When even the Crikey!-trained operatives at Media Watch concede a fellow ABC employee has screwed the pooch, you know the act was done thoroughly, absolutely and with extreme prejudice. Thus, last night were viewers treated to a tut-tutting Paul Barry lamenting newly elevated chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici’s misadventures in Tax Land. For those who haven’t followed the national broadcaster’s latest debacle, the former Lateline hostess took it upon herself to explain why rapacious companies aren’t paying the taxes she seems to think they owe.
Alas, a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing and unexamined preconceptions make it more so, especially when combined with a chief economics correspondent’s apparent ignorance of the difference between revue and profit. Put it this way: were Ms Alberici required to pay for her own office vehicle, construct the building in which she tickles her keyboard and cover every other capital and incidental expense from her own pocket, she could tot them all up, write off the total against her salary and also pay no tax.
Worth mentioning as well is ABC editors’ likewise ignorance of editing. In a newsroom supervised by adults, editors are every incompetent, ignorant or overly enthusiastic reporters’ protection against public ridicule. Yet at the ABC, or so one gathers, a marquee name drops her copy in the subeditors’ in-box and the comma-crunchers post it as written. Blinded to error by the lustre of fame? Garden-variety slack? Or is it, as ABC viewers might surmise, that ill-informed tosh is propagated without query or comment if the thrust of its, er, argument happens to mesh with the collective’s worldview?
Greedy capitalists bilking the national coffers? How could your standard-issue ABCer resist the temptation to go hard on that one, even to the extent of allowing this laughably florid attack on Goldman Sachs to see the light of day in Ms Alberici’s original compendium of errors:
“… the great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money …”.
It is a familiar pattern at the ABC where, not so long ago, it was informing audiences that RAN personnel are in the habit of torturing seaborne illegal immigants. In that instance it was hot engine parts listed as instruments of torment, no mention of “vampire squids” and intrusive “blood funnels”.
If the ABC were to expand its hiring pool beyond GetUp! supporters and the life partners of existing employees that would likely change, but that is another story.
To its credit, Media Watch acknowledged “editorial quality control on a major story has failed yet again”. Sadly, and at odds with its usual practice of embedding lots of links so viewers and readers can examine media sins firsthand, Barry & Co embedded not a single illustrative link in their report. They mention how ABC News Director Gaven Morris raised concerns about Alberici’s article within two hours of its publication, noting that they have seen his internal email. Yet Barry skated over readers’ undoubted interest in that document with a bland “we can’t show you the correspondence”.
Why can’t they show the correspondence? Does anyone imagine that, had a similar email been obtained from, say, News Corp, it would not have had pride of place, complete with one of those mocking Strine voiceovers?
Fortunately, a Quadrant reader spotted Ms Alberici’s original, unamended effort and copied us by email at about the same time Gaven Morris was sending his own note of concern. We’ve taken that original Alberici post and compared it with the version now on the ABC News website, which can be found here.
You will find a composite version below. The struck-thru passages are those removed from subsequent versions, while the italic sections represent additions and re-writes. Note the ambient bias and loaded words, which we have bolded, in the original, plus the chief economics correspondent’s addled understanding of revenue and profit.
Read it and then wonder how $1.2 billion a year buys so little competence.
— roger franklin
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, one of the most prominent supporters of the Turnbull government’s proposed big business tax cut, presides over a company that hasn’t paid corporate tax for close to 10 years.
The period roughly coincides with Mr Joyce’s tenure at the helm of Australia’s flag carrier.
Despite generating income of $106.4 billion, the flying kangaroo has avoided paying tax on that bounty since 2009, thanks to Australia’s generous tax concessions, depreciation provisions and the ability to offset company losses against past and future profits.
New analysis by the ABC reveals Qantas is not alone – its tax behaviour is consistent with about 380 of Australia’s largest companies. ATO corporate tax transparency data – confirmed in email exchanges with company representatives – reveals about one in five of the country’s biggest companies have paid no tax for at least the past three years.
High-flyers land no tax
Not one of Australia’s biggest airlines has paid corporate tax since at least 2013, including Virgin and its subsidiary Tigerair, Etihad, Emirates and Qatar.
Each one of those companies has sold billions of dollars worth of tickets in Australia.
Despite selling billions of dollars worth of tickets in Australia, historical losses and the entirely legitimate use of Australia’s tax laws allow them to offset those losses against future profits indefinitely.
When asked for an explanation, both Qantas and Virgin pointed the ABC to their historical losses and the entirely legitimate use of Australia’s tax laws that allow them to offset those losses against future profits indefinitely.
Both companies were at pains to point out emphasised to the ABC that, notwithstanding their zero corporate tax liabilities, they had continued to collect and pay departure taxes, fuel and alcohol excises, payroll tax, GST and FBT.
Presumably that’s what the Etihad spokesman was alluding to in his statement to the ABC.
“Etihad is fully compliant with all Australian tax requirements, and has paid all the taxes it is obligated to do so under Australian law.”
The airlines are typical of highly competitive industries where losses are frequent and capital investment is hugely expensive.
