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Secret Luxembourg tax deals triggers ATO investigation

A global investigation into secret tax deals in Luxembourg has triggered an investigation by the Australian Tax Office, with the allegations likely to be considered by a senate inquiry.

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A six month investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found thousands of global firms, including Australian-based companies, have legally avoided tax using deals negotiated through Luxembourg.

The investigation also implicated the Australian government’s Future Fund.

The largest ever leak of Luxembourg tax deals showed how Australian and international companies used a complex array of elaborate structures to cut their tax bills.

They did so by working with the global accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers which saw the deals struck with Luxembourg to shift profits and avoid tax.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers and officials in Luxembourg have defended the arrangements and said they were perfectly lawful.

The Australian branch of the accounting firm released a statement which said it gave advice to all companies “in accordance with applicable local, European and international tax laws.”

Luxembourg’s Finance Minister, Pierre Gramegna said the arrangements complied with the law.

“It is our opinion, and I think it is not even debated, that we have applied anticipative decisions ruling in such a way that they are compatible or in conformity with national and international law,” he said.

“So what has happened here is totally legal. So if something is totally legal, there is no reason to do any finger pin-pointing.”

Journalist Gerard Ryle from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists told the BBC ordinary citizens who pay their taxes are getting increasingly frustrated with multinationals being able to dodge tax in this way.

“You and I, the average person, we pay taxes, we pay by the rules, but there are rules and they’re perfectly legal rules that you can apply to a big corporation to not pay taxes,” he said.

“(While) it’s certainly tightening but every time it tightens it gets more sophisticated and the companies are able to find new ways of doing it. But you know the issue really goes to the issue of fairness. I mean if these companies aren’t paying their fair share of taxes then you and I are paying more and I think that’s why it resonates with people, people are tired of watching this happening.”

The leak drew a prompt response from the European Commission. The Commission’s Margaritis Schinas said it had already been investigating Luxembourg’s tax practices for multinational companies.

He said Luxembourg is just one country in the Commission’s sights.

“Luxembourg, France, Germany, Ireland, Malta, the Netherlands, UK – a long list of countries that we are investigating along these lines.”

Mark Zirnsak from the Tax Justice Network said that response sounds a little dismissive given the scale of what’s been revealed.

“Well it certainly doesn’t just apply to Luxembourg, that is definitely true and to a degree the European Commission has started to move on this but I think they need to be going much further and I think that the dismissive comment undermines the seriousness that they need to be treating this issue with,” he told SBS.

Mark Zirnsak said the fact that the Future Fund was implicated in the leak should provide Australia’s parliamentarians with extra incentive to ensure the allegations are thoroughly investigated by the senate inquiry into corporate tax avoidance.

“The case put forward was that those in the executive arm weren’t aware of what the Future Fund was actually up to in relation to these alleged arrangements,” he said.

“So I don’t believe what’s been revealed, the allegations revealed against the Future Fund should undermine our confidence that our parliamentarians are not going to treat this issue seriously and are not going to look at serious measures.”

“In fact, I hope it gives them more incentive to do so to actually demonstrate that they are absolutely committed to ensuring that there is a level playing field, that companies pay their tax where they are doing business and whether they will use created and that creates a level playing field.”

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