Dealing with tax avoidance: why Australians do it better than the Brits

"Australia is a highly tax compliant country."

The Public Accounts Committee said last month that the UK should look to the Australian model for tackling tax avoidance. Paul Stacey, head of tax policy at the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia, explains how their system works.

The importance of a good tax system design to sustain government revenues has always been apparent. For many nations, the continuing weakness in revenues following the global financial crisis has made this priority even clearer. In this climate, differing approaches to tax avoidance have become a focal point for discussion, and in the United Kingdom and Australia, this is no exception.

Both nations continue to grapple with issues of design, in both tax law and tax administration, on how best to limit the impact of tax avoidance on revenue collection.

In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts report on Tax avoidance: tackling marketing avoidance schemes "encourage[d] HRMC to look seriously at whether [the Australian approach] could be effective in the UK."

Jennie Granger, HMRC’s current director general of enforcement & compliance and a former Australian Tax Office (ATO) deputy commissioner, in evidence to the committee, ascribed Australia’s success in dealing with mass marketed tax avoidance schemes to product rulings and the promoter penalty legislation, both of which she said worked well.

The Australian approach to mass marketed or retail tax avoidance schemes thus comprises, from a tax system design perspective, two parts – one part a tax administration solution, the other a tax law design solution.

The first part is product rulings which the ATO first started issuing in 1998. The genius of this idea is that it embedded the idea of an ATO sign off into the marketing of these retail tax schemes. This changed market and investor practice - put simply, if a scheme lacked ATO sign off it became much harder to market.

This change in market behaviour meant that, in turn, that the ATO could choke off supply at the source by issuing a negative product ruling for those schemes which it regarded as offensive. Investors could also rely on the product ruling when self assessing their tax position.

However, the success of the promoter penalty rules – the tax law solution, which came into effect on 6 April 2006 – is less evident. There has only been one case to date, which the ATO convincingly lost.

Granger suggested much of the success of these rules lay in "enforceable undertakings" entered into with advisors which restrict their conduct. But these enforceable undertakings are, by their nature, confidential and hence their existence, or not, will be unknown externally. Nor does the ATO publicly disclose the number of these agreements signed. The success of this part of the Australian solution remains unclear and is not communicated to the public.

Moreover, it should be remembered that Australia is a highly tax compliant country. Its tax collection system is a self-assessment model under which taxpayers assess their own tax liabilities and then remit these to the ATO. That model is bolstered by various withholding measures which limit the opportunity to avoid remitting tax.

The ATO is well resourced, well motivated, and equipped with extensive legal powers. For example, Australia has had a tax general anti-avoidance rule for over 30 years and, as long ago as December 1996, the High Court dismissed the relevance of the Duke of Westminster principle to Australia as merely the ‘muffled echoes of old arguments concerning other legislation’.

In these circumstances tax avoidance is at the margins of Australian economic activity, rather than front and foremost of mind.

This article first appeared on economia

Photograph: Getty Images

Paul Stacey FCA is head of tax policy at the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.