Corporate Tax Avoidance Report

I want to start off by taking a slightly different emphasis from that of previous speakers on this report. I make the point that our tax system is often held up as the envy of the world. 

Our tax framework provides more powers to the Australian Taxation Office than almost any other country in the world provides to its taxation office, and we should be proud of that. Certainly, when you talk to small businesses or other people in this country, I do not think many of them would think that the Australian Taxation Office does not have sufficient power. When it comes to small businesses and individuals, the Australian Taxation Office has enormous power to ask questions, to find out information and ultimately to bring prosecutions. That is not to say that we cannot make our law better, but I do take issue with Senator Whish-Wilson claiming at the end that somehow we can deal with our deficit problem just through looking at multinationals and corporate tax avoidance. As I am sure Senator Whish-Wilson would know, we have a budget deficit of $35 billion this financial year. We raise around $70-odd billion in corporate tax. I do not think we are going to increase our take of corporate tax by in the order of 50 per cent through any of the recommendations in this report or the subsequent final report. Indeed, if we were going to do that, it is surprising that this interim report has not actually made any recommendations which will raise more revenue directly.

As other speakers have outlined, this interim report has focused on strengthening the transparency of information provided by large companies to the Australian Taxation Office and to the Australian people. It is only an interim report, but I fear that it falls down in the fact that it does not adequately assess or build off what the government is already doing in this area. Indeed, it makes almost no comment on what the government is already doing on corporate tax, and I suppose that in some senses, therefore, it is an implicit endorsement of what the government is already doing. I will not go through all of the detail, because I think Senator Edwards usefully summarised earlier the government's actions, but suffice to say that what the government has already done and announced is many times greater than the recommendations of this report. This report is only about asking for more information and transparency from corporations. What the government has actually done is gone after 30 multinationals already; it is strengthening our anti-avoidance law, which is the centrepiece of our taxation framework, and the strength that we have in it; it is increasing penalties for those who avoid tax; and it is also implementing a voluntary code of conduct to establish or to provide greater transparency and a consistent vehicle for corporations to publicly provide how much tax they pay.

I want to make a couple of other points on the inquiry itself. I too join with Senator Dastyari in thanking the hardworking economics staff. I think the Senate economics committee might have fourteen inquiries on at the moment. It is an immense workload. I hope that, when we consider establishing more references committees, we take account of the workload that is already placed on the hardworking committee staff. Notwithstanding that, this was an important report, and they have done a stellar job in producing this report.

I would say though, in a more negative comment, that I do think some of the hearings for this report did approach an almost show trial atmosphere. There are no doubt issues in this area that need exploration, but at times the conduct of some senators was not helpful, in my view, to the proper exploration of these issues and at times sought to disparage, with very little evidence or context , hardworking Australians and professional hardworking Australians.

In particular I would like to stand up for the accountants in this country. There was one hearing where senators, particularly from one political party, sought to disparage and call into question the ethical standards and conduct of accountants without any evidence whatsoever that there was some kind of misconduct occurring by accountants. I am almost 100 per cent positive that not every accountant in this country does the right thing all of the time, but we are lucky enough to have in this nation an accountancy profession and practice that takes pride in its standards. They are professionally governed organisations with standards that must be adhered to if they want to maintain their certification as accountants, and no-one is helped when we unfairly drag such professions through the mud without any evidence. We have not had the scandals here in our accountancy profession that have beset the United States, particularly after Anderson a few years ago. We should be thankful for that, and I hope that the accountancy profession in our country continues to maintain its high-level of professional and ethical standards.

Finally, I also add my objection to one particular aspect of the interim report as outlined in the government's dissenting report, and that is the approach to demanding private and confidential information from individuals in this country. I do not believe that we should be asking individual taxpayers to publish their information, however lucky they might be. I will never approach the threshold of $100 million or so that we are putting on this—I am not going to have that much money—but I do not think the politics of envy helps either when we go after particular individuals in our nation and ask something of them that none of us individually would ever be willing to do—that is, publish our own private taxation records. Indeed, if we want to do that as politicians, let's have the guts and do it ourselves. In other countries they do that. In some other countries, politicians publish their taxation records on a regular basis. If we are expecting some people in our community to do that, have the guts and publish your own taxation records as well. I do not think anyone does that to my knowledge and I do not think that anyone will. We should not ask others to do what we would not be willing to do ourselves.

Overall, I want to thank again the hardworking staff of the economics committee and the overall good nature with which this committee was conducted, and I look forward to contributing to the final report. 

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