Companies and groups publicly supporting the government’s attempts to wind back financial transparency for private companies are being asked to disclose their links to beef producer Teys Australia and its part-owner Cargill, as Labor reveals several links to a single law firm opposed to the current law.

The federal government is attempting to pass legislation to wind back laws passed by Labor that require privately owned companies with revenues of over $100 million per financial year to disclose financial and company data about their organisation, similar to that which is routinely disclosed by public companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange. The move is expected to affect up to 800 companies in Australia.

The government has said the requirement needs to be repealed because the families of directors whose information is made public could be kidnapped and held for ransom. In the explanatory memorandum for the legislation, the government stated that “many private companies” had raised concerns about the impact of disclosing the information on their “personal privacy and security”:

“Japan repealed similar legislation in 2005 on the basis that disclosure was being utilised in ways inconsistent with its initial aim, and reports that the disclosure was a factor in causing crimes and harassment.”

But it was unclear which companies were leading the push. The most public opponent of the current disclosure requirements is Teys Australia, a privately owned beef producer, which is jointly owned by American beef giant Cargill and the Teys family. Cargill is said to be the largest privately held company in the United States based on revenue. Teys Australia told Treasury in June that the transparency would result in “serious criminal activity” targeting people “on the basis of perceived wealth”.

Attempts to access the confidential submissions to Treasury on the matter revealed just five companies made submissions, though none of them were published. The Australian Federal Police was asked whether it had been consulted about the kidnapping concern, but the AFP stated that kidnapping was not in its jurisdiction, and the question would be best asked of state law enforcement agencies.

The Australian Financial Review this week reported that one of the submissions backing the government’s position to the parliamentary inquiry on the legislation, from a newly created group called the Family Office Institute, shared a phone number on its submission with Speed & Stracey Lawyers, a tax specialist law firm that has also been pushing for the exemption.

A name was redacted from the Family Office Institute, which Labor Senator Sam Dastyari yesterday asked to be made unredacted. The name was revealed to be Richard Lie. Lie’s name no longer appears on the Speed & Stracey website, but his LinkedIn profile, according to Google cache, suggests he has been a senior associate at the firm, and according to other cached pages on the Speed & Stracey website, Lie has worked as part of tax advisory at Speed & Stracey.

Of the nine submissions received by the inquiry, seven were in favour of the government’s position. Another backer of the government’s decision to make the data harder to access is the Law Council of Australia. In its submission it stated that the right to privacy for shareholders in those private companies was undermined by under current legislation. At a hearing of the committee last month, the Law Council of Australia was represented by Daniel Appleby from its taxation committee. Appleby is also an employee of Speed & Stracey Lawyers.

There is no suggestion that Speed & Stracey is representing Teys Australia, or Cargill, but nevertheless, given the overlap in people with ties to Speed & Stracey in the Family Office Institute’s submission, and the Law Council of Australia, Dastyari’s office confirmed to Crikey that yesterday the Senator had written to seven of the nine organisations to ask that they disclose “any commercial, contractual, or any other connections” with Teys Australia, or Cargill.

One organisation attempting to fight the proposed changes is the Tax Justice Network. The group has said that the information Teys Australia and others are fighting to keep private would still be accessible through other avenues, as stated in its submission to the inquiry:

“The ease with which such information about the families’ wealth and address details can be obtained, some of it made available online by members of the family themselves, makes it obvious there will be no threat to the personal safety of people like the Teys family through the small amount of tax transparency being provided by the current provisions of the Tax Administration Act.”

The committee is due to report back to Parliament on Monday, October 12.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey