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Tuesday, 18 August 2015
Page: 5599


Senator EDWARDS (South Australia) (17:07): I also rise to speak on the interim report on corporate tax avoidance by the Senate Economics References Committee. I acknowledge the collegiate nature of the contribution that we have just heard from Senator Dastyari. In all reasonableness, this is a very important references committee. I chair the Economics Legislation Committee, as a member of the government team, like Senator Canavan, who joins us here in the chamber. Senator Dastyari is the chair of the references committee.

We are interested in ensuring that everybody who deals in Australia and takes money from a retail or wholesale perspective in Australia and earns their income from Australians and Australian businesses pays their tax in Australia. Obviously this is a big issue in world terms too, which is why the Treasurer, Mr Hockey, has been so active in this space since coming to government. It is somewhat strange that we have found ourselves in this inquiry now, given that it is running in parallel with the work of the Treasurer and the Assistant Treasurer, Mr Frydenberg, who have been actively working with the G20 nations on this. In fact, last year, when Australia was the president of the G20, this was a lead topic for the Treasurer when those countries came together in Queensland.

It is enjoyable to go through and work on issues which the government is working on, but it almost seems that the chair and a number of the other people participating in the committee thought that this was all new. Well, it is not new. It is not new for the government. It has been a high priority for the government. But the work we are doing is assisting the government in highlighting those issues, and I have been proud to work in a collegiate way with members of the committee to ensure that we do get what is right.

It has been somewhat of a sideshow at different times, as companies have been called in panel sessions and we have heard from them about their various taxation arrangements. What I did not hear in the contribution from Senator Dastyari was the fact that none of the activities of the companies that we have had before us have in any way, shape or form been proven to be illegal. That just highlights why all sides of this chamber should be working hard to ensure that the government of the day, the Abbott Liberal-National coalition government, gets this policy setting right for all time and to ensure that it does not do it unilaterally and not in concert with what the rest of the world is doing. It is essential that this occurs in such a way.

The reason that we put in a dissenting report is largely that most of the issues that were contained in the report were things that either we have addressed as a government or had no intention of addressing—they either added red tape or did not work in a policy setting which would fit into an international framework. We heard Senator Dastyari talk about the Tax Justice Network. For anybody that is listening to this contribution, the name of the Tax Justice Network is a little bit—not deceptive but it just implies something that it perhaps is not or is not up to. It is interesting that Senator Lines has left the chamber, because she used to work for the United Voice trade union, which the chair of this committee referred to along with the Tax Justice Network lobby group.

It was somewhat embarrassing at one of our hearings, when the companies Microsoft, Google and Apple were in front of us, and I had to explain some things to other senators. You might be interested, Senator Canavan—it was one of those rare occasions that you were not with us on the journey, in Sydney. I had to explain to a number of the senators the difference between turnover, net profit and EBITDA and how that reflected on a balance sheet and taxable income and gross revenue. To be giving a lesson in economics in a Senate hearing was somewhat unedifying. That was somewhat of an embarrassment to the opposition senators.

The other consideration that has been encompassed in this coalition dissenting report is the fact that the coalition has granted more resources than ever before to deal with multinational tax avoidance. The Public Groups and International division of the ATO have more specialised staff, with greater access to resources, than existed under any former Labor government. That is really the issue. The opposition are quite shrill, when we are actually in government doing something about this at the highest level internationally—the G20 and the OECD countries. What we call BEPS—base erosion and profit shifting—is now on the international stage, and we are at the forefront.

You might know that the UK introduced what they colloquially call the Google tax. That is something which they did under pressure. Policy under pressure is not always good, so we are trying to find a better way to deal with people who, while they do not act illegally, their activities—to use another colloquialism—do not pass the pub test. The pub test is: people who earn their revenue, their income and their profit in this country should pay their tax in this country. We do not resile from that.

In the remaining time that I have available to me I will say that, if you had listened to the previous contribution, you would think that everything is all wine and roses in the Senate Economics References Committee, but, disappointingly, yesterday was a pretty rough day for me. I respect the institution of the Senate committees. I obviously respect the fact that there are times when you can talk about reports, and there are times at which they remain confidential until there is an agreement. There is a process by which this Senate operates which I think suffered a great blow. In the rough and tumble of what goes on in this place, you can expect that politics will play out. But when the very institution which binds us, which gives us the level of civility and the level of what we can expect in this, is breached, then, sadly, you have to use whatever you are able to draw on in stopping this from happening again.

Unfortunately, it was with a heavy heart that yesterday I referred to the President of the Senate the fact that I believed that the contents of this interim report had been leaked widely to the press. It was represented in a 17-minute expose on a nationally televised program in prime time. Also, the 18 recommendations in the report were aired on Radio National yesterday morning and then again in AM on the ABC, where the presenter actually said that he had sighted the report and the television coverage actually showed the report. That is when I felt that there had been great damage done to what we know and hold dear in this place, which is the confidentiality of committee reports until such time as they are tabled in this place.

This is the time when people should be talking about committee reports. This is the time when you get your opportunity to go out and run your media programs, to run your lines, to run whatever it is. I respect that, and I think everybody in this place should respect that. I know that Senator Whish-Wilson is going to follow me in this debate. He and I are in furious agreement on this. I know that there are members on the other side who also hold this protocol dear, and I am sure that he will make his own comments on that.

I thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I look forward to working with the committee some more on this issue.