Going after Multinational tax avoiders proves taxing business.

1 sam dastyari

Fancy a ‘double Irish sandwich with Dutch associations?’ Or is it all double-Dutch to you? You’d be in good company if it is. Apparently some of the biggest corporate heads in Australia are mystified too. Or so they claim. Yet on the menu in Canberra on Wednesday are combinations straight off the menu of a New York deli. Chaired by the dashing Sam Dastyari, our plucky little senate committee is attempting an impossible and dangerous, if not death-dying manoevre as it sets about tackling the top end of town over corporate tax avoidance. That’s where the double Irish scheme gets airplay.

The corporations send their big boys and girls. Sam’s eight member team sensibly brings some back up. Morrison is nowhere to be seen despite his offshoring credentials. Fifty-seven senators are participating, even if we are yet to hear from more than one or two. Yet the senators who do have speaking roles are good value. Christine Milne, for example, picks up a corporate suit and tie on Freudian slip on Thursday. The CEO waffles about making the law.

‘That’s what you meant to say,’ ‘make the law,’ she crows. It is a rare epiphany. Any moment now, the tax caper will spring open under pressure like a jemmied safe or as Milne guesses the correct combination. She throws Bermuda black hole in after the Double Irish with Dutch associations for good measure. Sam jokes about her use of language and talks it up but in reality Milne’s spray is a pea-shooter against a charging elephant.

Sam is a flash dresser. With his blue ties and his suits and hair-cut like a hairdresser’s model, you could easily pick him for a Liberal. It won’t stop him being on the predators’ dinner menu himself, however, if he doesn’t watch himself. The senate team begins by flicking their towels at the IBM, News Corp, Google and other corporate bullies as they climb out of the fast lane at the reserved part of the public pool.

This is just for openers. Sam and his team have crafted a fiendishly cunning plan to get the suits sitting opposite to ‘fess up to how they avoid so much tax and other loaded questions. The tension is electric.  Spectators crane their necks but they may just be getting in touch with their stockbrokers.

Is this a stunt?  The quixotic Dasher and his crack team now dive headlong into the murky waters of off shore havens.  They swim willy-nilly like minnows amongst sharks. Their fate is frightening to contemplate. In the process, however, Sam utterly shows up Joe Hockey who often says things about chasing big tax avoiders, his party’s mates, but is yet to do anything except to protect them from being named.

Joe is such a blowhard the wind he creates would fair blow the milk out of your cup of tea but nobody’s bluffed. Anyone can see which side his bagel is buttered on.  Now he’s wedged. The public expect him to go after multinational tax avoiders despite all his waffle about disintermediation and how the modern world of finance has all gone global.  The committee’s crafty subtext is to do him down, shut Hockey up forever but you won’t find that in the official title.

Dasher’s committee is refreshingly entitled, ‘An inquiry into tax avoidance and aggressive minimisation by corporations registered in Australia and multinational corporations operating in Australia.’ Milne reckons the Double Irish sandwich is the key to it all.

Essentially, the sandwich reduces corporations’ tax bills by channelling profits to Ireland, then on to the Netherlands and thence back to Ireland. The scheme is allegedly used by Apple, Google and other multinationals operating in Australia to reduce tax. It saves them a fortune. Off-shore tax havens include Singapore with its tax rate for big corporations of 5 – 10%.

Google’s local tax bill, for example, amounted to a mere 15 percent of its $46 million Australian profit in 2013, half the Australian going rate of 30 per cent.  Factor in $2 billion in local advertising generated online which is ‘booked’ in other countries. Bear in mind that local earnings are likely to be talked up by corporates to advantage as tax deductions in the haven. Top this up with the  $4.5 million Google happily pockets in R&D tax breaks and it is fair to say that the corporation does very well out of Australia. As do so many multinationals.

If it sounds unfair, that’s because it is, but the gutsy senators can bang on all they like about corporations avoiding their fair share of tax. Their opponents’ refrain is that everything multinationals do with tax is legal, ‘hey, no-one is breaking any law.’ Yet they have tax lawyers so sharp they can calculate how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Legal? Everyone including the ATO knows that what is legal is a matter of fine interpretation.

