Another year, another story about IKEA's massive Australian sales and minuscule tax.
The latest instalment reports IKEA selling $1.16 billion of flatpacks in the year to August 31. After the accounting Allen keys were put to work, IKEA reportedly paid the Australian Tax Office all of $289,000.
There's nothing new about IKEA's apparently miserable profitability in Australia. I wrote about it six years ago, noting how its claimed cost of importing stuff was rising at a time when other retailers' costs were falling thanks to a stronger Australian dollar.
You might well wonder about IKEA's motivation to so determinedly expand in a country that apparently yields such meagre returns - and, in the process, compete unfairly with local furniture retailers that pay a fair amount of tax.
An alternative view is that IKEA is actually very profitable here and exported almost a billion dollars in tax-free profits from Australia in the decade to 2014, with no sign of changing its modus operandi.
IKEA is of course just one of the usual suspects when it comes to amazingly low tax bills. Cue American Express, Google, News Corp, IBM, Apple, Facebook, Exxon Mobil et al.
The Tax Office is chipping away at aspects of the multinational tax-dodging. It's billion-dollar victory over Chevron's outrageous inter-company loan shifting this year was a very fine thing but there's a long way to go as the professional tax mercenaries are forever working against it.
The Tax Office's attempt to gently "name and shame", or at least "name and ponder", provides its own set of regular headlines. It seems to be water off the tax accountant's back.
Which is why it might be worth a little refinement. Maybe it's time to test the tax professionals who sign off on all the legal-but-ethically-questionable-bean-counting on "the vibe" of what their clients are doing.
A quick example (we'll use IKEA as currently topical but it could be any of many):
The fairly brief accounts filed with ASIC were signed off by one of the big audit firms, EY, as being fair and true and rhubarb rhubarb in the legal sense.
Let's add another page to the audit, requiring the EY partner to voice an opinion on "the vibe" of IKEA's tax effort, whether the company's accounting is in keeping with the ethics and spirit of the ideal that entities should report the full profit made on revenue gained from a country and then pay full tax on the moral intent - rather than the legal necessities - of our complex Tax Act.
Among other things in IKEA's case, the auditor would have to consider IKEA reducing its Australian profit by paying IKEA a $38 million "franchise fee". (Yes, it does sound silly, but it seems to work for the curiously structured Dutch/Swedish company.
Is that in keeping with "the vibe"? In my opinion, it's not. It would be nice to force the auditors out of the shelter of tax law to consider the morality of their clients.
Ditto for the obvious online giants claiming their Australian sales are made out of offshore tax havens. Is their rorting of Australia legal? Yes, at least for now. But is it right? Put your hand on where your heart should be, auditors, and tell us.
Such a declaration would have no force in law as the international rackets stand, but it would add some moral pressure to the current "name and ponder" system. It could also allow the tax mercenaries to restore a modicum of self-respect.
It's worth repeating an observation made by the Economist magazine in 2013 when reporting as much as $US20 trillion is stashed away in tax havens): "Civilisation works only if those who enjoy its benefits are also prepared to pay their share of the costs."
P.S. And when it comes to tax havens, you're out of date if you think of islands with palms trees and disproportionate numbers of banks and lawyers. The serious business of avoiding tax - some $US2.5 trillion a year - is headquartered in the terribly proper financial capitals. Bloomberg reports the US is in the process of becoming the world's biggest tax haven.
When the government is substantially owned by big business, that's hardly surprising.