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May 22, 2014
Tax Analysts Exclusive: Australia's 'Secret' International Tax Symposium?
by Kristen A. Parillo

Full Text Published by Tax Analysts®


It's common for tax conferences to acknowledge the companies and organizations that sponsor the event. Given the significant amount of money and resources needed to hold a conference, it makes sense for the host to solicit funding.

However, 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. Details about the symposium, including the agenda and attendee list, were posted on the Australian Treasury's website.1

The symposium focused on the G-20's tax agenda -- specifically, the base erosion and profit-shifting work the OECD is carrying out (at the direction of the G-20), automatic information exchange, and tax matters facing developing countries. Several senior OECD officials and tax administrators from G-20 and other countries spoke at the symposium; most of the attendees were tax attorneys, accountants, and other practitioners from law and accounting firms and multinational corporations. (Christopher Winship, financial attaché with the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, was the only U.S. government representative.) Several academics and representatives of Oxfam International and the Trade Union Advisory Committee also participated.

According to the Australian Treasury's website, four private entities sponsored the event: Deloitte, KPMG LLP, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, and the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia (which represented the interests of the Global Accounting Alliance and the Chartered Accountants in England and Wales).

When Tax Analysts requested a press pass to cover the Tokyo event, the Australian Treasury's media relations team said that with the exception of the opening and closing remarks, the event was closed to the media. 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.

To convey what was discussed at the symposium, Tax Analysts interviewed some of the people who attended. While the interviews were helpful, this method is not the best way to report on an important event.

The symposium's closed-door status belied the message in the OECD's July 2013 BEPS action plan that work on the action items will include "a transparent and inclusive consultation process." It also seemed at odds with the Australian government's aggressive stance on BEPS and the measures it has implemented in recent years to curb avoidance and improve corporate tax transparency.

Is there a good reason to prohibit the media from covering an event like the one in Tokyo? One could argue that the attendees would feel more comfortable sharing their views, knowing that their comments wouldn't be reported in the press. But is that a good enough reason when government representatives are there to discuss their governments' positions on important tax issues, and when the topic being discussed does not involve any confidential or sensitive information?

The United States has recognized the need for a formal policy on how the IRS should interact with the media (Internal Revenue Manual sections 1.2.19.1.7 and 1.2.19.1.8), presumably because it believes that the media's ability to disseminate tax information to the public helps taxpayers know their rights and obligations and helps the IRS to better administer tax laws. The Australian Treasury didn't answer Tax Analysts' query about whether Australia has a similar policy.

Of course, there may be some legitimate reasons to pull back on open access.

"Obviously, if taxpayer confidentiality is at stake, then measures should be taken to protect that confidentiality," said Christopher Bergin, president and publisher of Tax Analysts. "But this is a conference on BEPS -- why does it need to be held in secret? When you do something like this, it forces us to ask the question, what are you hiding?"

Jason Sharman, deputy director of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University in Australia, said the decision to exclude the press from the Tokyo event doesn't align with the G-20's and OECD's professed commitment to transparency and accountability in the BEPS process, and the work of the OECD and the Global Forum more generally.

"While there are matters that are properly closed [to the media], this seems like exactly the sort of event that would benefit from a wide airing and exchange of ideas," Sharman said.

A spokesperson for the Australian Treasury told Tax Analysts that the event wasn't completely closed to the media, explaining that the press was invited for the opening and closing sessions and that the government published the opening and closing speeches, photos, and media releases. The Treasury's media team engaged with interested media outlets, and several senior delegates made it known that they were available to the media for interviews, the spokesperson added.

"In terms of broader media participation in the event, it can be hard to strike the right balance," the spokesperson said. "Our experience has been that there is less open dialogue if people feel they may be quoted in the press, and we wanted to ensure delegates felt comfortable to voice their opinions and views openly. As a compromise we allowed media access for part of the event."

Pascal Saint-Amans, director of the OECD Centre for Tax Policy and Administration, said that the OECD did not have a hand in organizing or sponsoring the Tokyo symposium and that OECD officials were there only as invitees of the Australian Treasury. He said the OECD made it clear to the Australian G-20 presidency that the OECD did not want the symposium to be considered a public consultation because the OECD is hosting its own consultations on the BEPS action items, which Saint-Amans noted have been open to the general public and press and made available via webcast.

Saint-Amans said he was glad the OECD could participate in the Tokyo symposium. "Representatives of Oxfam and [the Tax Justice Network] were also present, with whom we had good exchanges on the role and involvement of developing countries," he said, adding that the OECD is engaging with different stakeholders. The OECD has participated in several meetings organized by nongovernmental organizations and has been happy to do so, he added.


Pay to Play?

The other troubling aspect of the Tokyo symposium is that it was sponsored by several firms and organizations that have a very big stake in the outcome of the BEPS project.

