Filling in the immigration card at the start of the descent into Melbourne International Airport earlier this week, I could not help but chuckle as I checked the “No” box against the question “Do you have any criminal convictions?” I was unavoidably reminded of that hackneyed joke, attributed to the late Tony Hancock and especially popular among up-ourselves Poms, who is reputed to have answered: “I didn’t know it was still a prerequisite”.
One of the purposes of my visit to Australia is to speak at various events on the topic of the Business and Taxation Environment in Israel. As, a few weeks prior to my trip, a senior Israeli Government Minister had done the rounds here, I decided to ask him what he had spoken about. “Business and Zionism – I avoided politics.” When I replied to his enquiry as to my subject: “Taxation”, he slapped me on the back and suggested that perhaps I should speak about politics.
Remarkably, in the three weeks since preparing my presentations for the visit there have been no less than two momentous events directly affecting the taxation environment in Israel as well as an indirect one. Luckily, my powerpoint slides and the bloke talking around them, are sufficiently vague for nobody to have yet noticed the hurriedly shoe-horned bits. But the trip is yet young.
First off was a proposed amendment to the Income Tax Ordinance, tabled in the Knesset on January 29, that – if, and when passed – will empower the Income Tax Authority to demand automatic supply of information on foreign residents’ income in Israel (primarily from financial institutions) and allow its voluntary transfer to foreign tax authorities on the basis of an international agreement that is not necessarily, as at present, a double taxation agreement. This, of course, smells of the brown-nosing that in school earned a thoroughly deserved duffing-up behind the bicycle shed by ones classmates. But the Israeli authorities are only bowing to the inevitable pressure from the G20 and OECD to ensure worldwide automatic exchange of information – one of the main tools in the international fight against tax evasion. Passage of the law will pave the way for Israel to become the umpteenth signatory of the OECD’s sexily named “Multilateral Convention On Mutual Aministrative Assistance In Tax Matters” (MCOMAAITM…just kidding), which provides a legal basis for countries to agree on the said automatic exchange of information.
Confirming the timeliness of the Israeli move, on February 13 the OECD met its deadline to provide “A Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information” (ASFAEOFAI….never mind) in time for the meeting of G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors on February 22 – 23 in Sydney (where I hopefully arrive just as they are leaving – it is all in the timing). This standard is based on the US FATCA rules and, when implemented either through bilateral or multilateral agreement, will require financial institutions to do those things the Israeli proposed legislation aims to facilitate. Automatic exchange of information will not be required where the other party does not reciprocate (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) or where the other side is unable or unwilling to guaranty secrecy (being a brown-nose is one thing, but never a sneak).
However, perhaps the most momentous event came to light early this morning (which was yesterday in Israel). I awoke to discover that an eminent Tax Lawyer-friend with whom I had worked closely until I boarded a flight for Hong Kong last Sunday evening, had been appointed a District Judge along with another equally eminent Tax Lawyer who was not a friend and with whom I had not worked closely at any time before boarding that flight for Hong Kong last Sunday evening. It is evidently rare in Israel for partners in Law firms to be appointed directly to a senior court – but this reflects a welcome seriousness of purpose on the part of the Israeli authorities and raises the bar on the professionalism of the judiciary in deciding tax matters.
All in all, when I started preparing my presentations in January the Tax Environment was looking far more mature than at any point I can remember. The events of the last three weeks have only enhanced that position. There is, however, one exception: the new mad-cap trust legislation – concocted by the Tax Authority – that came into force on January 1. The amended law needs to be placed on a convict ship and transported to Australia, never to return. While I have every respect for the officers of the Income Tax Authority, it would not be a crime if one day the Finance Ministry were to take a leaf out of the Justice Ministry’s book and decide to appoint partners from major law and accountancy firms to senior positions in the Tax Authority. After all, the present Australian Tax Commissioner is a retired partner of one of the Big 4. No prizes for guessing which one.