ATO digs into Paradise Papers for Aussie tax haven links

Apple, Twitter and Uber among the tech players named in the leaked documents

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has been working for months with partner agencies overseas to identify local links to the tax haven activity unveiled in the so-called Paradise Papers, which name tech players such as Apple and Uber.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), in association with 95 media partners, publicly unveiled some of the information unearthed after being handed 13.4 million leaked files relation to offshore law firm, Appleby.

The leaked files come after the earlier leak of approximately 11.5 million documents, dubbed the Panama Papers, detailing the activities of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

It is understood that there are 19 companies already under the ATO's scrutiny following the Panama Papers release, 13 of which are still under review.

The Paradise Papers documents include nearly 7 million loan agreements, financial statements, emails, trust deeds and other paperwork from nearly 50 years at Appleby, which maintains offices in zero-tax regions, such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

The ICIJ said that the papers expose the tax engineering of more than 100 multinational corporations, including Apple and Uber, among others.

The leaked files also led to other discoveries about US-Russian business ties, according to the ICIJ, which said that a document in the new cache of records helped steer the consortium and its media partners to public documents and Panama Papers files illuminating links between a pair of Kremlin-owned financial firms and major investments in Twitter and Facebook.

Closer to home, the ATO’s Deputy Commissioner International, Mark Konza, said that Australia’s tax collector is “at the forefront of international co-operation and engagement” and has been acquiring new sources of data and intelligence to bolster the information it already has about tax haven activities of companies operating locally.

“ATO intelligence on tax avoidance comes from a variety of sources, including from concerned citizens, advisers, partner agencies and international bodies,” Konza said. “We anticipate further data may be published by the ICIJ and the ATO will continue to work closely with other tax administrations to share intelligence on advisers operating globally.

“Domestically, we are working with the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Federal Police, and AUSTRAC [Australian Transaction Report and Analysis Centre] to further cross-check data and build our intelligence base, undertake audits, apply significant tax penalties where appropriate and refer cases to the Serious Financial Crime Taskforce for criminal investigation,” he said.

The ATO said that, globally, the Joint International Taskforce on Shared Intelligence and Collaboration (JITSIC) is already collaborating within existing legal frameworks following a statement by Appleby last month.

“Given our early analysis of the data and the ability of the JITSIC member countries to come together quickly to build on each other’s intelligence holdings and insights, I am confident the ATO is in a position to respond decisively to this data release,” Konza said.

Meanwhile, the JITSIC member countries continue to leverage off the Panama Papers and work together to pool resources and share intelligence to rapidly develop a more accurate picture of what the data is telling us.

“This highlights the ATO’s ability to lead effective multilateral working groups and success in working with international partners to improve the way in which tax administrations exchange information and to develop a better shared understanding of the types of arrangements used to evade and avoid tax,” Konza said.

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The investigations come as Australia’s Federal Government works to close the loopholes that have previously allowed large multinational companies such as Apple and Google to legally minimise the rate of tax they are required to pay in the local market.

In March, for example, the Federal Government’s so-called “Google Tax” was passed into law, with the new legislation aimed at targeting profit-shifting among multinational enterprises.

The Diverted Profits Tax Bill 2017 and the Treasury Laws Amendment (Combating Multinational Tax Avoidance) Bill 2017 were introduced into Parliament by Treasurer, Scott Morrison, in February.

The introduction and passing of the laws came after a lengthy Parliamentary inquiry into corporate tax avoidance, during which some of the biggest tech players in the local market fronted up to the Senate Economics References Committee-led inquiry.

Among those under scrutiny were Apple, Microsoft, IBM and Google, all of which have been on the Government’s radar in relation to their local tax practices.

Ultimately, the new laws see some companies that book their profits in international regions that claim a lower tax rate than Australia’s standard 30 per cent company rate slugged with a tax bill based on a rate of 40 per cent.

Additionally, in June, Australia signed the Multilateral Convention to Implement Tax Treaty Related Measures to Prevent Base Erosion and Profit Shifting agreement at an event hosted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris on 7 June along with 67 other countries.

Without such a deal, Australia would have to introduce the new rules treaty by treaty, a process that the Government said could take decades.

Some of the legislative initiatives taken by the Government have made an impact, with Microsoft revealing in August it had reached a new tax arrangement with the ATO, albeit on the very same day it fronted up to a public hearing for the Government's inquiry into Corporate Tax Avoidance on 22 August.

However, in August, it was revealed that the new laws introduced by the Federal Government to crack down on tax avoidance by large multinational companies had resulted in little or no change to the local operations of Apple.

Apple's managing director for Australia and New Zealand, Tony King, revealed earlier this year that since the introduction of the new laws in Australia aimed specifically at reducing tax avoidance practices, Apple has made practically no changes to its business model in Australia.

“As new tax laws have come into effect in Australia, like the Multinational Tax law, Apple has not needed to make any changes to our business model, which was and remains compliant,” King told Committee members of Parliament at a public hearing on 22 August. “As financial reporting and tax transparency measures evolve, Apple is fully adopting these measures.”