Why did the Australian government keep this tax symposium secret? (updated)

Mathias Cormann, Australian Finance Minister

Mathias Cormann, Australian Finance Minister

May 26: Updated with new details from the Sydney Morning Herald

This concerns a meeting in Tokyo, hosted by the Australian Treasury, to discuss the G20’s tax agenda. This involves not just the OECD’s “BEPS” project to reform the international rules for taxing multinational corporations, but also the rules and guidelines on information exchange and transparency, as well as on tax matters facing developing countries.

All this has come to the fore in the wake of widespread public pressure to curb secrecy and corporate and other tax abuses, and in general terms we welcome it.

An article in the highbrow U.S. publication Tax Analysts, in a (subscription-only) article entitled Australia’s ‘Secret’ International Tax Symposium? explains the problem.

It begins by noting that international conferences often solicit sponsorship from participants, and that that’s often fine. But then:

“Should that same justification apply when the host is not a professional body or advocacy group, but a government entity that is holding a conference on a topic that directly affects those sponsors? Does it seem inappropriate if the press is barred from covering a government-hosted, private-sector-funded conference at which high-level government officials discuss tax policy with private sector representatives?

Those are questions that Tax Analysts debated when the Australian Treasury, as part of Australia’s G-20 presidency, hosted an international tax symposium in Tokyo May 9-10.”

That is a very good question. See the list of sponsors, unashamedly displayed here.

Tax Analysts was barred from all but the opening and closing remarks: something that belies the OECD’s statement that it would involve “a transparent and inclusive consultation process.”

“That seemed odd given that the symposium featured G-20 and OECD officials discussing with tax professionals a global initiative (BEPS) that is of great interest to the international tax community and that could potentially overhaul long-standing tax rules and principles.”

We can’t unfortunately publish the Tax Analysts document, but thought it was important to flag this up.

To be absolutely clear: the Sydney Morning Herald reports on a letter from the Australian Treasury, also published by Tax Analysts, which

“said sponsorship deals gave organisations an opportunity to ”shape the event” and to take advantage of access to G20 and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development tax officials.”

Well, that’s nice for them!  The newspaper continues:

”It is inappropriate that Treasury has sold speaking spots and extra representation to companies that advise corporations on tax minimising – to a conference on tax reform,” said Mark Zirnsak of the Tax Justice Network, which had two representatives at the event.

A KPMG spokesman said it was ‘disappointing’ that non-governmental organisations should be criticising it. We at TJN are regularly proud to ‘disappoint’ the lobbyists.

Is this, perhaps, just one more incidence of state capture?


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About The Author

Nicholas Shaxson is a journalist and writer on the staff of Tax Justice Network. He is author of the book Poisoned Wells about the oil industry in Africa, published in 2007, and the more recent Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the Men who Stole the World, published by Random House in January 2011. He lives in Berlin
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