It is easy to think the focus on multinationals and their tax affairs is something that just affects technology or pharmaceutical companies, but actually, it has the biggest impact on retailers.
Just last week, the chairman of a large ASX conglomerate which owns, amongst other things, retail chains was calling on other similar multinational businesses to sign up to the Voluntary Tax Transparency Code. The Code provides a framework for businesses to publicly disclose more information about their tax affairs at a level of detail significantly higher than that already published by the ATO or is otherwise publicly available. This represents a significant shift in transparency especially for those companies that are not listed on the ASX and so do not already publish financial statements or annual reports or are otherwise not required to submit accounts to ASIC.
Why is this relevant? Well, basically this call for increased disclosure comes in an environment where public perception, at times fuelled by the media, is that large companies engage in profit shifting – especially where these companies are selling to Australian customers but may not be making profits and consequently paying (enough) tax in Australia.
Tax transparency is here to stay, and business will face increasing pressure to be more transparent about their tax affairs. This pressure will come not only from the public but also from competitors. Some elements of tax transparency will be outside of the control of business (e.g. ATO reporting of tax paid data, media coverage or tax-activist groups issuing reports) and other elements of tax disclosure (e.g. general purpose financial statements) only provide limited data.
The aspect of selling to Australian customers is where the perception of value is highest. The Code should, therefore, be seen as a singular opportunity for retailers to proactively present the facts associated with the tax contribution their business makes. The key challenge will be to ensure that the facts are accurately presented and that they can be easily understood by non-tax professionals in the context of one of the world’s most complex tax systems.