Treasurer Scott Morrison's advisory panel on tax has urged big business and its industry bodies to mount a public relations campaign to "educate" Australians on why companies shouldn't always pay the mandatory 30 per cent tax rate.
The call for a PR blitz by the Board of Taxation comes as disclosure of Apple's tiny tax contribution in Australia - just $85 million compared to its sales of $8 billion - reignited debate around whether the big end of town is being let off the hook as the Coalition ponders a higher or broader GST on private taxpayers.
The Australian Tax Office revealed in December that 579 companies with combined turnover of $405.9 billion paid no tax in 2013/14. Apple could be heading for a zero tax bill in 2016 due to $200 million in tax offsets on its books which it can use against future profits.
The Board of Taxation is an arm's-length adviser to the Treasurer but critics say it is heavily-skewed towards business, with members largely drawn from the big four accountancy firms and the major law firms.
For example, the four-person working group that has proposed a PR campaign to clear up "common misconceptions" about corporate tax includes Ann-Maree Wolff, the head of tax at Rio Tinto for the Australia and Asia-Pacific region.
Rio, along with rival BHP Billiton, took a pummelling at the Senate tax avoidance hearings last year over its use of a "marketing hub" in Singapore to reduce its Australian tax bill - a process known as the "Singapore sling".
The other members of the working group include Michael Andrew, the former chairman and chief executive of KPMG International, John Emerson, a consultant at lawyers Herbert Smith Freehills and Neville Mitchell, a Cochlear executive who is also president of the "Group of 100" - the peak body for Australia's senior finance executives.
In a consultation paper on the tax transparency code requested by former treasurer Joe Hockey when he announced the government's multinational tax avoidance bill, the working group called for a "concerted and ongoing effort to raise the level of understanding of business taxation".
"Businesses and industry associations have a particularly important role in educating the community," it said.
"One common misconception that could usefully be addressed through public education concerns the reasons why effective tax rates may be lower than the headline tax rate. For example, many governments provide tax incentives to businesses which invest in designated research and development activities. Recoupment of prior year losses, exposure to foreign exchange fluctuations and conducting overseas operations are other factors which may have the effective of reducing the effective tax rate."
The board said the Corporate Tax Association is developing an explainer document and News Corp reported on Wednesday that the Business Council of Australia was also poised to launch a tax campaign as it seeks to justify a cut in the company tax rate.
The consultation paper has angered tax transparency campaigners as the Board of Taxation appears to be moving to a completely voluntary, self-assessed system of disclosure for companies with revenues of $500 million or more.
Tax Justice Network spokesman Mark Zirnsak said: "What really alarms us is there is no verification that information submitted is not false or misleading and there are no penalties at all if false information is lodged."
"If you're a highly unethical company and a tax dodger this could be an opportunity to get government endorsement and look legitimate by having your unchecked tax numbers on the list," he said.
with Nassim Khadem