Opening statement to Senate Standing Committee on Economics Inquiry into the Treasury Laws Amendment (GST Low Value Goods) Bill 2017

With Sinclair Davidson

We recommend that the Treasury Laws Amendment (GST Low Value Goods) Bill be rejected by the parliament. It is our view that this is not an integrity measure, that this is not the government closing a loophole in the GST legislation as they claim, but rather that this is a new tax. This new tax does not promote fairness for Australian retailers or consumers. It deviates quite substantially from the current GST design and is only superficially similar to the GST in that it has a 10 per cent rate. The GST itself is a tax which purports to tax Australian consumption, but it is actually a sales tax, and the legal incidence of this tax is on the seller of the goods, and the economic incidence is the assumption that the tax is then passed on to final consumers.

This particular tax, however, does not vest legal incidence in the seller of the goods; it vests legal incidence in the electronic distribution platform and/or the people offering transportation services. It is those companies and entities which facilitate a transaction between foreigners and Australians who will bear the tax, not the seller and not the consumer. This is not a tax on Australian consumption at all, but rather it is a tax on trading with Australians.

As an aside, I noticed before that you were concerned about double taxation. If this tax is collected by the foreign seller or the electronic distribution platform, they may have a problem convincing their own tax authorities that this is not revenue to them, and they may in fact then be taxed on that in their home country. So they need to be able to tell a story that remitting money to the Australian government is actually a legitimate business expense, and I suspect we will find that it is not. So double taxation will come in, in that these foreigners in fact will be taxed in their home countries on a 10 per cent increase in revenue. I was also astonished to discover that the authorities—certainly the tax office—seem to be recklessly indifferent to consumer fraud. That is certainly a massive problem.

The unintended consequences of this tax are such that I think the government has not much thought about these consequences at all. It is very likely to reduce competition in the domestic market as foreign sellers withdraw their services and stop selling. It is likely to expose Australians to darker elements of the internet, reducing antifraud protections and consumer protections that they currently enjoy. It draws foreign entities into the Australian tax net, which currently are exempt from the Australian tax net. No thought has been given at all to the consequences of Australian businesses then being drawn into foreign governments’ tax nets. So not only will there be a greater compliance on foreigners imposed by the Australian government; foreign governments will in turn put a compliance burden on Australian businesses hoping to trade with their citizens. That has not been discussed at all. So the net compliance effect of this is unknown, certainly much more than the budgeted amount of $13 million, which I think is just the salaries of the people who will be working on this. The increased compliance cost on small business is likely to create a barrier to growth. Obviously, large Australian businesses are in a position to wear those fixed costs of foreign compliance. This will create a barrier to small business growth in Australia and again will be a barrier to entry.

This fails as a protection mechanism. Australian consumers pay well above 10 per cent price differentials when buying from domestic retailers than with foreign goods anyway. It fails to produce substantial revenue for the Australian government. We estimate it is less than 0.2 per cent of additional revenue on the existing GST. It is not clear to us that these inherent flaws can ever be repaired. If the government were to simply abolish the $1,000 threshold at the moment, they would find themselves in the position of having to borrow money to collect revenue at a loss, which of course is a completely nonsensical position.

We think the government should leave well enough alone, not introduce a new tax, not expose Australians to the dangers of the dark internet and substandard or unsafe goods, and not encourage Australians to move away from reputable online sellers. So this has no redeeming features whatsoever and it should not be legislated into existence. Thank you.