No-one raises the bigger issue of the alarming percentage of our income we happily put into the multinationals’ pockets. Money spent on tech is money taken out of other sectors of the economy. Our fetishising of communications technology also has huge social and emotional costs and consequences. One of these is the off-shoring of our consciousness and our identity. They suck our brains out. Policy-makers would do well to heed all dimensions of the beast, but for now the senate confines itself to a rather naïve and simple question about the use of tax minimisation schemes.

Sam’s team hits a rough patch when it has to furiously tread water, clearly struggling to stay afloat in the deep end with so much testimony from corporate suits that is meaningless. Unsurprisingly, not one corporate boss runs to help the senators or throws in a life preserver. The multinationals’ explanations are way too hard for anyone except a tax lawyer to follow. The News Corp. executive sneers, saying their tax is legal and far too complex for you to understand. You begin to worry about Sam’s strategy. Nuanced it ain’t.

Loaded questions merely invite denial and worse. Imagine you are a CEO of a company like Apple, known for using the scheme, you will profess complete ignorance of the term. You will also throw in some bullying for good measure because you don’t get to be a narcissistic corporate psychopath without throwing your weight around and making others feel stupid, insignificant and at fault.

The big knobs hate pollies. Politicians are contemptible because the bloodsuckers and leeches are not out in the real world, the sacred workplace, nobly and virtuously growing businesses and creating opportunities for wealth to trickle down. They are on the tit of the government payroll. Just ask Sarah Palin. What would they know?

The Double Irish proves a high point of the senate inquiry as Sam gives his first day’s summing up. It’s not exactly a David and Goliath contest, but the corporate advantage is staggering. The big fish give fishy answers to some fairly dud questioning. Straight man, Tony King, head of Apple Australia, responds to Christine Milne’s half-cocked loaded question by claiming not to know what a Double Irish is despite it being recognised world-wide as Apple’s main tax structure. What a crack-up. Yet the local representatives are not what they once were. They are now more like agencies of the main firm, protecting intellectual property, and other dodges than the snarling man-eaters of Packer’s era

King does let on that his company buys iPads and iPhones from overseas operations, and resells them locally to be, then taxed on its local profit. Why he thinks this worth mentioning is anyone’s guess but it does contribute to the corporate team’s signature ploy of showing the senate team up as a bunch of ignorant, impertinent, time-wasting dimwits.

God alone knows what game Dastyari’s is playing is but already his team is outclassed; outmanoeuvred, out of its depth. Our Senate Economics References Committee minnows are after some very big sharks. Represented Wednesday were Microsoft, Google and Apple, the holy trinity of the modern technological age. Bringing the big boys in for questioning, however, seems to be the extent of the team strategy. Yet he’s exploiting LNP vulnerability – wedging Hockey neatly.

The plucky senators’ game plan seems on the face of it to depend on lobbing a few random cunning questions such as how much it costs to make an iPhone. You probably need a bit more than this, Sam, before you cause executives to break down and beg us to allow them to pay more taxes as in the current feel-good story about Starbucks being held to account in Britain.

None of the assembled executives seemed to know what it cost to make an iPad. This disappointingly predictable response could have easily been surmounted by a better question about profits. Senators could have used Google to google IHS research that 38 percent is Apple’s total gross reported profit over all its iPads.

On the surface the inquiry seems an elaborate hoax, a futile exercise in mutual duplicity. Our senate wants us to believe that it is going to get big corporations in to fess up to making obscene profits just because they can pocket the money off shore via a thicket of company and corporate structures. Yet no-one on the senate team appears to have done any homework. No-one representing any of the multinationals is going to do them any favours and it is a sheer waste of time asking for information which is already in the public domain. It is like some bizarre new reality TV show, Big boys don’t pay tax. Or Technology just rules, OK? Yet futile show trial or not the political gains will be all to Dastyari for attempting what Hockey is not. In the meantime it is a great show.

Smug omnipotence is pitted against plausible humbug as corporate psychopaths on one side snarl and smirk their contempt for the fumbling, woefully under-prepared, outsmarted senators on the other. It’s a bit like asking the school bully for your marbles back. It is of course a type of public theatre, in which those with an interest in being seen to do so go through the motions of bringing tax evading corporations to account. As if you ever could.