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Word of the Month: ‘tax’

Posted 5 May 2014 by edXpress (edXpress)

The great big new T-word

Few things annoy me more than hearing the expression ‘that’s just semantics’. I understand why people say it. It is used when we hear someone disputing the words being used to describe some set of conditions, which we take to be patently clear and not requiring debate.

But quibbling over wording is contesting how ‘reality’ is being constructed. This kind of contest should be more dignified, but it suffers from being the kind of thing that politicians do to cover their backs.

Which is why a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald recently started with the sentence 'A tax is a tax is a tax'. The context for it is the current pre-budget shenanigans. Mr ‘no-new-taxes’ Abbott has raised the possibility of a ‘deficit levy’ as a response to the budget ‘emergency’ on which much of the Coalition’s election campaign was predicated.

Sensibly, Mr Abbott described the new charge as a ‘levy’ rather than a ‘tax’. The Gilliard Government used a ‘levy’ when they were faced with the damage done by the sudden and overwhelming downpour in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley in January 2011.

Then in opposition, Abbott opposed the levy, saying:

‘Why should the Australian people be hit with a levy to meet expenses which a competent, adult, prudent government should be able to cover from the ordinary revenues of government?’

Abbott’s rhetoric was vicious. He accused the Gilliard government of trying to ‘pick the pockets of the Australian people’. He went on to declare that ‘The one thing that [people] will never have to suffer under a Coalition government is an unnecessary new tax, a tax that could easily be replaced by savings found from the budget.’

While ‘tax’ and ‘levy’ are pretty close in meaning – you’ll find them in the same entries in the thesaurus – the don’t inhabit exactly the same semantic territory. Both pertain to money going from citizens to government, but the two words have distinct associations.

‘Tax’ means ‘a burdensome charge, obligation, duty, or demand’. To levy is to ‘raise a contribution for some purpose’. One is a burden; the other denotes being part of some communal effort for a greater good.

So it’s not surprising that Abbott is trying on a deficit ‘levy’. But raising money for something as broad as ‘the deficit’ goes against the typical use of levies in recent Australian history. The purpose to which the ‘deficit levy’ is being put is far more general – something more like ‘consolidated revenue’ - than that of the flood levy.

But more than this, Abbott is now the victim of the singular and relentless rhetoric which defined his tenure as Opposition leader. Abbott spent a considerable proportion of his time in opposition reiterating the negative associations of ‘tax’. Like a binge drinker, he kept coming back to the T-word. He wielded it like a bludgeon. He gave no quarter.

And so, the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised on the last day of April: Let there be no bones about it. A levy, temporary of otherwise, is a tax.

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