The Government is considering a review of the charitable exemption for religious organisations this term.

The Government is considering a review of the charitable exemption for religious organisations this term.

  • Canada loses patience and imposes a Digital Services Tax effective 1 January 2024
  • Inland Revenue appears to be gearing up for a fringe benefit tax initiative.

Late last week, in response to some questions about a review the charitable exemption that religious organisations enjoy, the Prime Minister responded he was “quite open” to the idea, adding “I’ve actually been thinking through the broader dimension of our charitable taxation regimes…We will certainly be looking at things like that this term.”

The hint that a review of the exemption religious organisations and churches enjoy provoked a testy response from Brian Tamaki, among others which was in turn rebuffed by the Finance Minister, Nicola Willis.

But this is a topic which keeps popping up and obviously people have some concerns about how the exemption operates. It was also reviewed in some depth by the last Tax Working Group.

So what’s the exemption worth?

Putting some numbers around the value of the charitable exemption is a little difficult. Every Budget Treasury prepares a paper on the value what are called “Tax Expenditures” that is specific tax exemptions granted under the Income Tax Act.  According to the Tax Expenditure statement prepared by Treasury for Budget 2023,

the forecast value for the year ended 31 March 2023 of charitable and other public benefit gifts given by companies was $32 million. In relation to the donations tax credit for charitable or other public benefits (including to religious organisations), value for the same period was estimated to be $315 million. (Which grossed up at 33% is ~$945 million.)

The annual report of Charities Services include a snapshot of the finances for 27,000 charities registered with it. According to the report for the year ended 30th June 2023 the income of the religious activities sector was $2.39 or just under 10% of the total income across all charities.

It’s interesting to consider charities income by source for the same period.  $5.29 billion represented donations, koha and fundraising activities. Based on Treasury’s Tax Expenditures statement it appears donations tax credit or charitable donations by companies has been claimed for maybe only a billion dollars of this sum. Interestingly, about half of the total income charitable sector earns during the year comes from services and trading.

Overall Charities Services estimated that the total expenditure by charities was about $22.7 billion. In other words about $2.1 billion of the funds raised were not spent or distributed for whatever reason.

Charities Services also provides a quarterly snapshot of new registrations. The latest available is for the period to 30 June 2023 when it received 388 applications (of which 78 were subsequently withdrawn). Religious activities seem to represent a fairly substantial portion of the new registrations.

What did the Tax Working Group recommend?

The last Tax Working Group took a look at this issue and the best place to consider its views is in Chapter 16 of its interim report which sets out the issues involved.

In its final report the Tax Working Group noted it had “received many submissions regarding the treatment of business income for charities and whether the tax exemption for charitable business income confers an unfair advantage on the trading operations of charities.”  

The Tax Working Group responded as follows:

“[39] It considers that the underlying issue is more about the extent to which charities are distributing or applying the surpluses from their activities for the benefit of the charitable purpose. If a charitable business regularly distributes its funds to its head charity or provides services connected with its charitable purposes, it will not accumulate capital faster than a tax paying business.

[40] The question then, is whether the broader policy tax settings for charities are encouraging appropriate levels of distribution. The Group recommends the Government periodically review the charitable sector’s use of what would otherwise be tax revenue to verify that the intended social outcomes are actually being achieved.

I think if the Government is going to review the charitable sector, and religious organisations in particular, the Tax Working Group’s recommendations will be starting point. In April 2019 when the last Government responded to the Tax Working Group’s eight recommendations on charities it noted that Inland Revenue’s Policy Division was already working on five of the recommendations. Two of the remaining three were under consideration for inclusion in Inland Revenue’s policy work programme. The other, in relation to whether New Zealand should apply a distinction between privately controlled foundations and other charitable organisations, would be undertaken by the Department of Internal Affairs, which oversees Charities Services. It’s likely the COVID pandemic disrupted this proposed work programme.

