OGNAP: how the Government protects its donors and tax dodgers

by Michael West | Dec 17, 2019 | Finance & Tax, Government

Bring out yer dead, bring out yer dead. Tis’ the season to bury the news. Michael West reports on OGNAP, “Open Government” and the endless quest for a Beneficial Ownership Register.

In seasons past, the Government has released its greenhouse gas data no later than Christmas Eve, months late, while still insisting emissions were doing down though they were actually going up.

And who could forget the release of the 2017 Corporate Tax Transparency data; that’s the report which once a year shows how much money large corporations are not paying in tax? Who could possibly forget that? Everybody, that’s who.

With forensic public relations precision, that data was released at 5pm on the evening of December 7 – brought forward, snuck forward – to coincide with the hugs and jubilation in Parliament as the Marriage Equality vote reached its denouement.

Now, with the country in flames and the Prime Minister off on holidays; now with half the country partying or shopping and the other half hung over, now is the hour to release the news which you don’t want anybody to see. Carpe diem!

Things are starting to drop, a miserable MYEFO for one. Yet also yesterday, the old “beneficial ownership register” chestnut reared up in belated answers to Questions on Notice.

Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson finally heard back from Treasury with a very slick set of non-answer answers.

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The Senator was pressing Treasury for an explanation as to why, after promising a beneficial ownership register the Government had still not produced a beneficial ownership register.

What is the point of a beneficial ownership register?

For those who have not had the pleasure of acquaintance with a beneficial ownership register, the point of a beneficial ownership register is that if people are required to disclose what they own, the things they own will be taxed more effectively. Better to hide them, make up silly names and concoct tortuous transnational structures which nobody can decipher. Better to stuff money into tax havens.

The point of not having a beneficial ownership register is therefore to facilitate tax evasion and allow corporations and wealthy investors to conceal their assets.

For many years, in many countries, there have been calls for a beneficial ownership registers. For many years, these calls have been sheepishly rebuffed or ignored. In the UK – with all its British Overseas Territories such as Cayman Islands and Bermuda – the calls have been going on for decades.

Feebly, the tax avoidance establishment sometimes endeavours to claim that the terrible burden of compliance is too arduous. It’s too hard to have a beneficial ownership register, they say. Too much red tape.

In fact, a beneficial ownership register only means that when you fill out a form with your corporate entity, you have to write your name in a box too. A beneficial ownership register is little more than a list.

Questions on Notice buried with little notice

So it is that Senator Whish-Wilson put these question to Treasury almost eight weeks ago:

Regarding the Government’s commitment under the Open Government Partnership to “Begin work to implement Government decision [sic] on transparency of beneficial ownership of companies”:

1. When will this commitment be met?
2. How late is the implementation of this commitment?
3. What has caused the delay in the implementation of this commitment?
4. What is the ‘government decision’ on transparency of beneficial ownership?
5. Is the government intending to establish a registry of beneficial ownership?

Only yesterday, almost two months later, came this heroic response from Australia’s Treasury:

1. That is a matter for Government.
2. The timing for this commitment is set out in the Open Government National Action
Plan (OGNAP) 2016-18.
3. Refer to answer in question 2.
4. The government commitment is set out in the OGNAP 2016-18.
5. Refer to answer in question 4.

Apart from the clear “take-out” that OGNAP is a joke, the Government has effectively responded to Whish-Wilson that it is not really the Government because Treasury is the government but apparently this was not a matter for them anyway.

Secondly, if people don’t like that answer it’s too bad because Treasury – the government you’re having when you’re not having a government – will provide you with Answer 2, which is also a non-answer. Answer 3 refers the questioner to non-answer 2 and Answer 4 is a non-answer about a previous non-answer, and now, the piece de resistance; having protected wealthy tax avoiders and Government donors from scrutiny, it’s time for Treasury to take a well-earned holiday on the taxpayers’ dime.

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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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