Morrison must lift the veil on corporate secrecy

The explosive revelations this week by The Age, the Herald and 60 Minutes show how wealthy individuals and companies use offshore secrecy to avoid tax.

More cracks have emerged in Westpac's approach to anti-money laundering.
More cracks have emerged in Westpac’s approach to anti-money laundering. Credit:Attila Csaszar

As part of a global investigation by tax authorities, at least 100 Australians using the Euro Pacific Bank housed in Puerto Rico, a known tax haven, are under investigation for tax evasion.

The reports show the Australian Taxation Office shining a light on offshore secrecy and tax evasion. But Prime Minister Scott Morrison must go further and lift the veil on company ownership and offshore secrecy once and for all.

Tax cheating by individuals and companies is a scourge to our public purse. It robs us of money that could be invested in hospitals, schools, childcare and caring for our elderly.


A University of California landmark study found multinational companies move $16 billion from Australia to tax havens or secrecy jurisdictions each year. Publish What You Pay member Oxfam estimates that in 2014, $2.5 billion was ripped out of developing countries around the world due to the use of secrecy jurisdictions by Australian-based multinationals.

While Westpac and the Perth Mint are among those in the spotlight this time, mining, gas and oil companies are also in the frame for using offshore secrecy and tax havens.

A recent investigation by Publish What You Pay and Tax Justice Network Australia raises red flags on some of the companies that stand to benefit from Morrison’s “gas led” recovery.

This includes two companies, Falcon Oil and Gas and Sweetpea Petroleum, both involved in fracking in the Beetaloo Basin, Northern Territory, that have subsidiaries listed in the secrecy jurisdiction of Delaware, USA.

A Russian Oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, who was sanctioned in 2018 over a number of matters including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, also appears to have holdings in Falcon Oil and Gas.

APA Group, involved in the NT and the recently approved Narrabri gas project in NSW, also registered a subsidiary in Delaware at the very time Delaware’s role in facilitating cross border money laundering, tax evasion and tax avoidance was being publicly exposed.

Another company, Australian Gas Infrastructure Group, is ultimately owned through CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd. This Hong Kong based conglomerate is incorporated via PO Box in the Cayman Islands.

Secrecy jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands, Delaware and Puerto Rico allow people who own companies to hide in the shadows, avoid tax contributions and scrutiny.

The Morrison government must create an open, free and public register of who owns, controls or financially benefits from a company. Knowing the beneficial owners of companies is important for governments, investors, and the public. This is key to deterring corruption, money laundering and “offshoring”.

It also helps identify company owners who hold public positions, such as politicians or roles on government bodies. These “politically exposed persons” are particularly susceptible to corruption and their identities are often hidden by a company’s ownership structure.

A Natural Resource Governance Institute review of more than 100 mining, gas and oil corruption cases found that over half involved companies with hidden beneficial owners. If companies break Australian law, we need to know that the ultimate owners can be held to account and not vanish behind the veil of an anonymous shell company.

In 2015, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull opened the door to transparency by signing Australia up to the Open Government Partnership. The partnership between community groups and government led to the promise to look at a beneficial ownership register in 2016.

A subsequent inquiry led then by Morrison’s own Treasury department left the door slightly ajar. However, the recent Open Government Partnership, run out of the office of Prime Minister and Cabinet, seems to have shut the door on a beneficial ownership register despite strong interest from civil society.

A free public beneficial ownership register has been established in the UK. Norway and the Netherlands are currently implementing public registers in their countries. Significant progress has been made in Canada.

There is no one panacea to tackle tax cheating and offshore secrecy. Like sunlight, transparency is the best form of disinfectant. As we build back better from the rubble of COVID-19, the Morrison government must rein in tax evasion and offshore secrecy. This will boost government revenue to help fund the strong safety net and public services that our future prosperity requires.

Clancy Moore is national director of Publish What You Pay Australia.

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