We may get a clue as to the Government’s thinking in next month’s budget, but I think the Government’s focus will be on getting its tax relief package out of the way first so Inland Revenue’s resources will be applied there. The Government and Inland Revenue may then look at this exemption, but I imagine given the fuss and general controversy around such a move, it’s probably relatively low priority. Maybe we’ll see something in the Budget.

Canada loses patience and introduces a digital services tax

There was an interesting development in the Canadian budget, which was released earlier this week. The Canadian Government has decided to push ahead with the introduction of a digital services tax (DST) on large tech companies. Over a five-year period, this was expected to raise ~C$5.9 billion (about NZ$7.3 billion).  

Canada had held off for two years to allow for the conclusion of the international negotiations on Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 to conclude, but they’ve dragged on with no clear conclusion in sight. The Canadians have therefore decided to push the button on a DST commenting:

“In view of consecutive delays internationally in implementing the multilateral treaty, Canada cannot afford to wait before taking action….The government is moving ahead with its longstanding plan to enact a Digital Services Tax.”

The tax would begin to apply for the 2024 calendar year, with the first year covering taxable revenues earned since January 1st, 2022. Understandably, this has provoked a pretty vigorous reaction from the United States, where the headquarters of all these tech companies are situated.

What does that mean for us down here? Well, again, we may find out more in the Budget. The Taxation (Annual Rates for 2023-24, Multinational Tax, and Remedial Matters) Bill which was enacted just before 31st March included legislation for our digital services tax. The Government is therefore in a position that it can watch to see if other countries follow Canada’s lead and then decide whether it should follow suit.

The whole purpose of the digital services tax legislation is to act as a backstop in the event the Two-Pillar solution does not reach a satisfactory conclusion. At the moment negotiations are stalled thanks to vigorous push back by the the companies most affected, such as Alphabet, the owner of Google, Amazon and Meta, owner of Facebook. It’s interesting to see this Canadian move and I wonder if other countries will push ahead with their own DSTs. There are quite a number lot of digital services taxes around the world, with many on hold pending the outcome on the Two-Pillar negotiations.

Taxing Google to help New Zealand media?

Just as an aside, as is well known the media in New Zealand is in desperate financial straits and a question that keeps coming popping up is taxing the digital giants more effectively. That’s because a substantial portion of the advertising revenue that in the past went to New Zealand media companies is now going overseas in the form of (little taxed) various licence payments and fees for services to the the likes of Alphabet and Meta. Watch this space I think things are about to get very interesting.

Inland Revenue gearing up for fringe benefit tax initiatives?

This week, Inland Revenue consolidated the various advice and commentary on fringe benefit tax advice it’s published over the years under a single link. This seems to me to be further signs that Inland Revenue is gearing up to launch a fringe benefit tax initiative. It follows comments by the Minister of Revenue Simon Watts, in several speeches in which he referred to Inland Revenue’s regulatory stewardship review of FBT released in 2022. I got the clear impression that he, and therefore Inland Revenue were keen to look further at this matter and investigate what revenue raising opportunities may arise through a more through stricter enforcement of the FBT rules.

As a very good article by Robyn Walker of Deloitte noted  FBT is nearly 40 years old. It’s a very strong behavioural tax. It exists to stop people converting taxable salaries into non-taxable benefits. So, it never really should be an extensive tax raise revenue raiser.

That said, I think there have been issues particularly in relation to the status of twin cab utes and the work-related vehicle exemption as to whether there is sufficient enforcement going on. My expectation therefore is Inland Revenue is gearing up to launch a number of fringe benefit tax reviews and this small step consolidating its previous commentary and advice into a single space is another sign.

Got an idea to improve our tax system? Enter the Tax Policy Charitable Trust scholarship competition

Finally, this week, the Tax Policy Charitable Trust has announced its 2024 scholarship competition. This is designed to support the continuation of leading tax policy research and thinking and to inspire future tax policy leaders. Regular listeners to the podcast will know we’ve had past winners Nigel Jemson and Vivien Lei  as guests, and I’m looking forward to meeting the next batch of scholarship recipients.

