Coalition pledge to crack down on tax avoidance achieves almost nothing in three years | Australia news
Almost three years after making the promise, the Coalition government has made no progress in establishing a register designed to crack down on multinational tax avoidance.
After the publication of the Panama Papers revealed how some of the world’s wealthiest companies and people were using a law firm to minimise their tax responsibilities, and following a similar move in the UK, the Australian government agreed to establish a public registry of beneficial ownership of shell companies.
The register would be designed to expose the shell companies and allow tax authorities to scrutinise who exactly owned each part of a business.
Kelly O’Dwyer confirmed the move in April 2016, saying it would “improve transparency” and would mean the public and authorities would know “who ultimately controls the company”, making it easier to “disrupt illicit financial flows” and “much, much harder to engage in tax avoidance”.
But since then, the register has stalled. Inquiries on the register’s status to O’Dwyer’s office were referred to the assistant treasurer Stuart Robert’s office, which then passed them to the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, who sent the inquiry back to Robert’s office.
“We remain committed and we’re considering options,” a spokesman for the assistant treasurer said.
In response to a question on notice from the Labor senator Chris Ketter, a Treasury spokesperson said the department sent advice to the government about the register when the consultation period ended in March 2017.
With just one sitting scheduled ahead of the budget in April next year, and an election planned in May, there is no sign legislation is even close to being drafted, let alone introduced.
“The government is considering what action may be needed to increase the transparency of beneficial ownership of companies,” Treasury advised Ketter. “Next steps could include development of any necessary legislative reforms and their implementation.”
The register was seen as bringing Australia into line with G20 commitments regarding transparency, and O’Dwyer recommitted the government to its creation in the months following the 2016 election win, including it as part of the draft open government action plan.
Labor has committed to introducing one if it wins the 2019 election, with the shadow assistant treasurer, Andrew Leigh, saying it would also include trusts, which were excluded from the government’s 2017 consultation process.
“It’s been over two years after they promised to implement reforms that would tell us who really owns Australia’s firms, and over a year since the consultation ended,” Leigh said.
“Reform has stalled … It is clear that the only way Australia will get a beneficial ownership registry is under a Shorten Labor government.”
Asked about the register in May last year during a estimates hearing, the commissioner of the Australian Taxation Office, Chris Jordan, said it could help to ferret out multinational tax avoiders but could also be a “lot of stuff that doesn’t really help us”.
“Because if, you know, people want to do the wrong thing, they’ll be putting all sorts of different names in places, so I’m not sure it’s a panacea as such,” he said last year in reference to complex ownership structures.