They are some of the country’s biggest corporate tax avoiders. Now their directors make up the board advising the government on innovation incentives. By Mike Seccombe.

The tax shirkers running the PM’s ‘agility’ agenda

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull may well have set a personal record on Tuesday, at the press conference he called to talk about one of his pet subjects, his $1.1 billion innovation policy.

Not once in his 668 words of introductory remarks, nor in answer to questions, did he utter the words “nimble” or “agile” or “ideas boom”.

But Turnbull’s failure to utter his favourite slogans was far from the strangest thing about the event. The strangest thing was that it happened at all.

The reason for it, Turnbull said, was to announce “new” appointments to the board that will advise the government on innovation policy. But they weren’t really new at all. They had each been acting in their roles for months.

A press release would ordinarily have sufficed. Instead there were little speeches from the prime minister, from Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne and from two of the “new” board members. Then, the event was opened up to questions.

The first question alluded to suggestions the government might bring the budget forward a week, and noted the Greens had decided they would not support recalling the senate for the purpose “on the grounds that the government is a shambles…”

Several more questions followed: on the timing of the budget, the election and the possibility of a double dissolution of parliament.

Turnbull batted each away, then reminded the pack that the focus of the media conference was supposed to be his announcement, “which – I regret to say – and look it is nothing personal, don’t think it’s, it’s Christopher and I failed to inspire one question about innovation. Is there a question – one more question – if it is on innovation?”

He gave the call to one more journalist, who confessed: “It is about cigarettes…”

The room broke up laughing. Turnbull gave up and left.

The tenor of the questioning was unsurprising given the government did indeed give the strong impression of being a shambles, with its tax reform agenda looking increasingly tattered and insubstantial, with the uncertainties about the timing of the budget and election, and the messy debate about voting reform, not to mention the perpetual sniping of the Coalition’s right wing, this week on the subject a school anti-bullying program.

But it’s also a pity no one asked about the appointments to the board of Innovation and Science Australia, in particular about Maile Carnegie, who was in attendance and who spoke briefly. 

Certainly, Google is an innovative company. But that is nowhere more enthusiastically deployed than in tax dodging.

1 . Shifting profits

Last April, Maile Carnegie appeared before a senate committee inquiring into corporate tax avoidance, where Labor’s Sam Dastyari asked her whether the tiny amount of tax Google paid – by shifting profits around the world between various jurisdictions – was moral.

Her reply suggested morality was not the issue; legality was. The right amount of tax varied geographically.

“When you look at it internationally, the answer to that ranges from people like the UK, who says that it’s 20 per cent, through to Ireland who says it’s 12.5 per cent, through to South Korea that says it’s 24 per cent, through to Singapore that says it’s 17 per cent,” she said.

“Bermuda. Zero,” interjected Dastyari.

“Through to Bermuda, that says it’s zero,” said Carnegie. “So I don’t know what the right answer is.”

It would appear that for Google the right and moral amount of tax to pay was not much.

According to tax office data, Google Australia and New Zealand had total income in 2013-14 of $357 million and taxable income of $90.8 million. The company paid $9.2 million.

At least two other companies with representatives on the 15 member advisory board are also quite effective tax minimisers. One is the online job search outfit Seek, represented by co-founder and major shareholder Paul Bassat, which had total income of $448 million in 2013-14, taxable income of $159 million, and paid $32.49 million.

The other is medical supplies company ResMed, represented by non-executive director Dr Chris Roberts, had total income of $1.3 billion in the same period, taxable income of $250.4 million, and paid $33.8 million.

We stress this is all perfectly legal. And no doubt these are very clever people who will bring to the advisory board valuable insights into the realities of remaining competitive in the modern corporate world – the central reality being that capital and business entrepreneurs are globally mobile and “nimble”, while governments and ordinary workers are not. Thus they play countries off against one another for tax lurks, as Carnegie showed before that senate committee, with her detailed knowledge of tax rates in various nations. One can guess at the advice this board might offer.

2 . Reform agenda

But back to Malcolm Turnbull’s Tuesday media conference. Perhaps the real reason for it was to remind us that there is at least one area in which the government’s reform agenda is proceeding to plan. Even though it has dumped the idea of extending the GST, tightening the rules for negative gearing and, it would seem, delivering its oft-promised personal tax cuts, plans for big new concessions for the wealthy and entrepreneurial were proceeding apace.

“This week we’ll be introducing legislation to provide the tax incentives and CGT exemptions, Capital Gains Tax exemptions for investments in early stage start-ups,” Turnbull said.

“Investors will receive a 20 per cent tax offset based on the amount that they invest in these early stage startups and Christopher [Pyne] can talk more about that in a moment, as well as a capital gains tax exemption.”

