By Mungo MacCallum
The late Kerry Packer was notoriously reluctant to be quizzed by parliamentary inquiries – indeed by interrogations of any kind.
He had, he once explained, once died as a result of a heart attack on the polo field. Having been resurrected, he now had more important things to do with his valuable time than respond to questioning he regarded as irrelevant.
Dragged before a Senate Committee on tax avoidance in 1991, he summed it up famously and succinctly: ‘If anybody in this country doesn’t minimise their tax they want their head read. As a government I can tell you that you’re not spending it so well that we should be paying extra.’
Well, perhaps, although it could be said that even the most incompetent government providing services such as defence, health, education and the rest are more likely to be worthwhile than the legendary gambling binges that were Packer’s idea of discretionary spending. It was once reported that when a Texas rancher boasted that he was worth $100 million, Packer responded insouciantly: ‘I’ll toss you for it’.
But the man in charge would not have seen the point of any rebuke, or any appeal to the idea of noblesse oblige that once was regarded as the birth right and duty of former generational tycoons. He could, and often did, indulge his private charities and causes lavishly and generously, but he regarded them as his personal right and choice; he was simply not interested in the idea of social responsibility or public benevolence.
Taxation was just an imposition. It if it was dragged out of him he would pay it, kicking and screaming, but not a cent more than he had to. And such, overwhelmingly, is the case of his corporate successors ever since.
The multinational moguls who came before their own senate inquiry last week clearly took the view that they were there to say as little as possible and do precisely nothing. And they were considerably more mealy-mouthed than Packer had been almost a generation earlier. The hard-line was, if anything, harder, but they were not about to state the obvious: we’re grabbing whatever we can and sitting on it, and the rest of you can all get stuffed.
They did admit that they were shifting billions from Australia and other destinations that have lower tax regimes wherever they could find them; given that this was pretty much on the public record they could hardly deny it. But they would never call it tax-avoidance, let alone tax evasion – the latter being illegal.
Oh no, it was about being competitive. It was about providing the best and cheapest service they could find for their customers. It was even, preposterously, in the name of working on research and development for more wonderful things that would benefit the world.
To which one can only reply: bullshit. In this dystopia of international finance, there is no semblance of morality or ethics; the words just do not apply to the reality of modern commerce. Tax may be, as Benjamin Franklin lamented, one of life’s inevitabilities, but the idea that it may be actually one of the bedrocks of civilisation, let alone one of the benefits, is not in the agenda. Tax is at best, a necessary evil: greed is good.
And this impregnable refusal to even countenance the need for any change or modification of their mantra is what makes it so hard to come to grips with what is essentially a political problem for this government – for any government. The Tax Office’s Rob Heferen confessed that he had really no idea of the extent of what was going on; it was almost certainly hundreds of millions, probably billions, that should be, in the scheme of things, being collected in Australia, but no one would tell him.
And as for actually doing something about it – well, that was just too bloody hard. Treasurer Joe Hockey reckons that he is going to try, but he is receiving little if any co-operation from the bureaucrats. He has floated the idea of a diverted profits tax along the lines of the unilateral British model, but the Parliamentary Budget Office has already warned that this could breach international trade rules.
Given that the Abbott government is happy to throw out international conventions when and where it suits them – refugee policy, for instance – this would seem not to be a serious impediment, but hey, now we’re talking about money. The shiny bums appear to favour waiting until the G20, or the OECD – anybody – gets round to framing a consensus model, but since that will involve hanging around for at least the end of 2017, if ever, and is likely to settle things anyway, this is not good enough.
The government’s political imperative is to do something in the budget, or at least to foreshadow it, so that it can convince the fractious punters that it is serious about taking on the big end of town, not just the battlers. But there could be a window of hope: the battlers don’t really like tax either. They say they want the multinationals to pay their fair share, but they are curiously uninterested in sticking to the rules themselves. Particularly since the introduction of the GST, the black economy has flourished. And even before that, fiddling the tax has become something of a national sport.
The Tax Office has always been fair game, like parking inspectors and rugby league referees; if you can get away with it, then good luck to you. The theory seems to be that the government should be regarded as the natural enemy – wasteful, self-indulgent, and well able to afford whatever can be avoided or even evaded – there’s plenty more there were that came from. So rather than taking the high moral ground, Hockey and his colleagues might be better off going with the flow – saying yes, the big boys are getting away with murder, but so would you if you had half a chance.
Why not lie back and enjoy it – throw yourself into it for fun and profit. That, after all, is what free enterprise is all about. And you can bet that the right wing commentators from the Institute of Public Affairs, The Australian, The Australian Financial Review and the rest of the neo-Liberal mob won’t give you too hard a time if you do. And nor, of course, will the ghost of Kerry Packer.