Hauled in before a Senate enquiry, media mogul Kerry Packer famously said, "Of course I am minimising my tax. And if anybody in this country doesn't minimise their tax, they want their heads read, because as a government, I can tell you you're not spending it that well that we should be donating extra!"
The Tax Justice Network - Australia, recently created headlines when they released a report into the practices of the top 200 ASX listed entities ahead of the G20 summit. The report revealed that:
- Nearly 1/3 have an average effective tax rate of less than 10%
- 57% have subsidiaries in tax havens or low taxing jurisdictions
- 60% report debt levels in excess of 75% of equity.
What this equates to is that 29% of ASX listed entities have an effective average annual tax rate of 10% or less and 14%, including James Hardie, have an effective tax rate of 0%.
21st Century Fox has a reported 117 subsidiaries in tax havens or low taxing jurisdictions. Responding to the headlines Mr Murdoch tweeted "NO tax avoidance by News, Fox or any Murdochs in Australia. Courts ruled, so move on!"
Tax is like any other cost in your business. It should be managed effectively so you don't pay any more than you need to.
But here's the problem, a company has to make a profit to pay company tax. Coming out of the GFC where jobs were shed and investments shelved, it was a bit harder to do than the boom times – particularly if you weren't in the resources or banking sectors whose buoyancy made Australia's headline economic figures look a whole lot better than they felt for the rest of the economy. Plus, if you are investing in and growing a business, this consumes profit. Unless you look below the surface, the tax paid is an ineffective measure of the contribution a company makes.
So the question is, is it likely that the biggest companies are paying a lot less tax than the average Australian business? The answer is yes, of course. The reason is simple, tax is a local jurisdiction issue and international corporations have the capacity to look across the tax minimisation opportunities globally, not just locally. As long as everyone operates within the local laws, they are not doing anything illegal by minimising tax. Plus, Government's often offer tax incentives for large entities to establish in their region for the stimulus and job opportunities they provide.
The issue for Government's across the board is what happens when it's no longer minimisation but evasion - transparency is one issue. The recent G20 endorsed a common reporting standard for the automatic exchange of information. The new reporting standard will be introduced in Australia in 2017 with the first exchange a year later.
It's a debate that is playing out globally and anyone with a business with international connections, should take the time to review their current position across different entities in different locations and ensure that they are not at risk of being drawn into a widening net.