Tax Analysts obtained a copy of a February 12 letter from the Australian Treasury asking various individuals if their organizations were interested in sponsoring the Tokyo event. The letter outlined two sponsorship packages:

  • "Major supporters" (contributing $100,000) would get two speaking roles (panelist or moderator), the opportunity to help shape the event, some branding rights, and six registrations to the symposium.
  • "Valued supporters" (contributing $50,000) would get one speaking role, some branding rights, and three registrations.

The letter said that Australia, as G-20 president, would invite senior G-20 and OECD officials and tax administrators to the symposium, "which will provide an excellent opportunity for your organisation to input into the G-20 tax agenda in May, when much of the G-20/OECD tax work will be taking shape."

Some could argue that the letter has a "pay to play" flavor -- that those with deep pockets will get a seat at the table and influence the BEPS work and that less-privileged stakeholders simply won't get the same kind of access. That interpretation would lend credence to complaints from some NGOs and other observers that developing countries have been shut out of the BEPS decision-making process.

It also raises the question whether it's appropriate for a government to accept funding from private entities to host a conference on a topic that directly affects those entities' interests.

Christiana HJI Panayi, a senior lecturer in tax law at Queen Mary, University of London and a member of the BEPS Monitoring Group (comprising academics and other tax specialists concerned with the effects of international tax on development), said she found the sponsorship aspect of the symposium inappropriate. "It's like asking big petroleum companies to pay their way to participate in an environmental conference and to shape its agenda," she said.

"How can you ensure that the results of the process are unbiased if you so blatantly associate sponsorship with the shaping of the results?" she asked.

Sol Picciotto, a professor at Lancaster University Law School (U.K.) and coordinator of the BEPS Monitoring Group, said he'd already had concerns about how the Tokyo symposium was being organized. "I had the impression it was stage-managed," he said. "In our view, civil society should have at least equal representation with business at such events, and they should also be open to news organizations to ensure public awareness. This was far from the case at the Tokyo event," he said.

"If this also was due to the government selling sponsorship of the event, it totally discredits the process," Picciotto continued. "The outcome of this event should be disregarded and should have no place in any consideration by the G-20 of the issues. It is obviously totally inappropriate to sell the power to influence consideration of a key public policy issue of major global importance such as international tax reform."

Picciotto said he is concerned that government-hosted, private-sector-funded conferences will occur again in the BEPS process. "We would ask the Australian government to explain why this took place and give assurances that nothing like it will happen again," he said.


A Means to an End?

The Australian government's goal for its G-20 tax agenda is to listen to the broadest range of stakeholder views possible, the Australian Treasury spokesperson said.

"The symposium was very valuable in ensuring that a broad range of stakeholders, particularly from the Asia-Pacific region, had an opportunity to contribute to the G-20's tax agenda," the spokesperson said. "Sponsorship helped us to fund this important engagement event. It also helped us reach a broad audience of expert stakeholders from across the tax industry and business sector via our sponsors' extensive networks in the region."

The spokesperson said there were seven panel sessions at the symposium, with at least five panelists on each. Sponsors were not represented on all panels, but when they were, there was one sponsor representative on the panel of five. Australian Treasury representatives did not participate on any panels.

The Australian Treasury received a funding allocation in the federal budget to host the G-20 in Australia's presidency year, the spokesperson said.

Ian Welch, a spokesperson for KPMG Australia, said his firm thought that sponsoring the Tokyo event was part of its role as a responsible citizen of the tax world and that it did not think its sponsorship was in any way inappropriate.

The symposium was organized in part to ensure that those from developing countries outside the OECD and G-20 could gain insight on OECD/G-20 tax initiatives, Welch said. "This event could not have taken place without sponsorship, and the developing countries would have been otherwise denied that insight," he added.

Likewise, Michael Croker, head of tax policy at the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia, said the symposium provided an environment in which all views on international tax issues could be expressed frankly and openly. "It provided a forum for open discussions, rather than decision-making, and the diverse views from the event will assist Treasury in helping the Australian government prepare for the G-20 meetings later this year," Croker said.

A key objective of the symposium was to give diverse stakeholders an opportunity to discuss complex issues, understand the practical implications, and identify how they could best work together to support the G-20/OECD tax initiatives, Croker added.

"Treasury sought sponsors, and we were one of the organizations to come forward," he added. "It is unlikely that the symposium would have been as successful without the sponsors."

In the end, then, while there were no bad intentions behind the organization of and access to the Tokyo conference, one might continue to question whether total transparency is necessary for the success of international tax reform discussions, or whether closed-door meetings are sometimes needed to create a more frank and uninhibited dialogue. Is opaqueness a necessary evil in some cases?


FOOTNOTE

1 The program and attendee list were available, as of May 21, at http://www.treasury.gov.au/Policy-Topics/Economy/G20/Events.

END OF FOOTNOTE


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