It was the worst timing since Australian Industry Group head Innes Willox told a ritzy business lunch that Australian IR laws needed fixing because wages were too high at the exact moment the ABS released data showing declining real wages. Yesterday, Business Council of Australia head Jennifer Westacott travelled to Canberra to address a meeting on international taxation, in order to explain that business paid enough tax already and unless businesses were allowed to vet changes agreed by the OECD and G20 to reduce tax avoidance by transnational companies, countries could “splinter international taxation norms.”

“International tax laws should not be an obstacle in the unstoppable evolution of the global economy,” Westacott warned, as if mere puny governments could stop the march of history into a glorious capitalist future in which international capital is free to roam the globe untaxed. Westacott wanted “a broad rather than a narrow view of what’s needed to realise national objectives” — narrow, of course, meaning focused on making transnationals pay as much tax as companies that can’t resort to exploiting tax havens and transfer pricing mechanisms.

And in Westacott’s view, the lack of a balanced debate on tax avoidance could damage community confidence in the tax system:

“Business will not shy away from challenging issues, but any debate must be sensible, well informed and rely on facts and evidence. Not doing so undermines the community’s confidence in the integrity of our tax system and distorts the debate.”

Other people might think that multinational companies getting away with avoiding tax to the tune of billions of dollars while the rest of us have to cough up our full obligation might undermine community confidence in the integrity of the tax system — but not the Business Council. Westacott’s got her eye on the real danger — not hearing enough from business.

Missing from Westacott’s speech was some disclosure: the BCA represents some of the world’s worst tax avoiders, including News Corp, Glencore and Google, as well as the accounting firms that enable their avoidance.

But as Westacott was warning governments not to do too much on tax avoidance, the Australian Financial Review’s Neil Chenoweth was revealing the remarkable extent of tax avoidance via the tax haven of Luxembourg as part of a coordinated series of international stories sourced from leaked PricewaterhouseCoopers Luxembourg documents. The AFR had even carried a teaser for Westacott’s speech in its morning edition, but now the Business Council was looking even more out of touch than usual as the use of Luxembourg by both Australian companies and transnational companies operating in Australia was revealed. Oh, and apropos of nothing, PWC is a member of the BCA.

“Doing nothing would be ‘counter-productive’ to the millions of ordinary individual taxpayers and the hundreds of thousands of companies who pay tax regularly in the old fashioned way.”

Some of the identities of the companies involved were withheld in the material made available, not out of legal concerns, but because detailed exposes will be published in coming weeks. That would explain why there’s one media company in Australia today that has almost entirely ignored the story — even The Guardian, which admits it benefits from the use of tax havens by its parent group, ran hard on the story. But the only reference to the material in News Corp’s publications have been a brief piece of wire copy run when the story broke yesterday and a piece in The Australian (you know, the paper that claims it’s the only outlet that breaks real stories) from Annabel Hepworth, quoting businessman Richard Goyder pre-emptively attacking G20 moves to reduce tax avoidance.

The AFR also ran Goyder’s comments, and its editorial reflected the struggle between its usual pro-business instinct and Chenoweth’s reportage. “We cannot leave this issue open to simplistic analysis of company tax payments like those of the Tax Justice Network and United Voice and sensationalised reporting [by whom — Chenoweth?], which puts even more pressure on politicians and tax officials to take action in counter-productive ways.”

Counter-productive for whom? The tax dodgers and their advisers? Transnational company executives whose bonuses might not be quite so large? Doing nothing would be “counter-productive” to the millions of ordinary individual taxpayers and the hundreds of thousands of companies who pay tax regularly in the old fashioned way. The AFR also complained that our 30% tax rate “affects Australian companies’ ability to compete” (erm, so with whom does Future Fund compete?). As the Amazon example explored in detail today by Chenoweth demonstrates — Amazon claims it made just $1.5 million in Australia last year — competition is indeed an issue. It was tough enough for the now all-but-vanished Australian book retail sector to compete against Amazon. Amazon’s online offering is compelling, its service high quality, its range extraordinary, its prices often a fraction of local sellers. But it’s far tougher when local companies have to pay 30 cents in the dollar in tax while Amazon can make money off Australians and pay just a few cents in tax on each dollar made.

And the AFR does admit that those who minimise their tax payments “to absurdly low levels through legal dodges push more of the burden onto others”. The AFR and the BCA can’t seem to find that tax minimisation stops being about maximising shareholder returns and becomes a rising burden on the rest of the community, the federal and state budgets and on the economy as a whole. International bodies such as the IMF and the OECD know where that line is in terms of the principles involved and the practicalities.

Next week we find out finally if the Abbott government, and particularly Treasurer Joe Hockey, know where the line is drawn when the G20 talks about tax base erosion and global tax minimisation. The Prime Minister would do better to “shirt-front” the European Union on the issue because that’s where the prime enablers of these lurks are based: in Ireland, The Netherlands and Luxembourg.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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