Entrants may submit proposals for propose significant reform of the New Zealand tax system, analyse the potential unintended consequences from existing laws and changes, and suggest changes to address them. It’s open to young tax professionals aged 35 and under on 1st January 2024 working in New Zealand with an interest in tax policy. The winning entry this year will receive a $10,000 cash prize. The runner up will receive $4000 and two other finalists will each receive $1000 each.

I look forward to seeing what comes out of this and hopefully we will have the winners on our podcast sometime in the future. In the meantime good luck to all those who enter.

On that note, that’s all for this week, I’m Terry Baucher and you can find this podcast on my website or wherever you get your podcasts.  Thank you for listening and please send me your feedback and tell your friends and clients. Until next time, kia pai to rā. Have a great day.

Latest Covid-19 developments

Latest Covid-19 developments

  • Latest Covid-19 developments
  • How Christopher Luxon’s property portfolio is representative of the taxation of property debate
  • Inland Revenue releases draft statement on charities and donee organisation


Last week, New Zealand entered the new COVID-19 protection framework, or the traffic light system. Currently here in Auckland, we are on red and most of the rest of the country is on orange, with a few other exceptions. As part of this, the Government has made a new transition payment available, which is aimed particularly at businesses in the Auckland, Waikato and Northland regions, because these are the ones who have had the longest period under the old alert level system.

This transition period payment will be paid through the Resurgence Support Payment system starting in a week’s time from 10th December. It’s set at a higher base level than the current Resurgence Support Payments, applications for which closed last night, by the way. The payment is $4,000 per business, plus $400 per full time equivalent employee, up to a cap of 50 full time equivalent employees. The maximum that any business can receive is $24,000. Treasury estimates the likely total cost of the payment is going to be somewhere between $350-490 million.

This is a new support being made available. The Leave Support Scheme and Short-Term Absence Payment are also available. The Government will be considering further targeted support once the new Covid-19 protection framework beds in.

One other thing to note is that the rules have been changed so that recently acquired businesses can access the Resurgence Support Payment. This is because under the previous rules, the applicant had to have been operating as a business for at least one month before August 17th. So, businesses acquired after July 17th were not eligible for any payment. Although few businesses were affected by the previous criteria, it made a difficult time even worse.

The test will be that the business that was sold must have been in operation for at least a month prior to August 17th and the new business is carrying on the same or similar activity as before the change in ownership. This is a welcome little break. However, there will still be pressure on businesses. As is well known, hospitality and tourism have had a very, very hard time of it over the last 16 weeks of lockdown

Mega landlords

Moving on, there’s been quite the debate this week over the taxation of property as a number of factors came together. Stuff has been running stories on what it calls mega landlords. One story noted that the proposed changes to the interest limitation rules have led investors to start reconsidering their investment portfolio. And also there’s been changes in the Bright-line test, which is now runs for 10 years.

A survey from the Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CAANZ) and in conjunction with Tax Management New Zealand, found that the proposed tax policies had already affected many property investors’ behaviour. 70% of the 360 odd respondents reported that their clients had changed or were planning to change their investment behaviour. What exactly that might be obviously depends on individual circumstances. According to CAANZ’s New Zealand tax leader John Cuthbertson, it’s likely to be not purchasing additional properties.  However, as he also pointed out there’s still some confusion and uncertainty around the complexity of the rules.

Multi property owners

And then Christopher Luxon, the new leader of the National Party, came under some fire when it was revealed that he had seven properties as part of his investment portfolio. However, as business journalist Bernard Hickey pointed out this is actually an entirely rational investment approach under current rules.

This is the crux of the matter. Property has been very tax-preferred, particularly in relation to the non-taxation of gains, and the deductibility of interest even though there are two parts to the economic return, i.e. the taxed rental income and the (usually untaxed) capital growth. Apparently, the value of Luxon’s properties increased by approximately $4 million over the last 12 months. He can reasonably expect that none of this gain will be taxed.

These themes form the background behind the new legislation to limit interest deductions. It so happened that last Monday Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Select Committee heard oral submissions on the new tax bill, the Taxation (Annual Rates for 2021-2022, GST and Remedial Matters) Bill to give it its full title.

