The Senate Economics Committee is the latest battleground over transparency, with government senators declaring everything is under control when it comes to multinational tax avoidance and evasion and there’s no need for further action, while Labor, the Greens and Nick Xenophon push a significant extension of tax transparency.
The committee’s interim report on corporate tax avoidance was tabled yesterday after some confected outrage from the government about the leaking of some of the recommendations to the media (outrage that was strangely missing when someone on the right-wing-manned windfarm inquiry leaked that report in its entirety to the wind turbine syndrome advocates at The Australian, but never mind). Because it’s a reference committee, the non-government parties have the numbers, and Labor’s Sam Dastyari was chair; the two Liberal senators involved, Sean Edwards and Matthew Canavan, tabled a dissenting report professing “deep concerns about some of the recommendations made in the interim report”.
The tenor of the report is that, via transfer pricing, particularly around intellectual property, revenue shifting and debt loading, multinational companies are running local operations with the intention of minimising profits, rather than maximising them, and thereby avoiding tax on massive revenue flows from Australian customers. However, the report declines to recommend specific tax law amendments; it supports the current OECD/G20 “BEPS” (base erosion and profit shifting) multilateral process, despite misgivings about unnamed countries dragging the chain. It instead recommends a suite of transparency measures under which companies would report more information about their tax affairs and companies currently exempt from reporting would no longer be; the ATO would also publish more information about audits, disputes and settlements.
Indeed, the ATO comes out surprisingly well from the interim report; there’s even a pat on the back for Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan, who “has used the inquiry to effectively promote the work of the ATO in leading efforts to increase global cooperation to combat tax avoidance”. In contrast, the report not unfairly gives the impression Treasury is a reluctant participant in the fight against tax evasion, especially for anything unilateral on Australia’s part. As we’ve seen elsewhere, Treasury’s innovative approach to reducing tax evasion is simply to lower the level of company tax, rather than make companies pay more.
Greens Leader Richard Di Natale explains the emphasis on greater transparency in his additional report, presumably to head off criticism that the report is too wishy-washy
“Public dissemination of a company’s financial accounts carries with it a severe reputational risk to globally significant firms. Public exposure of tax arrangements in the UK has seen companies like Starbucks and Amazon announce that they will commence paying tax on UK sales after sustained public outcry.1 Similarly, during this inquiry, Glencore announced it will close its marketing hubs so that transactions occur and are taxed in Australia — owever this was also influenced by prevailing commercial arrangements. Just as efficient markets require the removal of information asymmetry for good investment decisions, efficient protection of the public interest and public revenue requires the removal of information asymmetry between corporate actors and the public, represented through our public institutions and agencies.”
For a government deeply averse to transparency, however, even the relatively conservative recommendations of the committee are too much. “The Coalition Government has taken strong action in our nearly two years in office to combat corporate tax avoidance,” Edwards and Canavan write, strangely overlooking that Joe Hockey actually abandoned a Labor measure to address multinational tax avoidance by debt loading and the government is working to reduce transparency for private companies, on the spurious and laughable basis that wealthy Australians might be targeted by kidnappers scanning the ATO website for rich listers.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Indeed, during the course of the inquiry, the committee found out that no one had raised any concerns about kidnapping with the government or the Australian Federal Police.
For Edwards and Canavan, everything is hunky-dory on tax. They reel off a long list of measures the government claims to be taking, including that bizarre Joe Hockey announcement the day before the budget where he said there’d be new anti-avoidance rules established but couldn’t say how much revenue would be saved by them. As for transparency, well, there was a voluntary disclosure code the government was working on with large companies. That’ll get ’em quaking in Bermuda and Zug. Like their government, Edwards and Canavan don’t like transparency, partly because voters aren’t smart enough to understand the information. If large companies had to report their revenue, expenses, tax and use of tax deductions, “the public will not be assisted in understanding the legitimacy of deductions or costs incurred by a company in calculating its reported income for a given income year, nor will the large number of state taxes an entity may pay (such as payroll and land tax) be considered”.
Much better to remain in ignorance about how much multinationals are getting away with, it seems.