23 October 2015
by John Passant
Turnbull on transparency: Shielding the rich and shrouding gulags in secrecy
PM Turnbull says he's keen on transparency but shields the rich from transparency on tax, shrouds our gulags in secrecy about atrocities in detention and tells us zip about his tax haven investments. Not good enough, says former Assistant Commissioner of Taxation John Passant.
Apparently, the Federal Government is keen on transparency. Malcolm Turnbull said so. However it is a funny type of government transparency that shrouds our gulags on Manus Island and Nauru in secrecy and threatens doctors and nurses with jail for revealing the truth about them.
Of course, this is a government of transparency. Its metadata retention and access laws mean it will know more about you than you do. Very transparent. To use the standard conservative line, if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear. That worked for well for David Hicks and Mohamed Haneef didn’t it?
At the same time that this government is making your life totally “transparent”, it is doing the exact opposite when it comes to tax, especially of the very rich and big business. Last week, Labor Senator Dastyari revealed some details about the million dollar investments Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has in the tax haven that is the Cayman Islands.
Comedian Russell Brand mocks Turnbull on tax shields and using tax havens for his investments
Turnbull assured us he and his wife Lucy had paid the full amount of Australian tax. A few – too few – of us in the media have argued that because “the Prime Minister is no ordinary taxpayer” then “in the interests of justice and equity [he] should make all the information about his Cayman Islands arrangements public.” The Prime Minister’s Office has said he won’t be doing that. So a massive invasion of our privacy – metadata “transparency” – is appropriate for us but the minor inconvenience of releasing tax information is not appropriate for Mr Turnbull?
To use the conservatives cliché, if you have nothing to hide Mr Turnbull, you shouldn’t be afraid of releasing the details of your Cayman Island arrangements so the rest of us can test your claim that you have paid full Australian tax on your tax haven income.
But it is not just Mr Turnbull’s tax affairs that remain beyond the reach of the public. Under Labor, our tax laws were changed to enable the taxable income, total income and tax paid by business with a turnover great than $100 million to be published. Thanks to Opposition ineptitude, the government won a vote in the Senate last week to amend the law to remove big private businesses from this requirement.
So we will now not know the effective tax rates of these 700 or so big private companies. Not so long ago, the Commissioner of Taxation told us that one in five big private business paid no income tax. The effect of last week’s amendments means we will not know who they are, unless the Senate shows some backbone for once. More of that later.
Remember the laughter that met Malcolm Turnbull when he told the NSW Liberals that there were no factions in the Party? Even more laughable was his claim that the Liberals were not beholden to big business. The removal of the requirement for private companies with a turnover of more than $100 million to reveal the amount of income tax they pay looks to me as being a classic example of the Liberal-National Party government acting in the interests of sections of big business.
Who will benefit from this removal of tax transparency? Among others — Gina Rinehart, James Packer and Russell Withers are all saved the bother of having the company tax their private companies pay revealed to you and me. Russell Withers I hear you ask. Oh, you may know him as the multibillionaire in charge of the 7-Eleven empire in Australia. God and the Turnbull government forbid we know how much his empire profits from the exploitation of vulnerable workers and how much tax his company pays.
The first reason the government offered for this change was that criminals would be tempted to kidnap the super-rich if their tax information was released. Evidently these criminals would troll through the ATO site (guaranteed to be almost incomprehensible to those without an accounting or similar background) for information about private companies rather than buy a copy of the BRW Rich List.
It has now become obvious that this excuse was made up by the government to provide a cover for its real reason for the change — to protect its rich mates from the public opprobrium that would arise when we realised how little they in fact were contributing in income tax to Australia.
So the government came up with a second reason. We members of the public wouldn’t understand the figures and would draw incorrect conclusions from them. Yeah, that is what they really think of us. In their eyes we are just dumb plebs. Nothing to do with the fact that the figures might just reveal how little tax big business pays.
So what can we do? Well, if Labor and the Greens are serious about finding out how much or how little income tax big private businesses pay, they could grill the Commissioner of Taxation for the names and tax details of those companies. If he doesn’t provide them then they could jail him for contempt.
Over to you Senator Dastyari.