Any country is a tax haven when it is seen as and used as a tax haven.

A letter in last week's Economist haunts me on this issue of foreign trusts. It came from somebody running a trust company in Reno, Nevada, who warned the magazine its advocacy of greater disclosure in response to the "Panama papers" would put law-abiding people and their families in physical danger.

Its specific suggestions, said the president of the Alliance Trust Company of Nevada, would "gather and automatically exchange individual names, addresses, tax-identification numbers and financial account balances with the governments of countries such as Azerbaijan, Cameroon, China, Kazakhstan, Russian and Uganda".

Where the information might go from there, no one knows.

"Shaming kleptocrats with a public database," he continued, "will not bring an end to the shadow financial system. What it will do is make many honest people and their families more vulnerable to extortion and kidnapping."


It haunts me not because I believe many of those using tax havens are in such dire danger but because there is more to this subject than I know, and more than investigative journalists might want to know as they sift through the tsunami of data from Mossack Fonseca in search of newsworthy names.

Those in Australia have turned up the name Malcolm Turnbull, a former investment banker who was listed as a director of a company set up in the British Virgin Islands to help develop a goldmine in Siberia. To this end it is said to have made donations to Russian politicians.

Turnbull says he didn't know the company was administered by Mossack Fonseca or that it made the Russian donations. That may explain why another former investment banker we know has been looking nervous.

The phrase "linked to" is loved by investigative journalists because it sounds sinister, however innocent, even unwitting, the connection may be.

One of the interesting discoveries in the big leak from the Panama papers is that there is now something called The Consortium of Investigative Journalists in the world, which sounds slightly sinister to me.

Journalism is best done by lone wolves who know the limits of their knowledge and want to know more. When they start to hunt as a pack, they adopt the same mentality.

Considering the power of the internet and antipathy of most of the species to business and private wealth, their "consortium" could do for the modern world what the Committee of the Inquisition did for the Middle Ages. But if their work helps to cleanse the world of international profit shifting for the purpose of tax avoidance, they will be on the side of the angels.

Already, in the wake of the Panama papers, even conservative governments may be coming to the realisation that the fact that nothing illegal may have been done by the Panama-based law firm or its agents in places such as New Zealand, the law is not the last word on this for many of us.

It has done John Key no good to argue this country is not a tax haven because it observes the letter of some agreed international code of disclosure.

The Mossack Fonseca records show that at least one global law firm regards it as a place, "allowing for the speedy formation of appropriate mechanisms for wealth, protection, inheritance and tax planning".

If we are seen as a tax haven and used as a tax haven, we're a tax haven.

When I wrote on this subject a few weeks ago, expressing the hope that a crackdown on foreign tax avoidance here would extend to the tax treatment of all trust arrangements, one or two readers told me they were disappointed in me. I obviously didn't know what I was talking about.

I'd hoped that was obvious. I'd said the only purposes I ever heard for putting assets in a trust was to hide it from people with legitimate claims on it or reduce its tax liability.

My respondents didn't offer others, perhaps because these things are private.

But I would genuinely like to hear any better reasons.

Admittedly "legitimate claims on it" may cover some very good ones. The laws of matrimonial property rights and inheritance are also not the last word on fairness in all the circumstances to which those laws apply. But if trusts have a valid purpose in those circumstances, it does not follow that they need a tax advantage.

Everyone should contribute a fair share of their wealth to the upkeep of the public services and well being of the country they choose to live in.

If they don't like the decisions its government has made about these things, they can use their wealth to try to change the decisions, or live somewhere else.

Shifting their wealth to an offshore tax refuge is not a valid option. New Zealand should not be giving them this asylum.

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