The FEC received 83 written submissions, which are available on its website, including a monster 216 page submission from CAANZ. The size of that submission, which was one of the largest I’ve ever seen, gives you some idea of the complexity involved in this whole matter.

Listening to the oral submissions, the constant refrain was that the proposed rules are far more complicated than people realise, and we don’t know what the unintended consequences might be. The Corporate Taxpayers Group (their submission was a more manageable 21 pages) suggested that really the introduction of the interest limitation rules should be deferred until 1st April so that people can get their head around what’s going on.  I think this is a fair point and one other submitters made.

CAANZ and the Corporate Taxpayers Group were concerned about how rushed this whole process has been and how that fits in with the Generic Tax Policy Process (GTTP). I and one or two other submitters suggested that there really needs to be a thorough review of the bright-line test and this legislation in line with the GTPP, because that’s what’s supposed to happen and hasn’t been happening recently. The bright-line test, for example, was introduced six years ago so it’s time for a review as to how it’s working.  Since its introduction the bright-line period has gone from two years to ten years period. How is that working? is a fair question to ask.

Talking about the distortions

In the course of the hearing Green MP Chloe Swarbrick rather mischievously raised the issue of an inheritance tax with one submitter. That promptly earned her a bit of a telling off from the chair of the FEC. In my oral submission, I took the opportunity to put forward the Fair Economic Return proposal Susan St John and myself have developed. Whether that gets any traction remains to be seen.

To perhaps unfairly reference Christopher Luxon again, the concern we have is that his $4 million of capital appreciation in the past 12 months is most likely not to be taxed. And whether that’s actually an appropriate tax setting is something we don’t believe is correct. And I think the evidence is growing about how distortionary it is and that something needs to change.

This whole debate, which went on this week and will continue, reinforces the point that Craig Elliffe made in last week’s podcast that the debate over the taxing of property or capital isn’t going away because the current position is unsustainable. A point that rarely gets made is that Aotearoa-New Zealand is really unique in not either having a capital gains tax, or a wealth tax or estate and gift duties or taxing imputed rental. All of those exist in one form in most of the major jurisdictions of the OECD and G20, but there is none of them that don’t have any of those except for ourselves. So that’s why I think this debate will continue.

Doing charity, or accumulating wealth?

Moving on, I remember listening to the late Sir Michael Cullen talking about his experience on the Tax Working Group. I asked him about whether anything had been a surprise to him, and he replied he had been surprised by the extent of what was happening in the charitable sector,

This is something that pops up from time to time with criticism and accusations of charities abusing their charitable status to get an unfair advantage over other businesses. Sanitarium is the one charity (of the Seventh-day Adventist Church) that often pops up when this happens. The Tax Working Group’s view on charitable donations was that it is a long-standing relief. In its view the issue will be around whether, in fact, those charitable organisations are making charitable donations. The concern that arises is when they’re not and they are accumulating wealth without distributing it.

Now it so happens that this week Inland Revenue released a draft operational statement on charities and donee organisations. Now this is a bit of a monster statement, it runs to 105 pages. It outlines the tax treatment and obligations that apply to charities and donee organisations and how the Commissioner of Inland Revenue will apply the relevant legislation.

As I said, the statement is so big it’s been split into two parts, one for charities and one for donee organisations. I’m not proposing to run through this in detail right now, but the statement sets out briefly what exemptions are available and how Inland Revenue is expecting that process to be managed. Inland Revenue is taking submissions until the end of next February. And I would expect that this would generate quite a bit of feedback.

It’s good Inland Revenue has set out formal rules for charities and donee organisations. It is also, in my mind, an indicator that Inland Revenue has some concerns about what’s been happening in this sector, and it is now making very clear what are the rules, what it expects to see, and there will be consequences if the rules aren’t followed.

Well, that’s it for this week. I’m Terry Baucher and you can find this podcast on my website or wherever you get your podcasts.  Thank you for listening (and reading) and please send me your feedback and tell your friends and clients. Until next week kia pai te wiki, have a great week!