Coalition’s controversial backpacker tax could be killed by the courts after challenge by international accounting company – ABC Rural
An international tax accounting company hopes to know by February whether its legal challenge to the Coalition Government’s controversial backpacker tax will see the measure overturned.
And while the National Farmers Federation said it did not have a position on the legal challenge by US-based firm Taxback.com, it believed the removal of the tax could benefit the farm sector and regional communities by encouraging more backpackers to Australia.
The tax on working holiday makers was introduced in 2017 and meant any foreigner on 417 or 462 visas who earned under $18,200 would need to pay 15 per cent tax, unlike Australians who were not taxed on similar earnings.
The deal divided the Federal Government and regional communities, and a legal bid to kill the tax was quickly launched though the Federal Court.
Taxback.com commercial director Eileen Devereaux told the ABC she believed the backpacker tax was invalid because it contravened non-discrimination clauses built into tax treaties Australia had signed with the UK, the United States, Germany, Finland, Chile, Japan, Norway and Turkey.
“When the backpacker tax was introduced we felt it was somewhat unfair and after taking a closer look at legislation we discovered the double taxation agreements that Australia holds with a number of its key partners,” Ms Devereaux said.
The backpacker tax created intense division within Coalition ranks, with some Liberal and Nationals backbenchers pushing for compromises and reductions. The tax was initially pitched at 32.5 per cent, then dropped to 19 per cent, and ultimately 15 per cent.
“From my perspective, we are doing this for the good of the individuals and good of the sector,” Ms Devereaux said.
“This isn’t commercially driven, it’s a group of [foreign] individuals who don’t necessarily have a voice and are not voters, so we have chosen to support our clients and a sector we are very close to, to rectify this matter.”
Ms Devereaux said she believed her company had the support of Australian farmers.
“A lot of operators who I’ve met at conferences over the last few months, for example from the Northern Territory and other regions, are all very much wanting us to see a positive result because they all need it — that has been the general tone.”
While some farm lobby and tourism groups in Australia have been briefed about the legal challenge, they have preferred to stay out of the debate.
“We have been leading this challenge for 18 months, so people were happy to see it being championed, but they didn’t want to be front and centre of supporting it,” Ms Devereaux said.
‘Best for the courts to figure it out’
The National Farmers’ Federation said it “does not have a position” on the challenge, despite many of its members being against the backpacker tax.
“It is something the courts need to work through and it seems like a technical legal issue, so it’s best for the courts to figure it out,” Ben Rogers, the NFF’s workplace relations and legal affairs manager, said.
Mr Rogers said he thought the backpacker tax was here to stay but predicted the case “might open up the debate about what is the correct rate and where the compromise lies”.
However, Mr Rogers warned a possible overturning of the backpacker tax could have positive and negative outcomes for farmers.
“It might improve the numbers of backpackers [coming to Australia], because we have seen them slowly declining over the years, there’s that possibility,” he said.
Alan Payne, from Colignan in Victoria, manages a cherry property and has a pruning contracting company that manages up to 40 workers a year, including backpackers.
Mr Payne said sinking the backpacker tax would be good for his business and others in the Sunraysia district.
“It would make Australia a destination country for overseas workers again, they’ve definitely dropped off the last year or so,” he said.
“They are going to places like New Zealand and Canada where there is more security.
“Most of our workers are Taiwanese and they are very across money issues, they are worried about the tax and what they’re getting taxed.”
Tax challenge no surprise
The Federal Opposition’s agriculture spokesman, Joel Fitzgibbon, said it was unsurprising the backpacker tax has been challenged in the Federal Court.
“The Government tried to increase the tax rate from 0 to 32.5 per cent overnight when we were already facing a worker shortage in the agriculture sector,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon stopped short of saying Labor would terminate the backpacker tax if elected next year but said his party would take a “whole of government approach” to addressing workforce and labour exploitation issues.
Agriculture minister David Littleproud — who was a backbencher at the time of the backpacker tax debate — and treasurer Josh Frydenberg did not respond to the ABC’s requests for comment.