Last week, on the same day as the Budget, Newsroom carried a story about Google and its taxation practises and the Minister of Revenue, David Parker's views on that. And it was surprisingly blunt. He was, as the article put it, somewhat scathing of Google's reticence to pay more tax.
The head of Google in New Zealand, Caroline Rainsford, had given an interview to Newsroom, which coincided with the Budget, and it outlined how Google has been pushing back against the nascent plans by the government to set in place its own digital services tax. This is conditional on whether the OECD cannot reach agreement on a unified approach to taxation.
Anyway, Rainsford said that basically, although Google is for the OECD development of a simpler and unified tax system, it’s not encouraging a unilateral approach here. In other words, please don't tax us more, but we'll be happy to look to see about what's happening with this international tax initiative.
Google's parent company Alphabet reported new net profit of equivalent of US$48 bln for the year ended 31 December 2020. And that makes it the eighth most profitable company in the world.
But the Minister of Revenue, David Parker, returned fire on this. And he noted that Google New Zealand paid $3.6 million in income tax in the year to December 2019, based on a profit of $10.6 million and revenues of $36.2 million. Apparently, similar numbers can be expected for the year ended 31 December 2020, when they're reported shortly.
The thing which appears to have got Mr Parker's goat is that Google's estimated ad revenue in the country is close to $800 million, he told Newsroom;
“They could voluntarily pay some tax on the profits taken out of New Zealand already, but they've obviously not done that. That revenue used to be earned by media companies. Media companies would have paid tax on it. And other media companies suffer competitive disadvantage competing against Google when Google does not pay a fair amount of tax. It's not fair and something has to change. And Google is the biggest.”
He points out the ad revenue which are being delivered in New Zealand are not being reported within the New Zealand tax net.
This is an issue we've talked about beforehand all around the world. And one solution that governments have put forward, pending some form of international agreement on, it is a digital services tax. That is rumoured to be in the order of maybe three percent is one number that's been outlined. And estimates of how much it might raise, maybe between $30 and $50 million.
But I think the Minister's point about the amount of revenue that Google is taking out the country and how that might have played in the New Zealand media companies that earned it, is a valid one. Even if it were the DST of $30 to $50 mlnn, that's still nowhere near what would be the income tax on $800 million of revenue. So this issue is clearly one that Mr. Parker is paying particular attention to. And obviously, given Caroline Rainsford’s comments on that, Google is slightly concerned about the matter.
We don't know how much other digital companies such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter take out of New Zealand through digital advertising. Google is clearly the biggest. It's thought overall including Google's $800 million there could be as much as one billion dollars of ad revenue going offshore. So the government will be looking at that.
It will be encouraged, no doubt, by the announcement from the US Department of Treasury this week that it is in favour of a global minimum tax rate, and it has suggested that it should be at least 15%. The US Treasury has said that 15% is a floor and discussions should be continued to be ambitious and push that rate higher - 21% is a number that's been raised previously. But the US Treasury's view is
“a global minimum corporate tax rate would ensure the global economy thrives based on a more level playing field in the taxation of multinational corporations and would spur innovation, growth and prosperity while improving fairness for middle class and working people”.
And no doubt Minister Parker will say amen to that.
On the other side though, the UK is the only country in the G7 which hasn't signed up to this multilateral deal that's being put together by the OECD. And Boris Johnson's Government has been described as “lukewarm and evasive” on the matter. I think lukewarm and evasive is something that plenty of people have said about Boris Johnson, the latest of which being his former special adviser, Dominic Cummings, last night. But the UK also has long standing cultural or actual colonial links to many of the tax havens which are at the heart of the whole issue.
So we've got an interesting combination of factors going on here. Minister Parker is clearly looking at the whole Google and digital taxation matter and is obviously happy to push ahead by applying pressure and maybe push ahead with the implementation of a digital services tax. Which, by the way, the Tax Working Group said might be something to have in place if an international agreement could not be made.
On the other hand, there's some progress on this by the US Treasury throwing its weight behind a global minimum tax. But then we have the pushback from the UK, or rather, we should say the UK not making a decision. And then there's been pushback, as I mentioned earlier, from the likes of Ireland with its 12.5% corporate income tax. So it's internationally the biggest thing that's going on in tax right now. And it's a question of just watch this space and see what develops.
Heads the IRD wins, tails the taxpayer loses
Now, moving on, a few weeks back, I discussed a case brought in the Taxation Review Authority against the Commissioner of Inland Revenue contesting the tax treatment of a lump sum paid to a claimant by ACC.
The payment was for weekly compensation for the period from the date she was injured on 22 April 2014 to 17 September 2017. And the taxpayer contended that the payment should be treated for tax purposes as having been derived on an accruals basis and spread over the income years to which the payment related, rather than being taxed in the year in which it was received. As is the current practice.
And this, as I mentioned at the time, is a longstanding issue I have been aware of. And it can mean for claimants that they receive a lump sum, and instead of being taxed at an average rate of 17.5%, they find the lump sum taxed at 33% or even potentially now at 39%. So, it's an issue I think needs looking at.
I subsequently made an Official Information Act request to ACC about the number of such payments for backdated weekly compensation. ACC replied this week, and it made for some interesting reading. In the year to June 2017, the number of such claimants was 1,187. They received on average $42,482. The median amount, by the way, was $21,643. The maximum was $650,000.
And for 2018 similar sort of numbers – 1,172 claimants, 2019 saw 1,283, and in the year to June 2020 it was 1,466, who received on average $42,505. The median there was $21,146, but the maximum was an eye watering $1,180,000.
There's a consistent trend there, and enough people in the system and big enough numbers for Inland Revenue Policy and the Minister of Revenue to have a look at that. We do some averaging, for example, it has been pointed out to me, in farming cases we average some of the income because of droughts. So, spreading income over several years in which it relates is not unknown to the tax system and our financial arrangements regime actually operates on that principle.
I propose to send these numbers off to Inland Revenue Policy and to the Minister of Revenue's office. I'll keep you posted as to how things develop from there.
Square metre rate up +4.7%
And finally this week, the square metre rate for the year ended 31 March 2021 has been set by Inland Revenue at $44.75 per square metre. That's up from $42.75 per square metre for the year ended 31 March 2020.
Now, although this sounds quite a technical thing, it relates to the calculation of home office expenses and Inland Revenue’s square metre rate option provides a simplified process. Which means that taxpayers don't have to keep detailed records of utility costs, contents, insurance, Internet on their private residence, and then have to apportion these costs between business and private use. Instead, they simply apply the rate to the area of the house that is used for business purposes.
It's a nice, simplified process, something I think we should see more of in the system to try and simplify the process for clients. I think Inland Revenue would have the information or would be able to dig out some of the information for this expense, maybe by an analysis of GST returns. By the way, premises costs such as mortgage interest rates and rent, still have to be claimed based on the business proportion of the actual expenditure incurred by the taxpayer.
This is a sort of throw away measure it seems, but one that actually affects quite a lot of people. And as I said, I think we should see more of this setting rates, giving maybe a standard deduction for people, just to simplify the system.
Well, that's it for today. I’m Terry Baucher and you can find this podcast on my website www.baucher.tax or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. And please send me your feedback and tell your friends and clients until next week, ka kite āno.