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Tech giants in tax firing line

Australia’s tax net will tighten around tech giants including Facebook and Google in a fresh crackdown on large corporations trying to dodge their Australian obligations by claiming deductions overseas.Changes to the so-called “hybrid mismatch rules” in this year’s Federal Budget are the latest in a series of measures designed to stop tech giants evading tax…

Australia’s tax net will tighten around tech giants including Facebook and Google in a fresh crackdown on large corporations trying to dodge their Australian obligations by claiming deductions overseas.

Changes to the so-called “hybrid mismatch rules” in this year’s Federal Budget are the latest in a series of measures designed to stop tech giants evading tax in Australia by funnelling revenue and profits through low-tax countries such as Singapore and Ireland.

But the reform is only a small change compared to an anticipated worldwide crackdown planned by a group of OECD nations, including Australia, that could extract an extra $155 billion from booming, multinational tech firms.

The new changes to Australia’s tax laws will apply from July this year and are designed to “prevent multinational corporations from exploiting differences in the tax treatment” of items “under the laws of two or more tax jurisdictions”.

While the Budget papers do not put a figure on how much money the changes could raise, it said the reforms were expected to create a “small but unquantifiable increase” in tax.

The reform is part of a four-year battle by the Australian Government to win more tax from tech giants operating in the country but channelling their finances through other nations.

Social network Facebook, for example, paid taxes of just $16.8 million in Australia last year despite collecting gross revenue of $674 million from local advertisers. The year before, it paid just $11.8 million in Australia.

Facebook says its local operations are actually based in Ireland, which has a tax rate of just 12.5 per cent.

The Australian arm of internet giant Google also attracted scrutiny from the Australian Government after paying a tax bill of $58.7 million last year even though it amassed a gross revenue of $4.8 billion in Australia.

It was also asked to pay an additional $50.6 million in an “adjustment” for tax from previous years.

Despite its huge revenue, Google Australia claimed in financial statements that it was merely “the agent in the transaction” for Google Asia Pacific, which operates under Singapore’s lower tax rates.

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The new laws could clamp down on some foreign deductions claimed by the firms, as well as other large multinational corporations, including insurance firms.

But Australia has been urged not to make large reforms by itself, and instead stick with 137 nations from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which is currently designing a worldwide tax regime for tech giants.

While a plan from the group, led by tax policy and administration director Pascal Saint-Amans, was due in July, representatives from the United States asked for more time to overcome the coronavirus pandemic and settle its November presidential election.

The OECD’s digital tax could be based on a tech giant’s sales rather than profit to avoid loopholes, and focus on where a company’s transactions took place rather than the location of its headquarters.

It’s understood the so-called “Google tax” could affect firms including Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Uber.

Despite its involvement in the ongoing negotiations, Australia has previously introduced other schemes to claim a larger share of tax from foreign tech firms, including the Multinational Anti-Avoidance Law, Diverted Profits Tax, and the Tax Avoidance Taskforce.

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