Corporate tax reform stalls while government axes welfare

by Michael West | Feb 26, 2017 | Finance & Tax, Government

As the government takes the long-handle to penalty rates, family benefits and climate-change funding – while dangling a $50 billion package of tax cuts in the direction of its big business party donors – it is worth bearing in mind that a third of Australia’s biggest companies pay zero tax.

Another third pay virtually zero tax, a feeble fraction of their profits.

Meanwhile, corporate tax reform has stalled. In the wake of the 2015 Senate hearings on multinational tax avoidance, the government introduced new legislation. One amendment, yet to be acted upon, requires multinationals to file proper financial statements, or “General Purpose” financial statements, so they can’t as breezily conceal dubious tax deals thanks to skimpy disclosure.

‘Special purpose’ approach by accountants hides corporate secrets

A second amendment is a simple transparency measure. For two years straight, the Tax Office has required large companies to make public their revenue, pre-tax profit and tax expense.

It is now on a list, published annually, and the most recent list came out in December. Now, with two years of data, patterns are beginning to emerge. Above all, it is clear that tax avoidance is rife among big companies, particularly multinationals operating here.

Just on the issue of transparency, most of the companies we are dealing with here are not listed on the Australian Securities Exchange. Those which are listed on the ASX – such as BHP, Rio, the banks and Telstra – typically pay a lot more income tax than the multinationals on the Tax Office list.

This has everything to do with transparency, and this is why transparency, indeed further transparency reform, is absolutely critical for the future of this country.

ASX companies have to file public accounts, these are General Purpose accounts, rather than the shifty “Special Purpose” variety favoured by multinationals.

The non-ASX companies on the list mostly file inadequate financial statements, they mostly pay far less tax, and if a stakeholder wishes to purchase these accounts he or she will have to pay the corporate regulator the highest search fees in the world. Therefore, these so-called “public financial statements” are not really public at all. They are inaccessible due to price.

Investigation: ASIC fees highest in world, even before data sale

Visibility and disclosure serve as a deterrent to tax evasion and tax avoidance. They ensure better corporate behaviour. So much more needs to be done.

The latest batch of data filed by the ATO under the recent transparency laws shows more than 600 companies paid zero tax on $330 billion in income. Only 600 companies on the list of 1900 actually pay the statutory 30 per cent corporate tax rate. And even then, most pay a fraction of what they should.

It would seem pointless and unfair therefore to lavish these companies with tax breaks, as is the government’s intention, when they already fail to pay their fair share. After all, 20 per cent of zero is the same as 30 per cent of zero.

The more pertinent question is: what can be done about this epidemic of tax dodging by the world’s largest companies? Transparency is the first thing. Then there are loopholes which ought to be closed.

A good deal of the tax mischief comes down to companies claiming deductions against their income. Did these 600 companies which paid zero tax claim 100 per cent of their total income, their revenue, in tax deductible expenses?

A large amount it would appear. In most cases a large proportion of pre-tax profit will have been ripped out by “service agreements” with associates in tax havens. Transfer pricing too accounts for large licks; and much will have been siphoned offshore in dividends on equity (Exxon), interest on loans to related parties (William Hill and Glencore) and royalties on intellectual property (IKEA and Big Pharma).

The most obvious message to emerge from the ATO figures is that income is suspiciously high when compared with net profit. Bear in mind that it is the aim of multinationals to make as little taxable profit in Australia as possible.

Therefore bulking up costs in Australia and funnelling profits offshore to lower tax jurisdictions is de riguer.

They all do it, though some are far more aggressive in their tax structures than others and many claim tax deductions in Australia for work carried on overseas.

A good example of this would be IBM, whose Sensis bungle put it in the spotlight. IBM Australia, when asked if it was claiming deductions for the Sensis work “offshored” to Asia, declined to comment.

Multinational expenses: it’s all show

According to engineer and financial analyst Martin Lowry, who has crunched the ATO numbers, an extra $40 billion could be raised if the government was to end the lurk of companies claiming deductions for their offshore operations and put a ceiling on tax deductible expenses.

“Some of these 600 companies have offshored many of their core operating functions – IT, HR, payroll, accounts, purchasing, procurement – into Asia but seem to be claiming a tax deductible expense in Australia for these costs incurred overseas,” says Lowry. “This means Australian taxpayers are subsidising overseas employees.”

Lowry notes that 600 companies paid tax on 10 per cent or less of their total incomes, by claiming 90 per cent or more of their income in tax deductible expenses. This, he calculated, equates to a further loss in tax receipts to government of $30 billion.

Limiting tax deductible expenses, as recommended by the Finance Department, “would raise an extra $40 billion for health, education, infrastructure and much needed and fairer GST distribution to the states.

“Also, this ATO data indicates that the cost to drop the company tax Rate by 1 per cent, from 30 per cent to 29 per cent of taxable income, would cost $2.1 billion in the first year, not $10 billion which is the figure being published in the media.

“The reason it is only A$2.1 billion, directly relates to the number of companies not actually paying their current tax obligations.”

How Adidas and its auditors managed to file their accounts late for 16 years

Summarising the ATO data published online for both 2014-15 and 2013-14 years, Lowry found:

· Around one-third are paying zero company tax on total and taxable incomes (many of the entities are trust structures which means it is incumbent upon the members of the trust to pay tax, not the trust).

· The average percentage of tax payable with respect to total incomes is an extremely low at 2.35 per cent (taxing revenue at 3 per cent therefore would raise more money than taxing “profits” at 30 per cent).

· The average percentage of tax payable with respect to taxable incomes is only 23.52 per cent to 24.81 per cent, far lower than the upper end of individual PAYG tax rates.

· Taxable incomes, on average, are only 10 per cent of total incomes.

· Deductions available to large corporations are not available to small companies or PAYG taxpayers.

· Australian PAYG taxpayers are subsidising foreign investors. The playing field is not level.

Despite the new transparency regime, Martin Lowry says it is obvious the government has failed to crunch the numbers itself.

“There was absolutely no mention of this damning data in either the 2016 Federal Budget or the 2016 MYEFO report”.

Michael West established Michael West Media in 2016 to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. West was formerly a journalist and editor with Fairfax newspapers, a columnist for News Corp and even, once, a stockbroker.

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