Holden’s Adelaide plant.

THE first thing to notice about Australia’s three car makers is how jealously they guard their accounts.

It’s no wonder. Notwithstanding some $3 billion in government handouts in the past 10 years, you won’t find the financial statements for Ford, Holden and Toyota on the company websites.

You won’t find them at all unless you pay a tidy fee to the corporate regulator for access to these supposedly public documents.

Even cutting through the car makers’ public relations and ”communications” thickets to ask a basic question is tough.

It’s the same deal with government. The Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education did not even bother returning calls last week.

The department is paranoid, mired in a court battle with The Australian Financial Review over some emails sent mistakenly after a freedom of information request. Holden has joined the government’s case against the newspaper.

The fact is, the government should not be hiding this stuff, nor chewing through taxpayer dollars trying to suppress information in the courts, information which should be public.

It’s in the public interest for people to know what deals are being struck with their tax dollars, especially if they are propping up purportedly unprofitable businesses.

In a self-interested aside, it is not as if we battlers here in the traditional media business – a sector in worse financial shape but whose survival is arguably more critical to the nation – have our hands out for taxpayer dollars.

Greater transparency is clearly warranted in the light of the findings of this BusinessDay investigation of the Holden, Ford and Toyota accounts.

Once again, in a pattern replicated year in, year out, as much profit as appears possible has been sent offshore.

The car industry, it seems, has been taking the taxpayer for a ride, an epic ride. And now it has hit a bump. That bump takes the form of a challenge to the sweetheart deals between the car makers and the government.

In a nutshell, this is the debate: the Fin Review has been running its doctrinaire and increasingly determined anti-protectionist line. The government has countered by talking up the benefit of a heavy manufacturing base and protecting thousands of jobs.

Holden chief Mike Devereux weighed in last week, telling the Murdoch press the benefit of this latest round of ”co-investment” – a euphemism for government subsidy – was a ”multiplier effect”.

That is, beyond the direct investment by General Motors and the government, there is job creation and rising demand for other goods and services. Devereux puts the value of this latest $1 billion ”co-investment” at $4 billion.

The car makers have been less enthusiastic when it comes to multiplier effects elsewhere, even hypocritical some may contend, by objecting to the government’s move to protect steel makers against cheap imports.

For their part, the anti-protection crusaders see dark forces at work, shadowy deals between the unions and the Labor government. They point to a $53 million bailout for Ford in January that shortly preceded Ford’s commitment to 3 per cent wage rises for the next three years.

Holden, they say, struck a similar agreement last year.

The reality is that cosy deals have carried on for decades, and have sprung from governments of both hues. In the past 10 years, more has been forked out in subsidies than has been recorded in bottom-line profits.

Herein lies the rub. To what extent are the accounts of the car makers financially engineered to shift profits offshore?

The sheer size of the ”cost of sales” line in the accounts of the three car makers and the alarmingly high proportion of related party transactions in these figures leads to the inescapable conclusion that the companies’ offshore parents are benefiting at the expense of their local subsidiaries.

Whether this accounting charade is reason enough to jettison every last protection initiative and throw the car makers to the laissez-faire wolves is another matter. We defer to others on the old multiplier effect.

Suffice to say that the fervent cries of the anti-protection brigade do not extend to indignation about the free ride that has been afforded the big banks, to nominate another mollycoddled sector.

Above all, there is undeniable public interest in having this all out in the plain light of day.

No suppression of information, and far greater transparency on the part of government and the manufacturers has to be a good thing.

Joining the dots in the Holden accounts, it would appear that the Tax Office became a little fed up with the some of the aggressive tax minimisation tactics a few years ago.

There has been an unravelling of deferred tax assets, which explains a small tax benefit last year although there was also a profit.

The ATO has reduced GM’s entitlement to royalties paid by $51 million in 2005, $46 million in 2006, $43 million in 2007 and $37 million in 2008.

It then increased taxable income by up to $22 million in the same years.

From a global perspective the auto bosses in the US and Japan would be loath to see a lurk like this come to an end, one in which foreign governments help to fund demand for their spare parts.

With SU-LIN TAN