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Wednesday, 14 October 2015
Page: 7701


Senator EDWARDS (South Australia) (18:25): Now we are all out of our misery. What a report on what could possibly be wrong. Where do we start? Is this the politics of envy? Is this the politics of inequity? Fair suck of the sauce bottle! Really and truly! Is there a suggestion from Senator Dastyari that everybody that has a turnover of less than $100 million is fully compliant and those over $100 million are not going to be compliant unless their full financials are published? Spare me!

What we are hearing in the contribution from Senator Dastyari is outrageous. It assumes that Chris Jordan, the Commissioner of Taxation in this country, cannot possibly do his job unless all private companies with a turnover in excess of $100 million have their full details—and all of their commercial transactions and effectively the insides of their businesses operations—exposed publicly. That is completely outrageous. It assumes that unless everything is published, we—'nosey senators' as I think he has referred to in the dissenting report—are the only ones who can find out all these wicked people in private enterprise.

The basic tenet of taxation and the application of paying tax and the relationship between the tax commissioner and any company—public or private or an individual—is one in which confidentiality prevails. It is a tenet which is sacrosanct.

The contribution we have just heard is not just outrageous. And I mention the word outrageous because we heard some other outrageous comments earlier. He made some reference to Prime Minister Turnbull earlier, about where his business affairs are domiciled. I can assure you that some junior woodchuck, ex of Sussex Street—

Senator Dastyari: Is that me?

Senator EDWARDS: would probably do well to err on the side of caution with reference to what he brings to this privileged house, with no capacity to render any legal support for the position that they take, because I would suspect that the Prime Minister in his dealings—being who he is and what he is and of the character he is—would have all of his tax paid here in this country.

Once again the inference from Labor is that, unless everything is publicised—come back, Senator Dastyari! Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President: come back. Come back and listen to this! I had to listen to you talking about your dissenting report for 20 minutes.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Williams ): Senator Dastyari, you have a point of order?

Senator Dastyari: I would appreciate it if the—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Your point of order?

Senator Dastyari: Yes, earlier the senator did not refer to me by my proper title. I would appreciate it if he referred to me as 'Senator Dastyari' while I go back to the hearing of the Senate economics committee that I am chairing.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Sorry, I missed that point of order, Senator Dastyari. If I had known that Senator Edwards referred to you like that, I would have pulled him up, I assure you.

Senator EDWARDS: I am sure I did not. If I had really been thinking about it, I would have said, 'Newly Appointed Parliamentary Secretary to Save the World' because of all the work he has been doing in the economics committee. I must say that when they do eventually take him from that committee I will miss the theatre, the theatrics and the bashings of all of those that really cannot fight back. I am very sure that the economic secretariat will not at all miss the workload of the 14 inquiries that we have in trying to pursue this politics of envy that the Labor Party seems to be hell-bent on.

I submit that Labor's income tax public disclosure laws required the Commissioner of Taxation to publish the name, the address, the business number, the total income, the taxable income and tax payable of companies with a total income of $100 million or more—we know that. Every company that operates in Australia, whether private, public or multinational, is expected to meet their tax obligations with the tax commissioner. Whether it is public or not makes no difference—not one whirly bit of difference. They have to comply. As I said, the confidentiality cannot be unbroken. They should be able to rely on that.

Let us take an example in the wine industry, in which I am a participant. Sadly, I do not have my details published, because I do not reach $100 million in revenue, but I do know companies that do. It is a highly competitive environment which you have heard about in the contribution of the politics of envy that we have just heard from Senator Dastyari. He has indeed defined Coles and Woolworths as a duopoly that we have in this country. Perfect. If you are a wine company and you are in excess of $100 million, all of your private financials are provided to them via the tax office under this disclosure law. It is not very difficult for the people you supply to, your competitors and the people that are looking to supply. Take the wine which you produce and your competitor wants to take that off the duopoly shelves. It is very easy for them to start working out what their volumes are from the market information they get from supermarkets. It is very easy to start working out how much you are selling. Why should there be a disadvantage in going over $100 million in revenue? Why should they be disadvantaged from the person that only makes $95 million, who does not have to disclose all of their information? This is discriminatory and this bill addresses it.

There is much said about how this was colloquially known around the halls here as the 'kidnapping.' The reason it was known as the kidnapping act is there were people who were quite rightly genuinely concerned that the companies that they have built—and they have never listed them publicly—would be subject to scrutiny from crime gangs, from people who would look to extort. This is not unusual. These are not terribly sophisticated people, but why would you hand all this information to them? Some people might think that is bah humbug. We live in a relatively safe country in terms of commercial issues which may arise. But there are examples in history in developed countries where people have been kidnapped for a ransom. Those are the issues. That has been raised. Whether you agree with it or not, it has been raised, and we are here to represent those people who are contributing to the debate.

If unamended, this legislation presents the whole taxpayer system as it was under Labor's laws, where the ATO was compelled to list the taxable income, so that now differentiates. I have had to do this a few times in inquiries: identify the revenue, identify the taxable income—which then, obviously, extracts the costs and gross profit and then provides transparency not to the tax commissioner but to your competitors and to the people that you sell to.

