Senate debates

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Matters of Public Importance


4:53 pm

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I thank all senators for their contributions. It is always great to see the Liberal Party dragged, kicking and screaming, into a debate about taxation. In case anybody has misunderstood what this is about, it is about the Liberal Party protecting its mates. It is about the Liberal Party protecting its leader, who believes it is okay to run his assets through the Cayman Islands. That is fine, but he says, 'I want to make Australians pay a GST of 15 per cent on food'. This is a party—those opposite—who do not want Australians to understand exactly how much tax is paid or, most importantly, not paid by a select group of companies in this country. Company after company has been dragged to the economics references committee taxation inquiry, and over and over again they have come up with the most pitiful excuses as to why they do not actually pay any tax in Australia.

We have a government pretending that it is going to get some tax revenue from overseas companies or, what has become worse now, we have a trend where Australian companies set up their businesses in a deliberate way to artificially shift their profits to another country which has a lower tax regime. That is what is at stake here: the integrity of our tax base. Why don't the Liberal Party want Australians to know why and how much tax some people do or do not pay? Why is that the case? One blog this afternoon went through all the Liberal Party donors that are on a secret list and the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars that the people on this list—who the Liberal Party are trying to protect today—actually donate to the Liberal Party. Is that the reason?

I looked on in amazement as certain big international companies fronted a tax inquiry in the United Kingdom. They were asked, 'Why don't you pay more tax?' Do you know what their simple answer to those British members of parliament was? It was, 'We pay all the tax that your laws require us to.' Those laws are so fraught with loopholes that you could drive trucks through, so set up with vested interests, that these companies say, 'I pay exactly the amount of tax that I am required to. These companies that set up all these tax avoidance mechanisms to make sure they pay as little tax as possible use the defence of, 'I pay all the tax I am required to.' Do you know who else said that recently? Do you know which other prominent Australian said recently, 'I pay every tax dollar that I have to, even though my assets go through the Cayman Islands'? Do you know who that was? It was none other than the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Turnbull. He chose his words very carefully when he said, 'I pay all the tax that I am required to by law'. That is exactly what all those tax-avoiding companies that turned up in the UK said. That is exactly what they said: 'It's your fault, parliament. You haven't made us pay any more tax.' And now we have Mr Turnbull running the same defence: 'I pay all the tax I am required to by the laws of the country I'm the Prime Minister of.' Prime Minister, you can change that.

Today we have seen that the Prime Minister, when exposed as being one of the people who runs a company that is not required to disclose how much tax it has paid, has now written to ASIC and said, 'Please take me off the list.' If that is not an admission that he knows that this is the wrong thing to do, then why has he written that letter today? If that is not a smoking gun, nothing is. This is a government that wants to protect its mates, wants to protect its Prime Minister and argues that it is okay to run your assets through the Cayman Islands—because it is just a beautiful place. You have got to read some of the reasons that these people have set up in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. Apparently it is really safe. The Bermuda Triangle is news to them. It is a very safe maritime regime. The Bermuda Triangle does not exist. It is just part of the fiction of the sixties and seventies.

These are companies that have set themselves up with structures that are designed to minimise the amount of tax that they provide to the Commonwealth so that the Commonwealth can provide services to Australians. That is what this debate is about. It is about the Liberal Party wanting to protect its mates, wanting to protect its donors and wanting to protect companies that are ripping off the tax base of this country. These are companies that actually engage in economic activity in Australia, that make sales and purchases here in Australia but manage to transfer their revenue and their profit streams to other countries like, say, Singapore—which has officially half the rate of tax. It is sort of like what they call the 'rack rate' at a hotel. That is if you are dumb enough to pay only the 15 per cent; you can get a much cheaper rate out of the Singapore regime just by asking nicely. Fifteen per cent is just the headline rate to get companies to register and set themselves up there.

I had to stop myself laughing when the chief executive of one of the big Australian international companies said, 'Yes, we do all this work here in Australia. We've got a billion dollars worth of revenue but, do you know what, our base is actually in Singapore.' Senator Xenophon asked him if he had ever been to Singapore. Here we had the chief executive of a company that sends all its revenue to Singapore because that is where they set up their business. How many times do you think he had visited Singapore in his period as CEO? Ten? Five? Two? One? No, you guessed it: he had never been to Singapore—to his own head office! That shows you what a sham transaction looks like: when the CEO of an Australian company says, 'We've set up our head office in Singapore'—nothing to do with tax—but he has never bothered to visit the country where his head office is set up for the region. What an extraordinary contempt for the Australian public. What an extraordinary contempt for that committee. But, most importantly, what an extraordinary contempt for Australian tax laws when you can divert all of your resources and your revenues to another country so that you do not have to pay tax.

So the challenge I put out to those opposite today is: do not stand here and pretend that you are doing anything other than protecting your Liberal donor mates. Do not stand here and pretend that you are going to fix the tax-base of this country, when you are not going to. You want to claim that there is a problem with the budget in this country that needs a GST fix—that ordinary Australians have to have a 15 per cent tax on food put on, while you want to protect your Liberal donor mates and your Prime Minister.

Do not pretend that it is about anything else. This debate is about why the Prime Minister of Australia says it is okay to put his assets running through the Cayman Islands and why companies run their assets, their profits and their revenues through the Dutch Antilles, the Bermuda based companies and the Cayman Islands based companies. This is a tax debate that is a fair dinkum tax debate. This is a piece of legislation that is going to come before us but those opposite are going to die in a ditch over. The signature moment for Mr Turnbull, the Prime Minister of Australia, is to protect Liberal Party donors, to protect companies that are ripping off ordinary Australian taxpayers and to try to pretend that he is much nicer than Mr Abbott. Well, Mr Abbott did not have assets run through the Cayman Islands. Mr Turnbull does.

It is time that Australians knew exactly how much these companies pay. It is exactly why this amendment and this debate is so important. Australians deserve to know how much those opposite are protecting their mates from paying tax in this country, and then they can make an informed decision about why they need a GST. Should tax companies, should Liberal Party donors, should the Prime Minister pay a bit more tax, or should I have to pay 15 per cent GST on food? That is what this debate is about. So come clean, those opposite. Come clean and do not insist on your bill without the amendments. (Time expired)


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