- We pay our fair share, say Google and Apple
- More money going through ‘hubs’ than ever before
- Big companies need to be open on tax
It reads like a Who’s Who of Australia’s biggest and sneakiest tax avoiders. Names like News Corp, Apple, Google, Sydney Airport, and bits of the old Westfield group – our top-shelf tax dodgers and their chaperones from the global audit firms Deloitte, Ernst & Young and PwC.
This Who’s Who is the list of submissions to the parliamentary inquiry into corporate tax avoidance. The carefully manicured statements have four themes in common.
For a start, they cry OECD. They call piously for multilateral action to address tax avoidance, because they know well that OECDs and G20s don’t make laws – they make communiques and manifestos. Sovereign nations make laws.
This is anti-carbon price rhetoric refashioned, the Minerals Council routine born again. No, don’t move alone. Let’s wait for global action, because we know, deep in our hearts, that global action is chimera.
The second thing these submissions have in common is their “aren’t we marvellous” schtick. Look at the jobs we create, they say. Look at the economic growth to which we contribute. Google’s submission is particularly nauseating on this front.
Decent corporate citizens such as Wesfarmers and Harvey Norman pull their weight on the tax front and create jobs too, as do thousands of small-business people who can hardly afford to spawn associates in Switzerland or the Cayman Islands.
The third PR theme is their penchant for striking down the straw man. The Tax Justice Network, whose charity and church members toil on pitiful wages in the interest of public justice, are routinely lambasted by the big tax avoiders, their peak bodies and their sycophants in the Murdoch press. The TJN comes in for an inevitable serve from a slew of submissions, as do “certain sections” of the press, which we hope refers to yours truly.
Despite its myriad complexities there is one good and certain thing about corporate taxation. That is, anybody can find out, simply by looking at the cash-flow statement in a company’s financial accounts, how much money came in the door in any year and how much tax, to the dollar, was actually paid.
And so it is that although Google Australia is still clinging to the pretence that it “paid” $7.1 million last annual report (an accounting number), its total tax expense was actually $466,802 for the year. Even more illusory is that its $2 billion-plus in revenue from selling ad services to Australian companies advertising Australian products to Australian people on computers sitting in Australia is not even counted as revenue. No, that Australian revenue is booked through another Google entity in low-tax hideout Singapore.
Google Australia deems that Australian revenue to be Singaporean.
The fourth theme evident in these Senate submissions is their relentless penchant for cherry-picking convenient information. Like the practice of tax law itself, it is all about which data one selects to drive one’s case. It is nothing to do with the truth.
Take the classic submission by the Minerals Council, which has displayed, once again, its pathological bent for mixing up royalties with taxes.
This disregard for ethics has worrying and immediate implications for the execution of tax policy. The Australian Taxation Office is pushing to introduce the External Compliance Audit Program (ECAP) scheme, which will outsource the monitoring of tax compliance to none other that the companies’ auditors themselves.
This is principally a cost-cutting move but the ATO’s official line is that chartered accountants and their multinational clients are somehow more high-minded than the rest of us and should be entrusted with self-regulation. It is bizarre, especially in light of PwC being caught out misleading government committees in Britain and the United States over schemes marketed to clients that involved sham structures and profit-shifting via Luxembourg and Switzerland.
Then there are KPMG and Ernst & Young being called up by US Senate subcommittee and accused of actively marketing tax shelters and profit-shifting arrangements. The point is that the Big 4 will always be conflicted. They are part of the problem, not the solution. The evidence is that their ethics are focused on their own hip pockets, not honesty and integrity in dealing with Australian tax and regulatory authorities.
Further to this conflict of interest, the Minerals Council of Australia, which speaks principally on behalf of foreign-controlled multinational mining companies, has filed its submission with the inquiry. Much of its argument against taxing mining companies further, or in a more efficient way, relies on research prepared for it by Deloitte.
Although it is partnering in the ECAP scheme with the ATO and big corporate clients, its work for the Minerals Council demonstrates it can hardly cope with even the basic conflict of interest between its duty to uphold accounting standards and the advice it gives its corporate clients.