Beyond Panama: making the fight against tax avoidance more than a name and shame game

3 Jun 16

Complex reforms are being proposed to the international tax system, but there are questions over the political will to act quickly.

When the consortium of international investigative journalists first realized what they had at their fingertips in the Panama Papers leak, I have to wonder if even they knew the staying power of the story.

It's been two months since the first revelations hit the press, dislodging Iceland's Prime Minister and likely leading to some uncomfortable shirt-collar-tugging among the world's plutocracy. And yet it feels in many ways that we're still only looking at the tip of a very large and very deep iceberg. 

It was, in a cynical sense, a gift for those organizations who have desperately been trying to get national governments to take tax evasion and avoidance seriously for years. Tax base erosion and profit shifting schemes suddenly leapt to the top of the public consciousness. 

The OECD and its action plan on base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) is squarely in the middle of international efforts to tackle the problem.

The organisation’s BEPS Action Plan is a comprehensive analysis of the major challenges posed by a fragmented international tax system that lend itself to abuse by multinational enterprises. The plan provides fifteen recommendations aimed at curbing these abuses and moving toward a global tax system that is more integrated and has greater integrity. 

Tax avoidance is a complex global problem that requires complex global solutions. And the BEPS plan is nothing if not complex. The challenge is, though, that such complexity can be a disincentive for participants to move at anything more than a snail's pace. 

Compounding this is the intense pressure that will be levelled against governments by organizations and corporations with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Absent public pressure, the political will to act may quickly dry up. 

Which is why it's incumbent on all of us to find a way to keep the narrative alive as we move from the naming and shaming of the Panama Papers story into the complicated search for solutions. 

It is clear that much of the outrage stemming from the Panama Papers is based on perceptions of fairness. Put bluntly, the elites of society are using schemes not available to the average person and, in so doing, are avoiding paying their fair share. 

But the implications of inaction on tax avoidance go far beyond fairness. 

Proponents of the global austerity agenda have done a good job of convincing many of us that there isn't the money needed to fund the services that we have come to expect from our governments. What many are starting to collectively realize, though, is that the money hasn't simply gone away, it's been taken out of the public system and stashed in an exclusive network of tax havens and corporate cash hoards.  

The problem, then, isn't a lack of resources. It is a lack of will to put those resources to work in the name of the collective good. 

In the summer of 2015, as part of the nascent Funding Democracy Initiative, I chaired a global summit in Ottawa, Canada. We brought together leading voices from labour, business, academia and civil society and shared our thoughts on how to champion real policy solutions. This summer Funding Democracy will be hosting a series of interviews with experts to examine how a truly progressive government can work within the OECD BEPS framework to drive real, tangible change and secure victories in the fight against tax avoidance. 

The time to crack down on tax avoidance couldn’t be more right: we have public interest, a theoretical roadmap from the OECD and governments around the world saying all the right things. The Funding Democracy Initiative hopes to capitalize on this timing and present a series of practical steps that governments can take to act. The Panama Papers may have caused a seismic shift in global tax policies; we’re interested in what comes next.

 • Milt Isaacs will be speaking at the CIPFA Annual Conference on Thursday 14 July at the Responsible tax for common good workshop session.

  •  Complex reforms are being proposed to the international tax system, but there are questions over the political will to act quickly.
    Milt Isaacs

    Milt Isaacs is the president of the Association of Canadian Financial Officers and a lifelong public service accountant. He has previously presented before the United Nations, IMF and ILO on issues including tax fairness, anti-corruption measures and whistleblower protection.

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