Monday, 31 July 2017

Why doesn't the Turnbull Government do more to address domestic tax avoidance?

So why is it that the Turnbull Coalition Government, home to more than one millionaire, continues to allow a set of taxation rules which favour those with both wealth and high incomes over those with only average to low incomes and little to no wealth?

According to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) – now underfunded, undermanned and demoralised – there is an issue with trusts being used for tax avoidance:

We focus on differences between distributable income of a trust and its net [taxable] income which provides opportunities for those receiving the economic benefit of trust distributions to avoid paying tax on them.

In other words; discretionary trusts are used by high-income earners to distribute investment income to beneficiaries on lower marginal tax rates, in the process reducing the overall amount of tax paid and current rules allow income to be diverted to other family members, such as stay-at-home mothers or fathers, or to dependents over the age of 18, such as children at university, college or Tafe.

Australian Finance Minister and Liberal Senator for Western Australia Mathias Cormann characterises proposals to alter taxation rates on trusts to minimise their use as tax avoidance vehicles as a “tax grab”. Well he would wouldn’t he, with so many political mates to defend.

As for collecting existing tax liabilities……

The ability to enforce payment obligations and pursue avoidance schemes has diminished since 2014 when first the Abbott Coalition Government and then later the Turnbull Coalition Government cut ATO staffing numbers.

The Community and Public Sector Union clearly told the Treasurer in 2017 that:

While the public is supportive of tackling corporate tax avoidance to raise revenue for public services, there are limits to what the ATO is able to do due to significant under resourcing. Despite a growing population and increased expectations from the community, ATO ongoing staffing levels have declined. Between 2013-14 and 2015-16, Average Staffing Levels at the ATO fell by over 4,000 or by nearly a quarter. The audit team, responsible for enforcing the tax compliance of individuals and multinational companies, was hit particularly hard by these job cuts. While there was an increase in the 2016-17 Budget, it has not reversed the significant cuts experienced over the last few years.

Given the need for more, not less revenue, these previous cuts seem illogical. According to information provided to Senate Estimates by senior ATO staff, the return on investment over the last decade would be between 1:1 and 6:1, or simply put every dollar invested in ATO staff generates between $1 and $6 in revenue.[1] Some had previously estimated that the cuts could lead to a loss of nearly $1 billion in revenue.[2]

This disconnect between public expectations that tax avoidance should be tackled and what the ATO can actually do must be addressed by the Government. It should commit to an increase in base funding and staffing for the ATO if it is serious about tackling corporate tax avoidance and increasing revenue.

It seems that while the Turnbull Government talks about an ideal egalitarian society where inequality no longer exists, behind the scenes it is nobbling one of the mechanism’s available to government to ensure that there is a level playing field for all those with only earned incomes as well as those with earned incomes plus accumulated wealth.                                      
So when Turnbull & Co announced in May this year that it intends introducing a strong Diverted Profits Tax and establishing a Tax Avoidance Taskforce in the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) one has to wonder if current staffing levels allow full investigation of multinationals operating in Australia or whether the taskforce (which has in fact existed since 2016) will be adequately resourced to look into multinational tax avoidance and the black economy as mooted.

One also has to wonder why in the face of widespread use of negative gearing of investment properties and capital gains tax arrangements to avoid paying an appropriate tax rate, the Turnbull Government also fails to reform the taxation system in these areas.

Oh, I forgot……………


1. Table 1: 45th Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia party representation

Source: Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), ‘2016 Federal Election Tally Room’

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