The Bill to remove mid-size private companies from the need to disclose private tax data is currently before a Senate committee. This is a much needed and sensible reform, as the publication of summary data without supporting detail can only result in misunderstanding and misinformation.
But it appears that reform is being delayed by rolling out old chestnuts such as repeating concerns about kidnapping of wealthy family members and raising uninformed suggestions about this transparency measure being necessary to prevent tax avoidance.
The reporting of this issue emphasises why the Bill should be legislated: information is being exploited to create headlines like "One in five large private companies paid no tax last year".
This reinforces concerns of mid-size private companies that the publication of private tax information will be used for the wrong purpose at great cost and inconvenience to reputation and the bottom line.
If tax avoidance is the concern, then the Tax Commissioner has full powers to access detailed information to attack the issue. Mid-size businesses have many stakeholders and the ATO is an important one. In my experience, mid-size businesses have a strong respect for their tax obligations.
Outcomes that result in no tax being paid by growing and dynamic private mid-size businesses shouldn't be a surprise. They are the businesses with the capital to invest in innovation and, as they are only accountable to their private owners, are in a position where they can take on greater risk.
Surely such innovation and risk-taking should be promoted. The proposed publication of four or five annual tax related figures will create an environment that only leads to ill-informed conclusions, followed by unnecessary & distracting damage control.
The ATO revealed that one in five privately held companies with a revenue greater than $100m did not pay any tax in 2014. “It’s just over 20% in one year – 2014 – that didn’t pay tax,” the ATO’s deputy commissioner, Michael Cranston, told the inquiry. The reasons were varied, including companies having different profit cycles and investment initiatives that resulted in them making no profit and therefore being ineligible for paying tax. But he did not rule out deliberate tax minimisation measures. “Other times we have seen that there is aggressive tax planning, and we have dealt with that,” Cranston said. The transparency requirements were brought in by the Labor government in 2013, and applied for the 2013-14 financial year. Those statistics have not yet been published.