I will give you some idea of what several Labor members have highlighted previously yet failed to apply in these circumstances. Bill Shorten, the Leader of the Opposition in the other place, said:

The inconsistencies and ambiguities associated with the existing law have the potential to undermine its primary purpose—that is, to provide clear protection for taxpayer information. The taxation law has long recognised that such protection is fundamental to ensuring that taxpayers maintain their confidence in the operation of the tax system.

This is Senator Dastyari's mate, the fellow that just gave him his most recent promotion, and he is shrilly in here talking about what is good for the nation. Yet his boss, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten, is somewhat at variance to that.

I will go on to quote the Shadow Treasurer, Mr Chris Bowen, who said:

The Government affirms the importance of maintaining a high level of protection of information provided by taxpayers.

We have got one more from Mr Swan. I think he was dubbed—quite ironically now in light of what he left this government with to clean-up. Mr Swan is quoted as saying in his time:

I would have thought that everyone out there that was concerned about good public administration would see the common sense in observing what the Tax Office says about confidentiality provisions because they are important to every Australian and it's not a decision of the government, it's the decision of the Tax Office.

What we are seeing playing out here is the politics of envy.

 

I have talked about the safety risks; now I will look at reputation. The CEO of Godfrey Hirst Australia, Australia's largest carpet manufacturer, noted:

By publishing extremely limited information selected specifically to put the targeted taxpayers in the worst possible light, it invites (incites) public action against the target taxpayers and potentially those associated with them. There are national and international examples of such actions against companies involving physical damage, reputational damage and commercial boycotts.

Why would we want that in this country? We do not want businesses boycotted in this country; why would we want to prejudice businesses in this country? Why aren't we unbridling people? Why would we say to people, 'Don't go above $100 million in turnover because your tax affairs will become known by your competitors and the people you supply to—rough elements and so on—and you will lose your competitive advantage and, therefore, any international company that is looking to compete with you in that space is going to know everything about you but you are not going to know anything about them'? In other countries they do not have anything that is as prejudicial to private individuals as this is.

For public companies—that is why they go public. They have to report every six months, they have to say whether or not they are going to give a dividend, they have a continuous disclosure obligation, their shareholders need to be able to reach in at any point in time and understand. Why is that an imperative for them, to publicise their accounts and their reports? Because they are listed in the equities market, on the stock exchange, or they have multiple stock exchange listings—like BHP and Rio Tinto do. That is in the public interest. They are massive companies with tens of billions of dollars' worth of capital value. And obviously, as a basic tenet of the equities market, you need to know that these companies are compliant. Not so for a meatworks, a mid-west New South Wales wine company that happens to be very successful, a Barossa wine company, or a whisky distiller that has done very well and has had exponential growth. Why do they have to? There is no need; they are private companies. They have not got any public money. They have not got any faceless investors. They are doing what they are supposed to be doing, and it is what we should be encouraging in this country—not telling people to 'just grow your revenue to $99.999 million and don't go over it, because then everybody gets a look into your business.'

A similar disclosure regime was abandoned in Japan after 2005 after a recommendation from the Japanese tax advisory commission, which found that there were 'various reports of the disclosure being a factor in causing crimes and harassment'. I am not making this up. This is what the Japanese tax advisory commission said. And they abandoned it. They got rid of it. They did not wax lyrical about the politics of envy and say that everybody who generates over $100 million must be known'. Senator Dastyari—the newly-promoted shadow parliamentary secretary for saving the world—made all these references about 'if you don't publish the results, those people are cheats.' That was the inference. That is what was being said: 'unless we publish everything above $100 million they will cheat.' That is outrageous. That is not the case at all. That is vilifying good people in this country who have good businesses. So everybody who has revenue under $100 million is okay. They are fine. They are good, honest people. Anybody with over $100 million is not. That is the inference. Japan abandoned it, and the fact that the Labor shadow ministry points to the publication of the BRW rich list as evidence that this information is already in the public domain is an insight into its complete disconnect from business. That is where Labor gets their inspiration for identifying who is on their politics of envy hit list. It is just not on.

In opposing the passage of this bill, Labor is tinkering at the edges of an ideological folly to attack the rich. It achieves nothing of its stated objectives to ensure companies pay their rightful taxes. All it means is that busybody, nosey senators can take cheap shots whenever they like because they can just dial it up on the internet. It is not on.

I note that the Commissioner of Taxation says that the vast majority of Australian companies are paying the right amount of tax, and I know that, in the inquiries that we have been conducting in the Economics committee, I trust the information that I have got about what the tax commissioner is doing. The number of people on his watch list has gone from 30 to 86. These are big Australians. They are not on the watch list because he suspects that they are doing anything wrong; it is just they are big, complex companies in multinational jurisdictions and those companies are, in the main, working with him to ensure that they pay the right tax.

So the suggestion that everybody above $100 million is delinquent and less publicised serves no purpose at all. It raises not one more cent in taxation. All it does is cause pain and suffering to those people looking to build their business in anonymity—which is what everybody below $100 million can do—to grow and to aspire to be great Australian companies which can go out and forge a path around the world. They are looking to grow their businesses beyond that without all of the commercial disadvantage of having the inside measurements of their commercial underwear up for show for everybody around the world to look at.

I suggest that the Labor Party have a look at their politics of envy because that is how it is being seen widely amongst the business community. They should have a look at how they reconnect and restore their reputation from this ridiculous, intransient position that they are taking on this bill. I urge them to reconsider their dissent with regard to it.