While two of the planet’s biggest tax dodgers, Apple and Microsoft, might be concerned about how the government intends to compel them to pay more tax in Australia, both will be over the moon about the budget. Both should see a healthy surge in Australian sales due to the government’s small business package. Not merely will small businesses be able to claim an instant tax deduction for all assets they purchase worth up to $20,000, but all small business work-related portable electronic devices will be exempt from fringe benefits tax.

IT manufacturers like Apple, software manufacturers like Microsoft and Adobe, communications equipment and appliance manufacturers like Samsung and LG, TV manufacturers like Sony and car, van and truck manufacturers stand to make a motza as small businesses and their owners take advantage of the changes to refit. More than any other measure in the budget, it will get Australians spending at a time when the economy is tepid at best and consumer and business sentiment is weak. The Coalition will be hoping this spending frenzy will feed into the rest of the economy and revive some of those “animal spirits” whose dormancy has so troubled policymakers in Canberra and Martin Place of late.

Local retailers will of course benefit, none more than Wesfarmers with its hardware giant, Bunnings (we’ve had Howard’s Battlers — how about Tone’s Tradies?) and Officeworks (one of the best performing retail chains of any sort in Australia at the moment). Rival Woolies will get some lift from its Masters hardware chain, which is doing it tough, and its other hardware business, Tradelink. But it sold off Dick Smith two and a bit years ago, so shareholders in that consumer products chain will do nicely, as will those in JB Hi Fi and Harvey Norman. Solomon Lew’s Premier Investments and its group of chains won’t do all that well, unless its new coffeemakers for the office from Breville (26% owned by Premier). Don’t feel too sorry for Lew, though — he and Gerry Harvey will benefit from the crackdown on online imports. Look wider and some building products groups, such as GWA (bathrooms and dunnies) could benefit from the $20,000 no-questions-asked investment. Listed car groups such as AP Eagers and Automotive Holdings will no doubt be scouring their inventories for small utes and vans to flog at $19,999, too. And Telstra, Optus and Vodafone will all benefit from the elimination of FBT on smartphones.

But much of the ultimate value from the package will pass through retailers and end up on the bottom lines of some of the world’s biggest companies offshore, who will gobble up the additional revenue with the same relish as they tuck into the Irish Double Dutch sandwich. Two of those, it is strongly suspected, feature on the government’s list of 30 multinationals that will be targeted under its new multinational anti-avoidance law, the exposure draft of which was circulated yesterday.

The proposed law would apply a test to large corporation tax arrangements to determine if a principal purpose is to obtain a tax benefit, and apply laws as if those arrangements didn’t apply. But, crucially, the arrangements must involve a “low tax jurisdiction”, and what exactly constitutes a “low tax jurisdiction” isn’t clear. Presumably the Cayman Islands or Bermuda is a low tax jurisdiction. But is Singapore, that “marketing hub” through which so much of our iron ore seems to flow (in a financial, if not literal, sense), a “low tax jurisdiction”? What about Ireland? Or the Netherlands, or Luxembourg? Australia declaring these countries tax havens isn’t going to go down well, however much these countries are blatantly facilitators of multinational tax dodging. And anyway, ask the OECD about declaring tax havens. Its formal list of “uncooperative tax havens” is empty. There is literally no one on it.

But assuming the likes of the Netherlands and Ireland and Singapore are singled out as “low tax jurisdictions” under the government’s new laws, the problem remains of convincing a court that an arrangement satisfies the relevant tests. That is, the process of applying what is in essence a subjective test to legal rigour will take an extended period involving some of the world’s biggest companies and their lawyers on one side, and the Australian Tax Office, which has not exactly had huge success facing off with tax dodgers like News Corp in court, on the other.

Labor, on the other hand, has proposed a tighter, simpler rule in relation to capitalisation that provides a hard and fast test about the level of internal debt companies can have in Australia compared to the company’s operations across the rest of the world. But the government has rejected that approach at the insistence of the Business Council and big companies.

So, happy days for Apple and Microsoft. Their day of reckoning on tax avoidance in Australia is unlikely to come any time soon. And in the interim, taxpayers will be helping to fund what is likely to prove a boom in revenue for them. Let’s hope some of it sticks here in Australia.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey