Good haven! Even the government does it

Finance & Tax, Government||
Ritz Gran Cayman. Source: Christies

Did you know the Future Fund has no fewer than 43 subsidiaries in foreign tax havens? It is a little-known yet ironic state of affairs.

A perusal of Note 17 to the most recent financial accounts for Australia’s Future Fund board of guardians will show 35 entities in the Cayman Islands, four in Luxembourg, two in Jersey and one each in Ireland and the British Virgin Islands.

There are two salient points to be made here: one, the British Virgin Islands has done a slap-dash job of winning Australian government business, whereas Grand Cayman has furthered its claim to win the title of BRW Australian tax haven of the year. Two, what the blazes is the Australian government doing malingering about in the Cayman Islands? Is it avoiding paying tax to itself?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The guardians may be guarding the assets of the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund, and the Health and Hospitals Fund, but who is guarding the guardians?

One could expect that, let’s say for the sake of argument, QBE Insurance would have a significant presence in the low-lying islands of the Caribbean. Just checking that … yes, with the handy help of that doyen of Australian tax dodgers, Google Australia, we can see that QBE has four entities in Bermuda, eight in Jersey, two in Vanuatu but wait … only three in the Caymans. That is 32 less subsidiaries in the Caymans than the guardians of our Nation Building Future.

What is going on with this Future Fund? Is this really a case of a government avoiding paying tax to itself? No, according to Note 8, the Future Fund is not subject to tax in Australia.

“The fund does not invest in schemes and arrangements that use secrecy laws to conceal assets and income that are subject to tax or which create or promote false or fraudulent tax deductions,” it also says.

Rather, these island subsidiaries are all about ducking tax in other domiciles; sidestepping the taxman in America and Britain. Phew! That’s OK then.

All this goes to the ever-critical issue of how Australia and other Western governments intend to fund their yawning budget deficits in coming years, as even government agencies themselves now run their affairs through islands that barely poke above water at high tide.

In light of the proliferation of offshore structures, is it mean to begrudge our own national champion of guardians the option of a level playing field?

The subject becomes philosophical. Are companies and governments bound by the same ethical precepts as their people? For instance, David Gonski chairs the Future Fund. Gonski is no slouch on the tax front himself, having provided advice to some of this nation’s eminent figures in tax-efficient structures.

It is unlikely, though, that he would publicly espouse that an ordinary Australian, a mere mum or dad, use a Caribbean tax shelter for personal finances. He may prefer Jersey, or the Netherlands Antilles.

In any case, it wasn’t his thing. It was another David, David Murray, who presided over the erection of these exotic Future Fund entities. The former chief of the Commonwealth Bank has also put his hand up to head ”Son of Wallis”, the Coalition’s promised inquiry into the banking and financial system.

The Future Fund plonks a good deal of its funds, perhaps $20 billion of its $90 billion, into private equity investments offshore as it is naturally keen to minimise the amount of tax it might pay on, say, its stake in a Taiwanese telco. Like any fund, it is loathe to be taxed twice. Fair enough, too. Same deal for other governments, most of which are in far worse shape than ours.

It is only logical that a concerted approach on tax shelters is taken between as many nations as possible, and there have been a few papers from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development pondering the best course of action in this regard. The conspiracy theory behind the dearth of real action is that the corporate lobbies have got the measure of their governments and, in any case, the flow of money finds its way from the islands back into big government bond markets to fund assorted deficits.

The big problem in the global system is that the network of tax treaties between nations was signed in the second half of last century. But it was devised by the League of Nations in the aftermath of the First World War. It is old, it is complex, and the advent of e-commerce has rendered it decrepit.

Here was a system designed to tax economic activity where it happened; in the place where people went to work and made things. In the new world of intellectual property, you can brew up an excuse not to pay tax anywhere.

Take Apple, for instance. Here is a stock whose valuation multiple dwarfs others on the US sharemarket. It is a superlative performer with terrific products, but at the same time, a cynical arbitrageur of jurisdictions in everything it does.

It manufactures in China to circumvent labour laws. It funds itself wherever the cheapest capital is on offer and, thanks to a cynical and elaborate structure routed through an Irish holding company, it doesn’t pay much tax anywhere – especially in the jurisdictions where it sells most of its products.

Apple paid $40 million in tax in Australia last year – a good deal more than Google – but sales at $6 billion were three times as high. It claimed to have suffered a fall in net profit despite the $1 billion rise in sales.

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