Four years ago, Christine Milne, then Greens leader, rang out of the blue to chat about multinational tax avoiders. We discussed terms of reference for a possible Senate Inquiry. The final report came down yesterday evening. Billions of dollars have since flowed into the national coffers as a result of that inquiry. New laws were passed, Tax Office enforcement was ramped up, global tech giants were forced to pay income tax in Australia. The whole exercise in community awareness improved corporate behaviour. The report has a solid tranche of recommendations in it which will bring in more billions still. Alas now there will be more politics and lobbying to contend with, and it’s London to a brick the Government will ignore it.
The Senate Inquiry is finished. It’s final report on Corporate Tax Avoidance has been handed down. Following the first hearings of the Senate Economics References Committee in 2015, the Tax Office went after Google, Apple, Facebook – a raft of tech giants – compelling them to recognise revenue earned in Australia as Australian – rather than from some place offshore. It is still pursuing the oil majors Exxon, Chevron, Shell and BP, over the almost $100 billion in loans they have with their foreign associates offshore, a mighty “debt-loading” ruse which allows them to siphon profits to tax havens via interest payments.
And to think that, just like the Royal Commission into the banks, the government and the business lobby said there was no need for an inquiry into tax avoidance by multinationals. They should kick-start this inquiry again, keep it running indefinitely: with biannual hearings. For the corporate tax avoiders and their enablers will surely exploit every chink in every new law and crank up fresh schemes to rip their profits offshore. This very week, BHP struck a $340 million settlement; pinged by Queensland authorities for a “Singapore marketing hub” royalties rort.
The fight against large corporate tax avoiders will not end. Corporations are getting bigger, more powerful, while their emissaries infiltrate governments and buy their favours and their policies with party donations. Over four years, while some 4,441 Tax Office staff were shown the door, over five years, the architects of global tax avoidance – EY, PwC, Deloitte and KPMG – harvested $1.7 billion in consulting fees from the Commonwealth government alone.
The Senate Economics Committee’s final report, titled Much Heat, Little Light So Far, is a bi-partisan affair and its recommendations must be welcomed, although they don’t go far enough, and whether anything significant will come of it now lies in the hands of parliament. There is a deep schism between proposals and government action.
One illuminating aspect is the “Dissenting Statement” to the Inquiry’s findings by the Greens who can speak more freely on account of not being on the corporate donations gravy train with the major parties. More on that later.
Among the key findings (paraphrased for the sake of explanation):
The “thin capitalisation” rules (how much debt a company can owe itself) be amended so the worldwide gearing ratio is the only method by which interest related deductions should be calculated for the purpose of tax treatment in Australia. Australian operations of multinationals are typically geared much higher than head office offshore due to a higher tax rate here than that of the havens in between Australia and head office.
An independent review into transfer pricing. This may well have been on the Tax Office menu, looking, as it is, to rev up its investigations into chronic profit shifting by Big Pharma.
The ATO transparency data threshold should be lowered to capture companies with a total income
$100 million or more. This makes sense, the more transparency the better. According to Tax Office sources, transparency, rising public awareness and and therefore greater corporate accountability have led to more responsible behaviour by large companies on the tax front, ergo increasing tax receipts in the hundreds of millions.
Companies, trusts and other corporate structures be required to disclose information regarding their beneficial ownership. A central register should be set up; it should be accessible to all and at low cost (not the extremely high access prices now charged by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) for access to public information.
All corporate entities including trusts, with income above a certain amount, should lodge “general purpose” financial statements with ASIC. Despite fielding questions about this in the 2015 inquiry, the Australian Accounting Standards Board (AASB) is apparently still dithering over its review into general purpose reporting.
The government undertake an independent, public review of ASIC’s fees and charges to “explore options for reducing or eliminating fees to access company information, including financial statements”. ASIC is a cash cow for government. Thanks to high company registration charges, various corporate fees and high fees for access to public statutory information ASIC returns a plush dividend to the federal government each year and is left with the scraps to prosecute ever larger companies.
Country-by-Country reports be made publicly available free of charge. This information would include
high level data on how much revenue is collected and tax is paid in jurisdictions in which companies operate.
The existing voluntary tax transparency code be converted to a mandatory
code for all large and medium corporations operating in Australia, including subsidiaries of multinational corporations.
The ATO include a dedicated section on the number and value of significant tax settlements of $50 million or greater in its annual report. No brainer.
The government finalise and release its response to the Callaghan report into the Review of the
Petroleum Resource Rent Tax. (Ed: and political parties should stop taking money from oil companies so this dream of tightening up the PRRT can become a reality.)
The government overhaul uplift rates for future PRRT-eligible projects, so as to make them less generous.
The ordering of deductions be rationalised for future PRRT-eligible projects so those with the highest compounding rates are used first for tax deduction purposes.
The gas transfer pricing method for PRRT-eligible projects be reformed to make it simpler and more transparent so as to ensure that it delivers a fair return to the community.
These are all sensible suggestions and should be implemented. Yet they should go further.
The Greens have issued a statement saying the report falls short in its recommendations, given the epidemic of tax avoidance, particularly in the oil and gas industry.
“The public have made it clear that they want a tax system, not a tax avoidance system. We acknowledge that there have been considerable legislative developments since this inquiry began in October 2014; and that there is now a greater willingness across party lines to do more to protect public revenues. In large part these developments can be attributed to the work of the committee and the witnesses who have supported its investigations.
The Coalition government and Labor both receive large corporate donations, particularly the ruling LNP, and among the most generous party donors are the Big Four.
“Not only does the largesse from these government contracts need to end, and the savings used to reinstate ATO staff, but to prevent future conflicts of interest, political parties must cease accepting the donations from the four-big accounting firms who reap millions more in contracts than they provide in political donations.”
The Greens are calling for:
- Grandfathering exemptions – which allow some of Australia’s riches old family companies to avoid the disclosure requirements that capture other large corporations – be lifted.
- ASIC’s company search fees – the highest in the world – come off altogether.
- A flat 10 per cent royalty rate of the wellhead value on all offshore oil and gas projects has been costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), using a system where the royalty rate would be allowed to be expensed against PRRT liabilities. This would ensure around $1.4 billion could be collected each year from multinational gas companies.
- The proposal to simply change the uplift rate for future investment will mean gigajoules of gas will be extracted completely free by multinational gas giants while billions of dollars in revenue will be lost from existing projects.
- The latest tax statistics show that $188 billion of tax credits can be collectively carried forward by these companies for the coming tax years. Any unspent tax credits will appreciate in value at a rate of 15% over the long-term bond rate for exploration expenditure, and 5% over the long term bond rate for general expenditure on gas projects.
- Over the past seven financial years these tax credits have grown from $9 billion in 2010-11 to $279 billion in 2016-17. That’s a staggering 30-fold increase.
- This current tax regime for gas means these tax credits grow at a rate higher than all other financial return benchmarks. The year-on-year growth of these carry forward credits has averaged a 34 per cent.
- A royalty system should sit alongside the existing PRRT tax regime to ensure that at least some revenue is collected by the Australian Government.