the 1930’s better…

    • Esteban says:

      12:24pm | 30/11/12

      Well Monty I think the case to raise taxation to fight a world war is pretty good.

      The problem is that the Government got bigger on the back of the tax and despite the war ending in 1945 and some time after that the Government debt associated with the war was repaid the small government low tax model was not reinstated.

      The other big event that occured in the 30’s that you are alluding to is the depression.

      I have never heard anyone suggest that small government and low tax caused the depression.

    • Big Jay says:

      12:25pm | 30/11/12

      @Monty - I wonder too. Something tells me it might have been a 2 or 3 big things actually.

    • J.T says:

      01:01pm | 30/11/12

      Yes the World Wars forced emergency taxation powers to channel funds from state needs to Federal needs like defence. However they should have reverted back.

      Under the guise of subjective terms like fairness and social justice our Federal system has grown and grown, however oddly nobody seemed to ask the obvious question: what is the correct role of government now we don’t have to fight the Japanese or the Nazi’s?

      Is it to look after us from cradle to grave with rampant welfare paternalism? Or is the correct role of government to protect individual freedoms, property rights and enforce the non agression principal, as per our constitution.

      Rarely do you even hear a politican say, “is this a correct role for government?”.

      With both major parties basically identical in their ideas on the role of government, I am reminded of that old US addage: left, right, left, right..the march of tyranny continues.

    • Len says:

      12:10pm | 30/11/12

      Exhibit A: Functioning, robust taxation system - Australia, Scandanavia.
      Exhibit B: Dysfunctional taxation system - Greece, Italy, Spain

    • Steve says:

      12:15pm | 30/11/12

      Here is a simplisitic worked example of how much tax is taken when you earn and spend. 

      In order to buy a $1000 TV, you end up paying the government $600. 

      To earn the $1000 purchase price, you have to earn $1,500, as the government takes a third - $500.  Then you pay GST ($100) on the TV itself. 

      So a $900 TV for you, $600 for the government.

    • Steve of QBN says:

      12:19pm | 30/11/12

      Interesting article.  There is more to this as well.  True, the Medicare Levy doesn’t go into Medicare, it goes into consolidated revenue aka “the big bucket”.  Oh?  Not in Private Health?  We’ll just add more to your “medicare levy”.  In other words, tax you more.  Soon it reach that stage again when it will be cheaper to pay the extra tax than to pay for private health.  The downside of that is the adding of patients to the medicare list, the loss of access to private operating theaters and the loss of access to overflow beds. 

      Got a big flood?  Want to stop people throwing money into charities and Premiers flood appeal?  Impose a Federal levy on all tax payers for “flood victims”.  Stopped funds coming in stone dead.  But it’s all good yes?  All that money, going to the flood victims.  Oh but wait…. it goes into the Federal big bucket.  And good luck to the State government getting it back off them.

      Want to “protect Australian small business”?  Impose the GST on online offshore sales!  Who cares if the product you want isn’t sold here.  And even if it is sold here, it’s protecting an Australian job, right?  Well, no.  Because the item even after currency conversion, shipping plus the GST is still 50% cheaper.  Only the government wins and the money goes into the bucket.  Good luck Small Business getting it back off them.  $4 billion windfall they say if this comes in. 

      And lets look at where the money goes.  Health, Defence, Education… all good.  But then we get $10 billion to the Greens for “renewable green energy projects” like the $90 million Rudd gave Flannery for hot rock power.  Talk about money down a black hole….

      I guess, I’m like Kerry Packer (only shorter, stronger pulse but much much poorer) in that I do not think the government spends MY money wisely.

    • Shane From Melbourne says:

      01:42pm | 30/11/12

      Adam, you forgot that elephant in the room- Federal and State fiscal relations where federal government has a lot of the taxation revenue (income tax, GST, company tax) while the state has much of the responsibility for expenditure. The reason why stamp duty has a use (apart from dampening property speculation) is that it is one of the few taxes left to the states. It would be a totally different matter if the states hadn’t ceded income taxing powers to the federal government. (A World War 2 wartime measure)

    • tez says:

      02:27pm | 30/11/12

      Dump the State Governments

    • John Graham says:

      02:49pm | 30/11/12

      Masterly article.  The fact that most know not how much of their income goes to the government is saddening, and indicates one major malfunction of democracy.  We do get an end of year statement from the tax office regarding income tax, but few look at anything beyond any “refund” or extra owing.
      The fact that taxation has a substantial effect on work behaviour is often overlooked.  My early retirement was largely due to the layout of the tax system.  My son works overtime until he hits the top PAYG step, then stops.  My daughter has refused promotion because the structure of government sanctions (tax) and payments (benefits) meant that a payrise would have left her worse off. 
      Finally, while government must be funded to provide core services, the concept promoted by many (see Gittins in SMH) that the government is kind to leave us with any residual private income should be anathema.  As 100% taxation would obviously yield no income, there is no doubt that at some point higher rates of tax will yield less income by suppressing economic activity.  It seems likely to me that we are well past this point in Australia.


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