Pyne had little to add, apart from noting that the exemption on capital gains tax would apply for 10 years. But there was no real need to spell it out; that was done last December. The only new element was that legislation was to go to parliament the next day.

Bottom line, it is another tax break that will be worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to the rich. As a government adviser later explained to The Saturday Paper, the measures were directed towards “sophisticated investors”.

“The sort of people that are investing in these start-ups are people who have high tax liabilities, so a 20 per cent tax offset can be quite considerable. So it is particularly generous.”

That is not to say this is a bad thing, particularly compared with other tax breaks for the rich. Surely it’s better to give a tax break to someone gambling on a potentially revolutionary idea for a start-up business than to someone who is passively invested in some low-risk, unproductive area such as, for example, a negatively geared real estate portfolio. The former might provide a young entrepreneur with capital, whereas the latter only increases his or her cost of living.

When it comes to tax breaks for the wealthy, though, this government giveth but is reluctant to taketh away.

3 . ‘Houses and holes’

And not just this government. And not just government. As economic commentator Satyajit Das puts it, this country’s unique natural blessings have fostered a “houses and holes” economy in which capital has become lazy. When we’re not digging stuff up to sell to the world, we are selling real estate to one another at ever inflating prices.

It’s not that we are not clever, says Professor Roy Green, dean of the business school at the University of Technology Sydney, an innovation expert whose work informed the Turnbull government’s strategy.

“We are number seven or eight in the world when it comes to the production of research and number 80 when it comes to translating research into commercial outcomes,” Green says.

Of the Abbott/Turnbull government’s record on fostering innovation, he notes: “Three billion [dollars] was taken out and a billion has been put back in. But Turnbull’s statement last year is a start to making amends…”

And none too soon. For while the Australian economy is now being held up, in the wake of the mining boom, by consumption, “we have a very difficult transition ahead”.

The tax measures introduced this week are, in Green’s view, but a “satisfactory first instalment”.

While the government has encouraged sugar-plum visions of Australian entrepreneurialism producing some kind of local Silicon Valley as a result of tax breaks, there is a great deal more to be done than that.

“A much bigger proportion of our economy [than high-tech start-ups] is established industries and enterprises, particularly in manufacturing and services,” Green says. “And those are the ones we need to transform if we are to be competitive.”

4 . R&D tax incentives

It’s all about fostering links between the clever people who do the research and the moneyed companies that commercialise it. “Successful countries – like Finland or Ireland – have independent or semi-independent agencies,” Green says, “that can both contribute to the growth of an entrepreneurial culture but assist in the transition of existing industry, and that’s the real challenge for us.

“Other countries do things like involve students in the work of industry, provide teachers and adjuncts to universities. I could cite any number of very concrete examples of how it’s done well elsewhere. Yet it’s not part of our culture. In Australia, we have tax incentives. In Australia, the feeling among some businesses that the only reason to talk to a university is to get some free R&D,” Green says.

“We spend $9.7 billon in total in our research and innovation system and it’s not spent very coherently. It’s spread across 13 portfolios and 150 line items in the budget. And $3 billion of that is the R&D tax incentive, which has been growing dramatically in recent years.” 

Green has previously noted, for example, that during the mining boom, the resources sector increased its research and development spending, but “this has mostly been directed at tax minimisation”.

Thus he questions the effectiveness of that huge, open-ended tax break.

“Some kinds of incentives are necessary,” Green says, “but the question is whether they are based on tax incentives or on targeted spending programs.”

Clearly he would like to see more of the latter, and to be fair there is more to the Turnbull innovation strategy than tax breaks.

Green believes Malcolm Turnbull gets it, but he is less sure that others do.

And listening to Scott Morrison in parliamentary question time on Wednesday, you would have to wonder. The tax breaks introduced that day were, in the treasurer’s view, at the very “heart” of the government’s innovation and science agenda.

“What this government is doing through changes to the tax system is backing in Australians who we know will innovate and create the growth and therefore the jobs…” he thundered.

“The plan on this side of the house is to reduce the tax burden on investment. That is the key ingredient to support the transition in our economy.”

5 . Proposed changes

Except it’s actually not. It’s just one ingredient. A whole lot more has to be done to stir Australia’s lazy capital into productive action and encourage entrepreneurship. And to be fair, the Turnbull innovation agenda touches on a lot of that – measures such as putting more resources into school education in so-called STEM subjects and teaching coding, attracting skilled people and entrepreneurs from overseas through changes to the visa system and other incentives, linking business and academia, and re-funding the research organisations affected by Abbott-era funding cuts. 

But many of these proposed changes are yet to be fleshed out, take time and are more complicated in their implementation than are simple tax breaks.

Roy Green remains hopeful. “For now,” he says, “I’m suspending my cynicism.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2016 as "The tax shirkers running the PM’s ‘agility’ agenda".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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