The importance of a good tax system design to sustain government revenues has always been apparent. For many nations, the continuing weakness in revenues following the global financial crisis has made this priority even clearer. In this climate, differing approaches to tax avoidance have become a focal point for discussion, and in the United Kingdom and Australia, this is no exception.
Both nations continue to grapple with issues of design, in both tax law and tax administration, on how best to limit the impact of tax avoidance on revenue collection.
In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts report on Tax avoidance: tackling marketing avoidance schemes "encourage[d] HRMC to look seriously at whether [the Australian approach] could be effective in the UK."
Jennie Granger, HMRC’s current director general of enforcement & compliance and a former Australian Tax Office (ATO) deputy commissioner, in evidence to the committee, ascribed Australia’s success in dealing with mass marketed tax avoidance schemes to product rulings and the promoter penalty legislation, both of which she said worked well.
The Australian approach to mass marketed or retail tax avoidance schemes thus comprises, from a tax system design perspective, two parts – one part a tax administration solution, the other a tax law design solution.
The first part is product rulings which the ATO first started issuing in 1998. The genius of this idea is that it embedded the idea of an ATO sign off into the marketing of these retail tax schemes. This changed market and investor practice - put simply, if a scheme lacked ATO sign off it became much harder to market.
This change in market behaviour meant that, in turn, that the ATO could choke off supply at the source by issuing a negative product ruling for those schemes which it regarded as offensive. Investors could also rely on the product ruling when self assessing their tax position.
However, the success of the promoter penalty rules – the tax law solution, which came into effect on 6 April 2006 – is less evident. There has only been one case to date, which the ATO convincingly lost.
Granger suggested much of the success of these rules lay in "enforceable undertakings" entered into with advisors which restrict their conduct. But these enforceable undertakings are, by their nature, confidential and hence their existence, or not, will be unknown externally. Nor does the ATO publicly disclose the number of these agreements signed. The success of this part of the Australian solution remains unclear and is not communicated to the public.
Moreover, it should be remembered that Australia is a highly tax compliant country. Its tax collection system is a self-assessment model under which taxpayers assess their own tax liabilities and then remit these to the ATO. That model is bolstered by various withholding measures which limit the opportunity to avoid remitting tax.
The ATO is well resourced, well motivated, and equipped with extensive legal powers. For example, Australia has had a tax general anti-avoidance rule for over 30 years and, as long ago as December 1996, the High Court dismissed the relevance of the Duke of Westminster principle to Australia as merely the ‘muffled echoes of old arguments concerning other legislation’.
In these circumstances tax avoidance is at the margins of Australian economic activity, rather than front and foremost of mind.
Paul Stacey FCA is head of tax policy at the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia