Fran O'Sullivan: G20 global tax debate vital for NZ

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Aussie PM Tony Abbott makes avoidance, particularly by digital companies, centre-piece for meeting next year.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo / Getty Images
Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo / Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's decision to designate international tax avoidance, particularly by digital companies, as the centre-piece for the 2014 G20 meeting in Brisbane is a vital step in shifting the balance away from corporates back to nation states which desperately need tax revenues.

Fundamentally - to pinch some Australian slang - the rhetoric that digital companies such as Apple, Google, Amazon et al have indulged in to escape paying taxes within the countries where they build their sales and profits is a "furphy".

You know the drill: "We contribute to those economies, we provide jobs, our employees pay personal income tax."

Australia has reasonable street cred in this area having pushed to get the subject on the G20 agenda in the first place.

As Abbott put it: "The principle here is that you should pay tax in the country where you earn the revenue and we'll be talking to our G20 partners about ensuring that is the case."

The G20 members account for 85 per cent of global GDP and include nations ranging from Germany, France, the United States, China, Brazil and smaller countries like Australia which were brought into the top tent after the global financial crisis to help ensure markets stayed open and international order was restored to prevent economic Armageddon.

On other hot international issues such as carbon taxes and resources rents, Abbott's election promises to abolish both imposts makes his country an outlier. Particularly as carbon pricing and resource rent taxation are part of the policy prescription recommended by organisations like the IMF, OEDC and the World Bank.

It is in areas like these that New Zealand needs to be very careful to take a principled approach when it takes part in the November 2014 meeting as one of two guests invited by the Australian PM.

John Key confirmed Abbott had called him personally last Thursday to extend the invitation.

The international tax platform is of vital importance to New Zealand which is also feeling the impact of lost sales tax (GST) revenue through the increasing shift to international online shopping and the tendency by digital companies to shift profit centres to lower their own taxes.

Trade, trade facilitation, productive investment and movement of labour will be on the agenda and New Zealand will be able to play a constructive role.

Abbott has been urged to use the event to showcase Australia as a destination for foreign investment.

But on the tax front it is worth observing that while Australia is prepared to talk turkey at the G20 on international taxation issues du jour it continues to refuse to bow to New Zealand's wishes to introduce fairness to transtasman investment through mutual recognition of dividend imputation or franking credits which are an effective tariff.

Australia has already formed a B20 steering group consisting of 29 leading chief executives to advise on the agenda for the November meeting in Brisbane. Among them are Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, Westpac boss Gail Kelly and Commonwealth Bank chief Ian Narev.

Their job is to come up with recommendations for the G20 to consider.

At last week's Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum in Sydney, leading Australian players made it clear there "was a lot of weight on Australian shoulders to get it right" with the G20 which is at a crossroads itself after the major role it played in helping to defuse the global financial crisis.

The reform of the multilateral trading agenda was also important given what Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey labels the "vertical integration" of the global economy. OECD work on global value chain issues should feed into that.

The B20 conversation indicated that from an Australian perspective it was also important to make sure that "the country in net terms gets more of the newly created businesses than destroyed ones" with one participant recalling Rupert Murdoch's prediction that the "internet will destroy more profitable businesses than it creates".

The unfortunate upshot of digital disruption is that older taxpaying dinosaur companies are frequently put out of business or have their revenues severely limited by digital companies which pay little tax themselves.

In July 2013, the OECD launched an action plan on "Base erosion and profit shifting" (BEPS) at the request of G20 finance ministers.

The consensus was that in a globalised world linked by the internet, national tax laws had "not kept pace with the global corporations, fluid capital and the digital economy, leaving gaps that can be exploited by companies who avoid taxation in their home countries by pushing activities abroad to low or no-tax jurisdictions".

The OECD action plan on BEPS was adopted by the G20 at its September meeting in St Petersburg, which former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd skipped due to election priorities.

As the OECD action plan states: "The digital economy is characterised by an unparalleled reliance on intangible assets, the massive use of data (notably personal data), the widespread adoption of multi-sided business models capturing value from externalities generated by free products, and the difficulty of determining the jurisdiction in which value creation occurs.

"This raises fundamental questions as to how enterprises in the digital economy add value and make their profits, and how the digital economy relates to the concepts of source and residence or the characterisation of income for tax purposes.

"At the same time, the fact that new ways of doing business may result in a relocation of core business functions and, consequently, a different distribution of taxing rights which may lead to low taxation is not per se an indicator of defects in the existing system.

"It is important to examine closely how enterprises of the digital economy add value and make their profits in order to determine whether and to what extent it may be necessary to adapt the current rules in order to take into account the specific features of that industry and to prevent BEPS."

This is a fundamental challenge which will require the Australian Prime Minister to lift his game to ensure that the G20 focuses on action plan implementation.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

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