Paradise Papers: Name and shame those who seek to hide

 Australian Taxation Office, tax, taxpayers, money, Government revenue, budget.  Wednesday 18th December 2002
 photo Louie Douvis / ldz
AFR, GENERIC, ATO Australian Taxation Office, tax, taxpayers, money, Government revenue, budget. Wednesday 18th December 2002 S photo Louie Douvis / ldz ***AFR FIRST USE ONLY***

The Paradise Papers investigation is yet another example of how thanks to offshore law firms like Appleby, the rich and powerful can take advantage of secrecy, and collectively avoid paying hundreds of billions of dollars in tax annually.

Isn't it time we end the secrets?

The best way to end use of hidden shell companies and other legal structures is to allow the public to freely access the names of the people behind the ownership of assets and bank accounts.

This was what a host of submissions to Treasury - as part of the federal government's plans to increase transparency of the beneficial ownership of companies following the Panama Papers revelations - had called for.

The federal government needs to move on this.

It cannot keep waiting for journalists to prompt action.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ's) Paradise Papers is the biggest revelation yet of how individuals and companies use the law to minimise the taxes they pay. It follows the Panama Papers, Lux Leaks and Swiss Leaks.

Based on 13.4 million files, Paradise Papers provides details about how advisers to US President Donald Trump and mining giant Glencore have been taking advantage of offshore structures.

These investigations, led by journalists around the world, have done more to increase tax transparency than the actions of most governments.

They have pushed tax authorities globally, including the Australian Taxation Office, to chase down criminals.

The ATO said it had "been working closely for several months with our partner agencies here and overseas in anticipation of a data release by the ICIJ" and would "commence analysis of the intelligence received to identify possible Australian links".

Deputy Commissioner International, Mark Konza, said: "We anticipate further data may be published by the ICIJ".

???He said the ATO would continue to work closely with other tax administrations to share intelligence on advisers operating globally.

He said the Joint International Taskforce on Shared Intelligence and Collaboration (JITSIC) is already collaborating within existing legal frameworks following the statement by Appleby last month. JITSIC brings together 37 national tax administrations that have committed to more effective and efficient ways to deal with tax avoidance.

But the ATO has previously said that criminal prosecutions based on earlier Panama Papers revelations could take years.

And while Australians are linked to the latest Paradise Papers, it is important to remember most are not acting illegally.

Multinationals are allowed to use offshore tax jurisdictions with low or near-zero corporate tax rates.

While the OECD, on behalf of the G20, has been working to introduce tougher laws against multinational tax avoidance, and while governments around the world, including Australia, have passed unilateral laws in a bid to tackle the problem, more needs to be done.

The OECD's head of tax, Pascal Saint-Amans, recently told Fairfax Media that ending secret identifies behind shell companies and opaque trusts is the "new frontier" in fighting tax evasion.

Aside from creating a central register to record beneficial ownership information (this could be maintained by either AUSTRAC or the Australian Securities and Investments Commission), there's also a global push for greater transparency.

The European Commission has proposed legislation that would disclose information to the public on offshore companies and offshore transactions.

But European governments have been reluctant to give their endorsement.

In Australia, under global country-by-country reporting requirements, companies must give tax authorities detailed information - including breakdowns of low-tax countries they route profits through. This information is not accessible by the public.

Labor and the Australian Greens have proposed sensible measures to boost transparency including public reporting of country-by-country reports.

The Greens measures include using a "worst offenders" list to name and shame companies not paying a "fair share" of tax, a public register of the ultimate beneficial owners of companies and legal protections for private-sector whistleblowers.

Labor's plan also calls for a central register, and public release of information about where and how much tax was paid by large corporations earning more than $1 billion in global revenue.

Labor also wants mandatory shareholder reporting of "tax haven" exposure, saying it's costing the global economy $200 billion in lost taxes every year. If a company is doing business in a tax haven, this would be disclosed to shareholders as a "material tax risk".

The law can only ensure companies act legally. It doesn't account for morality.

If we want individuals and companies to act more morally, the only way is transparency.

Let's name and shame those who seek to hide.

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This story Paradise Papers: Name and shame those who seek to hide first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.