Joe Hockey acts in what may be his final hours as Treasurer against multinationals


It was as if the prisoner, awaiting the hangman’s noose, had been led out to utter his final words. Despite the occasion, despite his funereal subject – multinational tax avoidance – he was sanguine and he spoke freely, as a man in his final hours mindful of his legacy.

At the eve of his political execution, Joe Hockey has unveiled legislation to tackle the scourge of multinational profit shifting. Only an 11th hour reprieve from the latest prime minister of the country can save the treasurer now. The scaffolders are on site, the hood and the rope are on their way and the chaplain is booked for the weekend to administer the last rites.

It is then, via a cabinet reshuffle, that Joe’s fate is to be decided. Rumour has it that he is to be slain as treasurer and his remains deported from the gallows to the Communications portfolio where he will spend a wretched eternity fielding ultimatums on media policy from News Corporation.

Rumour has it that Joe Hockey is to be slain as treasurer and his remains deported from the gallows to the Communications portfolio. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

So it was that he spoke his mind. There was “not universal agreement”, at the latest G20 gabfest, Joe Hockey told the throng of reporters at his press conference in Canberra, citing “a very large country”. He was rather boldly alluding to the US and the fact that it is not in the interests of America for its companies to pay more tax in Australia.

This may be unassailable logic but it is also unfashionable logic in big business circles. The four major audit firms, peak bodies and the tax fraternity all sing from the same song-sheet when it comes to global tax talks: “Don’t go it alone!” they cry, knowing the prospect of any half-decent agreement from multilateral summits is faint.

Hockey said Australia should act both with the G20 and independently of the G20 to fight profit shifting. More money was earmarked for the Tax Office to combat trans-national tax dodgers (albeit in the wake of the ATO’s severe budget cuts), there were the expected measures to capture GST on online purchases, and the scope of the crackdown on profit shifting has been expanded to 1000 companies.

Illustration: John Shakespeare

There is a lot more to do – and a lot more that could have been done already – particularly tax transparency measures. However, at this solemn hour for Joe Hockey, as the band plays the Dead March and the hangman’s crew are greasing the hinges on the trap-door, mercy is the order of the day.

As this writer has been one of the loudest jeerers in the mob we can focus for a moment on what has been achieved.

Government action has miserably failed to match its rhetoric, but things are moving in the right direction. The Tax Office has embedded its staff in 30 of the high-risk multinationals and the new laws – penalties for cheating the ATO – will now extend to 1000 companies with global sales above $1 billion.

This captures the top tier, certainly the big name offenders such as Google, Apple, eBay, PayPal, Amazon, Microsoft and the raft of Big Pharma companies. It also covers emerging digital players – Uber, FaceBook, Twitter – whose success so often comes at the expense of companies who used to contribute to Australia’s tax base.

Hockey and Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan made particular mention of multinationals making their sales in Australia but booking them offshore – and some tightening up of the “dominant purpose” provisions in the Tax Act. This is good stuff.

As revealed in these pages, Google makes more than $2 billion selling advertising services to Australians on Australian computers – but it deems this business to be Singaporean and pays not one red cent in tax on these sales.

Over the past nine years, electronic payments firm PayPal has paid more than $1 billion of its $1.2 billion in revenues to its parent and associates in Singapore leaving very little to be taxed in Australia. PayPal claims that these payments to its immediate parent company, are for “services provided”.

Sister company eBay Australia is equally as elusive, booking the bulk of its earnings from Australia in Switzerland. There is no level playing field for Its local competitors in retail. The likes of eBay and Google even dodge GST.

“Billions in sales are not being booked here,” said Hockey. The government has now recognised the magnitude of the problem, it has people inside the companies. It claims that multinationals “have approached us to find out how to unwind” various transactions. Hockey also took aim at “third party facilitators … lawyers and accountants”.

This front-foot approach is no doubt deterring devious transactions designed to defraud the Tax Office. What is needed now is much more on the transparency and disclosure front.

Even the Opposition was grudgingly merciful in its response to the Hockey pronouncements. Would it back the legislation, Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh:

“Labor is not going to stand in the way of any attempt to tackle multinational profit shifting, no matter how small or half-baked.”

That’s high praise from an opposition these days. Perhaps it was born of sympathy for Joe Hockey at this dark hour.