Labor’s corporate tax avoidance policy is mostly window dressing


The best maxim with which to encapsulate Labor’s new policy on corporate tax avoidance is perhaps “deckchairs on the Titanic”. Yes, it is uplifting to be engaged in some sort of activity while the ship sinks. Yes, it is far superior to the government’s feeble efforts. No, it won’t save us from drowning in debt.

The touted $1.9 billion in savings over three years is pocket fluff. BHP alone is shaping up to pay $2 billion less in income tax this year thanks to falling profits. And it is one of the nation’s premier taxpayers.

Australia has a serious revenue problem and a slew of multinationals will compound the problem again this year by paying very little, or nothing at all; some because they face a downturn in the profit cycle, others because they indulge in aggressive, barely legal tax avoidance strategies.

This is a less of a policy battle afoot than a PR battle. Neither of the major parties is game to risk party donations from large corporations and the likes of the Big Four audit firms, who infiltrate government at many levels and are lobbying furiously in the lead-up to the parliamentary inquiry into corporate tax avoidance.

What they want is less transparency on tax, a spot of tinkering around the edges – to deliver the appearance rather than the actuality of reform – and the continued pursuit of multilateral talks. But OECDs and G20s don’t make laws, countries do. Multilateral chat-fests are a good way to postpone real reform. They are a scapegoat; they can be blamed for the failure to get results. Sir Humphrey stuff.

For the major parties there are millions of dollars in funding at stake. For the multinationals there are billions of dollars in profits at stake. For the Tax Office, there is credibility.

Hence the press yesterday morning. Readers of this newspaper will have missed the stories elsewhere in the press, known in the trade as a “drop”. “ATO leads global battle against multinational tax cheats” was the headline in the Murdoch tabloids.

Readers were told the Tax Office was intrepidly clawing back $1.1 billion in tax from its profit-shifting program. Once again, pocket fluff.

While the ATO is busy raising $250 million a year in tax assessments, the interest bill on related-party loans from single multinationals can exceed this figure every year. That is, there are companies that lend billions to themselves offshore at interest rates of 9 per cent and more. The loans are pre-tax and interest deductions are claimed.

As revealed here two weeks ago, News Corporation – whose newspapers are suspiciously effusive in their praise of the Tax Office – and Telstra have a $900-million loan over 15 years to their wholly-owned Foxtel at an astronomical 12 per cent. That’s twice the rate the average household pays on its mortgage.

The Labor policy partially addresses one of the major lurks in corporate tax planning, that is, loading up the Australian business with lots of debt in order to reduce profit here. The lower the taxable income, the lower the tax paid.

So, the mooted $1.65 billion in savings from tightening up “thin capitalisation” rules ought to be lauded (reducing the debt-to-equity threshold from 60 per cent to 30 per cent for claiming deductions).

The other measures are tiny. In view of the enormity of the revenue challenge though – and the fact that ordinary taxpayers are increasingly expected to shoulder the tax burden for the world’s most powerful companies – there is a long way to go.

If Labor was fair dinkum it could call for far greater transparency on tax disclosure and knock on the head this mad-cap Tax Office plan (ECAP) to have big company auditors also do their clients’ tax compliance as well.

That is hardly the time to put the fox in charge of the hen-house.