Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Why Turnbull's Google tax would be reasonably effective

So, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison are introducing a "Google tax" to ensure multinational companies "pay their fair share of tax in Australia". Really? You could be forgiven for being sceptical.

Does the Coalition really want to crack down on their generous mates at the big end of town? And, even if they do, how do we know a Google tax will work?

My sceptical mind (professionally trained by 40 years of living and breathing politicians) can see it all.

Big business had become disillusioned with Turnbull who, like Tony Abbott before him, had balked at increasing the goods and services tax. On no, is he a dud, too?

Turnbull knew he had to deliver "reform" for the big end of town and a cut in the rate of company tax was what it had its heart set on.

Further, he knew he had to have a project to be getting on with, a reason we needed to re-elect him, a way he could be seen to be doing what we expect of governments: adding to jobs and prosperity.

But polling shows most voters don't think cutting company tax is a good idea. Those blighters should be paying more, not less. What about all those internet companies defiantly telling a Senate committee they pay every cent they're legally required to? What about the Panama Papers?

My sceptical mind sees Turnbull realising that, if he wanted to get away with cutting company tax, he'd have to balance it by doing something big on multinational tax avoidance.

I know, let's copy the Brits' diverted profits tax, and not discourage the media from calling it the Google tax.

Look up the government's "tax integrity package" in the budget papers, and your scepticism deepens. It contains eight measures, but six of them only rate an asterisk, denoting that "a reliable estimate [of the revenue expected to be saved] cannot be provided".

The diverted profits tax is expected to raise a mere $100 million a year, and not start doing so until 2018-19.

So how come we're being told the package will raise a net $3.3 billion over four years? Because all the money will come from establishing a new "tax avoidance taskforce" and hiring hundreds more people to audit "large corporates and high wealth individuals".

Hang on. Isn't this something the government could and should have done years ago? Hasn't it actually been cutting Tax Office staff until now?

Right. Got all that? Now get this: although much of that scepticism is no doubt justified – especially in terms of motivations – I'm convinced the crackdown on multinational tax avoidance is genuine, that it started a couple of years ago, and that the new diverted profits tax is likely to be reasonably effective in collecting more revenue.

The fact is that – no doubt in response to pressure from voters and their own difficulties finding the revenue to cover all the spending they want to do – the developed countries have finally got serious about countering tax avoidance by the "transnational corporations" (including some headquartered in Oz) that have come to dominate global commerce.

This requires a high degree of co-operation between countries, and this was initiated by the G20 a few years ago, using the services of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

During our year in the G20 presidency, Joe Hockey and Treasury became heavily committed to the organisation's BEPS – base erosion and profit shifting – project, pushing it along and vowing to set a good example to others.

A key part of the project is the "country-by-country reporting requirement" which requires big multinationals to report details of their profits, sales, employees, assets and income taxes paid in each of the countries in which they operate.

They should do this in their home country but, if they don't, any country in which they operate can demand the full report and share it (confidentially) with the other countries involved.

We put our end of the BEPS agreement through Parliament last year. Once this arrangement gets going it will greatly improve national tax authorities' ability to counter transfer pricing.

The Brits got impatient and introduced their own diverted profits tax, which involves the taxman making an estimate of the amount diverted, without the benefit of the detailed information that will soon be available. Their new tax took effect in April last year.

There are plenty of campaigners against multinational tax avoidance and they weren't impressed by the Google tax, just as they were disappointed with the final report on the BEPS project.

By now, however, they've decided the tax is reasonably effective. And Amazon has announced that it will avoid the diverted profits tax by paying ordinary tax on its retail sales in Britain rather than booking sales through Luxembourg.

That's an important point. Our version of the tax, which would apply from July next year, would be levied at the penalty rate of 40 per cent, rather the present big-company rate of 30 per cent.

So it's designed not to raise tax directly, but to encourage multinationals to avoid it by paying the right amount of ordinary company tax. Our expected collections of only $100 million a year would come just from the slow learners.

Fortunately, sometimes it's possible for our pollies to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.