Fran O'Sullivan: Time to level the playing field on tax

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Government has danced around issue of multinational corporate profit-shifting for too long now.

It's time for Bill English to announce a crackdown on multinational tax avoidance in New Zealand.

There is precious little point in continuing to dance around the head of this particular pin.

The time for talking is over. It's time for action.

Not only should the Government impose a crackdown, but it should also make applications for major offshore investors to buy NZ assets or invest here conditional on paying their fair share of tax.

English will face opposition flak if he fails to follow in the footsteps of the UK's George Osborne and Australia's Scott Morrison and announce moves to curb multinational tax avoidance in tomorrow's Budget.

Both the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Australian Treasurer hail from right-of-centre parties. And both politicians used their recent budgets to restrict the ability of multinational companies to divert profits offshore to minimise the tax they pay in the British and Australian jurisdictions.

In both countries the measure is popularly referred to as a "Google tax" - aimed at large (often US) corporations whose profit-shifting exercises erode the tax bases of host countries.

Last year, English made much about taking part in the G20 summit in Brisbane. Tony Abbott had invited New Zealand to take part. There was a strong focus on multinational tax avoidance.

But despite local business support from the likes of Spark NZ for the Government to level the playing field so NZ companies and the foreign multinationals face similar tax imposts, English has instead emphasised the need for transparency.

His view is that the Government would also need to think about compliance costs before implementing the proposed OECD reforms on base erosion and profit shifting.

Another argument that the National-led Government makes to underpin and excuse inaction is that multinationals may think twice about investing in New Zealand if they are taxed at the local rate.

There is some force to this argument.

New Zealand's own larger multinational companies will also inevitably use all the tax planning measures at their disposal to minimise their worldwide tax bills.

But the contribution that offshore companies make to the tax base of their hosts should be equitable. There is no point arguing that foreign ownership is a privilege then allowing that privilege to be abused.

New Zealand companies argue that they sometimes lose out in the bidding war for prime assets because they can't match the prices offered by foreign investors who price in their ability to subsequently minimise tax.

Tax specialists have advised against going down this route without first undertaking a consultative process.

But there are other mechanisms to attract multinationals.

Lowering the company tax rate would help.

While NZ rates well on OECD indexes as having a competitive tax regime, it is notable that in the UK, Osborne has announced the corporations tax will be lowered to 17 per cent by 2020 - it is 20 per cent now. In Australia, Morrison plans to lower the company tax rate to 25c in the dollar down from 30c.

The NZ company rate is 28c in the dollar, meaning this country will become less competitive over time.

Mark Adamson raised eyebrows earlier this year when he spruiked New Zealand's "simple" tax system as an incentive to attracting Australian recruits to base themselves here.

The Fletcher Building boss reckoned NZ had a great tax model, it was the best system he'd seen and he's worked all over the world.

"New Zealand is a very simple tax regime. I take five minutes to fill in my tax return and I'm a fairly complex tax person. The taxes are low and they simply encourage entrepreneurs to swing their bat and try new things," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

If New Zealand had a lower company rate as well as the lower personal income tax rate, the incentive for businesses to come here would be a no-brainer.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- 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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