The Tax Office plans to allow large corporations to self-audit. Photo: Michel O’Sullivan
The Australian Tax Office is pushing ahead with a controversial plan to allow the country’s largest corporations to audit their own tax affairs through the corporations own private sector financial statement auditors. The ATO previously performed this tax audit work.
The requirement for financial statement auditors to be totally independent of the management, ownership and operations of a corporation is an essential requirement for the maintenance of integrity and confidence in the Australian financial system.
This particularly applies to publicly-listed corporations. Requirements for auditor independence are enshrined in the Corporations Act, various Australian Accounting Standards and professional and ethical standards set by the accounting bodies.
ASIC and these other bodies have an oversight and regulatory function to monitor and maintain auditor independence. There are also requirements that as part of independence issues, auditors of public corporations are rotated every five years. Auditors of public corporations are required to sign a “Statement of Independence” and this is included in the published Annual Report of a corporation
ATO is now planning to delegate to the private sector financial statement auditors of a corporation the audit of the tax practices and operations of the corporation. To a very large extent this plan by the ATO is relying on the professional independence of the financial auditors of the major corporations.
While this reasoning and justification by the ATO is tenuous at best, and wonderful in theory, the “real world” practical commercial reality is that in many major corporations, the external financial statement auditors cannot reasonably be perceived as being totally independent of the policies, operations and management of the corporation they are auditing.
Some major corporations do have as part of their corporate governance policies a criteria that the sole relationship with their external auditors and accountants is the financial audit function, and nothing else. Unfortunately many large corporations do not adopt this policy.
Take for example the matter of Crown Resorts Ltd (Crown), a major publicly-listed corporation under the James Packer umbrella. Other similar examples can be given to the Crown situation set out below. From their published accounts, in the five years to June 2014, Crown earned pre-tax profits of some $2.6 billion. Of this profit, Crown provided for $415m of income tax expense, and has (from their cash flow statements) physically paid $397 million in income tax. This represents an effective tax rate of around 15%-16%, against the legislated rate of company tax of 30%.
Ernst & Young Australia (EY) are one of the “big 4” accounting firms in Australia, and have been the auditors of Crown since at least 2007. In the same five-year period to June 2014, and again extracted from the publicly available financial statements, Crown paid EY the amount of $4m in financial audit fees, plus a further $21m in tax service fees. Additionally, the international arm of EY in the same period received audit fees of $432k, and also derived $1.3 million in tax service fees, plus another $260k in other consulting fees.
Put bluntly, from a purely common sense perspective, EY as financial auditors of Crown cannot reasonably be perceived as being professionally or financially independent and disinterested in the tax practices and policies of Crown.
Are we now to have EY, at the behest of the ATO, enquire into and express an “independent” audit opinion on the tax practices and operations of Crown, when EY can only reasonably be perceived as being very substantially the origin and author of the very same tax practices and operations adopted by Crown?
The plan by the ATO is commercially and logically absurd. The fox is in charge of the henhouse.
The above comments should not necessarily be seen as a criticism of the ATO. The government, in their infinite wisdom,havecut or is are cutting some 4700 jobs from the ATO. The government have deliberately and effectively emasculated the ATO to the extent that they no longer have the resources to perform their own taxation audits on corporations such as the above example of Crown. The plan by the ATO almost appears as an act of desperation by the ATO given the gutting of their staff resources by the government.
It also appears from the above example that the various regulatory and oversight bodies, both public (ASIC and the Accounting Standards Board) and the private professional bodies (Chartered Accountants Australia) may well be asleep at the wheel on these issues.
The winners in this imbroglio, as usual, will be the current government’s “mates” – the big end of town – the big corporates, and the big four accounting firms. The losers are obvious – the public purse and the average guy in the street who have PAYG deducted from their wages and salaries. As the old saying goes – the poor pay their taxes and the rich pay their accountants and lawyers.
Perhaps in the interests of fairness and equity, the ATO will also allow every taxpayer in Australia to audit their own tax affairs – this makes as much commercial and logical sense as the ATO plan for large corporations to audit their own tax affairs.
Rob King is a former chartered accountant, now semi retired and performing financial analysis of public interest matters.