While the debate over corporate tax cuts is likely to dominate the political debate over the next year, Australia is actually unusually dependent on personal income tax and the burden of corporate tax rests disproportionately on a small number of large Australian-based companies.
In 2015/16, among the top 50 companies, 17 paid no corporate tax, leaving just 33 to shoulder the burden. Between them, they provided just under $20 billion. This includes the big four banks and our two big miners and retailers, Woolworths and Wesfarmers.
So why do so many companies, some with significant operating profits, pay little or no tax?
Apart from operating losses and depreciation, the declining value of assets is another key reason. The troubled energy industry is a good example.
EnergyAustralia’s tax-free decade
At a time when Australian households have seen their electricity prices soar, the country’s leading energy retailer, EnergyAustralia hasn’t been paying corporate tax. EnergyAustralia paid no corporate tax for the decade to 2016.
For the three years to June 2016, EnergyAustralia’s 1.7 million electricity and gas customers across eastern Australia helped it record $24 billion worth of income on which no tax was paid.
That’s despite EnergyAustralia’s 1.7 million electricity and gas customers across eastern Australia helping it record $24 billion worth of revenue for the three years to June 2016, and an operating profit of about $200m last year.
An EnergyAustralia spokesperson said the company’s performance, “reflects how the power-generation sector is underpinned by assets that were built last century”.
“Since 2006, EnergyAustralia has written down the value of its assets by $1.9 billion.”
How much tax did the big banks pay?
What about the big international banks that generate multi-million-dollar advisory fees and turnover billions in lending and trading in Australia?
Ten years after the global financial crisis – which they are largely responsible for creating which they helped create – some of the world’s most prominent investment banks are collecting tidy sums of income revenue in Australia and not paying corporate tax.
Among them is Malcolm Turnbull’s old employer, Goldman Sachs, which recently won a lucrative contract with the NSW government.
Described by Rolling Stone Magazine as, “the great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”, Goldman will be paid $16.5 million as the state’s financial adviser on the sale of the $16.8 billion WestConnex motorway in NSW.
The investment bank generated revenue of $1.84 billion over three years but paid zero corporate tax.
The underlying profitability of these banks is obscure but Goldman Sachs generated revenue of $1.84 billion over three years and reported operating profits in each year but paid zero corporate tax.
Ditto for JPMorgan Chase which raked in collected $2.2 billion and hasn’t paid corporate tax since at least 2013.
In one of the most audacious explanations advanced to the ABC for the non-payment of corporate tax, a spokesman for America’s biggest bank said JPMorgan was still suffering the aftershocks of the financial crisis which meant its Australian operations continued to operate at a loss.
But late last year, it emerged JPMorgan Chase agreed to pay a record $13 billion fine to US federal and state authorities in 2013.
The purpose of this fine was to settle claims it had misled investors in the years leading up to 2008.
French bank BNP Paribas also appeared to have made some bad investments taxpayers were having to compensate it for.
It hasn’t paid corporate tax for at least three years — like Goldman, JPMorgan Chase, American Express, Barclays Bank and the Royal Bank of Scotland.
The oldest foreign bank in Australia (resident here since 1881) told the ABC that despite attracting close to $10 billion in revenue since 2013, BNP failed to make any profits.
BNP said its losses, “included the write off of bad debts from lending to certain Australian domiciled companies”.
International investment banks are a good example of how large international companies with Australian subsidiaries can effectively, and legally, shift revenue to affiliates or parent groups offshore in the guise of payments for services.
This can all work to render the Australian business loss-making, and therefore not required to pay corporate tax.
Could the bank be writing that fine off against its Australian income? The spokesman didn’t care to elaborate.
News Corp pays no tax on $71m profit
Old and new media
All the focus on the tax shenanigans affairs of foreign technology and media companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft has diverted our gaze from the taxpaying habits of some of their home grown rivals.
While those media businesses operating in the virtual world can minimise tax because it’s not clear where their businesses are situated, the old world media isn’t paying much tax either as their profits dwindle and they write-off the value of their mastheads.
The most obvious one is Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which hasn’t paid corporate tax in Australia for at least four years. It has long arranged its affairs to pay little tax but because the value of its newspapers is collapsing, it hasn’t paid corporate tax in Australia for at least four years.
The media colossus reported total income of $8.5 billion and even boasted a $71 million profit in 2014/15 but no corporate tax was paid.
The company’s corporate affairs boss, Liz Deegan, wrote to the ABC to clarify that: “News Corp Australia has deductible operating costs and certain tax incentives and allowable credits, like R&D and franking credits, that offset the revenue disclosed.”
Its partly owned pay-TV company, Foxtel, received a $30 million gift from the federal government in the last budget, ostensibly to provide better coverage of female sports.
In the three years prior, Foxtel had also not paid corporate tax.
Fairfax, News Corp’s newspaper rival in Australia, paid $53.1 million in corporate tax over the same period….
The version now on the ABC News website continues at some length, but the above should suffice to illustrate once again that the national broadcaster’s endemic bias is compounded by a galloping incompetence. It has been 37 years since the Dix Report took a long, hard look at the ABC. Another examination of ABC standards, hiring practices and mission would seem long overdue.