Budget laptop restrictions send mixed messages

Tuesday's budget saw the Federal government remove the tax break for workers purchasing laptops under a salary sacrifice, in a move inconsistent with a number of other policy initiatives, according to observers.
Written by Marcus Browne, Contributor

Tuesday's budget saw the Federal government remove the tax break for workers purchasing laptops under a salary sacrifice scheme, which was a move inconsistent with other policy initiatives, according to observers.

The measure was introduced in Tuesday's budget as part of a number of cuts to what Treasurer Wayne Swan dubbed "the middle class welfare state", with a tightening of exemptions on the Fringe Benefits Tax regime expected to save the government AU$1.43 billion by the end of its term.


As a result of the removal of the concession, employees will no longer be able to purchase laptops through work under salary packaging schemes and offset the cost as a tax deduction.

Employees will now have to undergo a "used primarily for work" test to apply for any exemptions on laptops purchased through the workplace.

"One negative of the change is the fact that the concept of a 'used primarily for work purposes' test is a subjective one and one for which there is no clear guidance," John Brazzale, partner at accounting firm Pitcher Partners.

This means that employers will inevitably have to undertake more administration and more paperwork to ensure that the test is met and that it has appropriate means of substantiating the use of the exemption.

While the change is only one of a number of targeting tax-free fringe benefits, anecdotal evidence suggests that many of these laptops have been finding their way from the office and into the home and school lives of employees' children.

Brazzale described the move as "inconsistent with other Federal Budget initiatives to provide tax refunds for certain education costs, including the purchase of laptops".

"When you look at the kids with the highest levels of digital literacy across primary and high school, it tends to be those with computers at home ... they're the ones using computers most in the classroom as well," said Joe Sweeney, analyst at research firm IBRS, and PhD candidate for work in technology and education.

Sweeney said that while the Federal government's digital education revolution is well intentioned, a hardware-based solution may not be the answer: "It's really got to be focused on the teachers themselves."

"The reality is that the educational environment has to mimic what's in the home environment, and while there are some tech-savvy teachers running Linux or using Macs, Windows-based PCs still dominate home usage," he said.

"As children learn this they'll enter the workforce with that as the prevailing experience, and expect the same technology [Windows] there, so in a sense it becomes a 'hidden curriculum' by the end of schooling," said Sweeney.

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