Fran O'Sullivan: Murdoch's tax beef should worry us all

Rupert Murdoch has been absent from Twitter since he married Jerry Hall early this month. Photo / AP
Rupert Murdoch has been absent from Twitter since he married Jerry Hall early this month. Photo / AP

When Rupert Murdoch sealed the deal with Jerry Hall, he celebrated on Twitter saying: "No more tweets for 10 days or ever! Feel like the luckiest AND happiest man in world." Marital bliss for Murdoch (the fourth time round) to Mick Jagger's former squeeze must be paying dividends.

His last tweet was on March 5, punctuating a series of caustic comments on hot topics ranging from the US presidential race to the "token" tax that Google pays in various jurisdictions.

As a Herald investigation revealed last week, Google is also among the bunch of multinationals operating in New Zealand which pay remarkably little tax here.

What inspired Murdoch's late January tweet was the outcome of a six-year investigation in the UK which resulted in Google's head company Alphabet agreeing to pay 130 million ($277 million) in taxes dating back over a decade.

'Google et al broke no tax laws," wrote Murdoch on Twitter. "Now paying token amounts for PR purposes. Won't work. Need strong new laws to pay like the rest of us." There has been plenty of outrage here (particularly from politicians) in the wake of last week's Herald revelations.

The politicians have called for the Government to legislate rather than wait for the OECD and G20 to co-ordinate new rules to rein in multinationals from indulging in "profit-shifting" practices which erode the tax base of host countries.

They have a point.

On Saturday, John Key told TV3's The Nation that he did not think the tax practices exposed by the Herald were fair. Asked if the Government needed to change the law, Key responded: "The OECD have been looking at that ... It's a very difficult thing for us to do on our own, because the reason they might be able to - I'm not saying they are - but the reason they might be able to reduce their reported profit in New Zealand is effectively through transfer pricing."

"To be blunt, we think the fastest way through is through the OECD, because it's one of those issues where it's quite difficult on our own ... When they count the turnover of people, most of the costs and other parts are offshore. We accept that argument. But it feels too low to me for the size of the multinationals and what they're doing in New Zealand intuitively."

But here's the thing.

The OECD announced in January that as part of continuing efforts to boost transparency by multinational enterprises (MNEs), 31 countries had signed a Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement (MCAA) for the automatic exchange of country-by-country reports.

"The signing ceremony marks an important milestone towards implementation of the OECD/G20 BEPS (base erosion and profit sharing measures) and a significant increase in cross-border co-operation on tax matters," the OECD said.

The agreement has been described as a "game-changer" in helping expose multinational tax avoiders.

Country-by-country reports will be produced that will help tax authorities zero in on multinationals' tax affairs. It is said they will include the income and tax the multinationals pay in every country they operate.

It is a start.

It's also notable that the United States - home to the headquarters of several of the multinational companies on the Herald's list - is not among the OECD signatories.

Clearly, the US figures it is not in its interests to play ball.

New Zealand was not a signatory to this latest deal but did append a signature to a 2014 agreement.

The 31 nations are: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

So why is the US not among the top nations? Is there a clue in another Murdoch tweet?

"Google has cleverly planted dozens of their people in White House, Downing St, other governments. Most brilliant new lobbying effort yet," he said.

Let's note here that the tax affairs of Murdoch's own media empire have also come under scrutiny from the Australian Tax Office (ATO).

News Corporation did win a long battle with the ATO - and a A$880 million payout - after the tax office challenged a 1989 restructure said to involve billions of dollars and a company based in Bermuda.

News Corp Australia also told the Australian Financial Review last May that it had paid A$417 million ($469 million) in corporate taxes over the last five years and A$900 million in goods and services, fringe benefits and payroll taxes.

Murdoch has an interest in exposing the favourable tax environment enjoyed by the very companies which are siphoning off advertising revenue streams.

But what is happening now undermines the competitiveness of rival players in host countries. It is on a grand scale.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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