Views on the bill
The views expressed in the submissions and the hearings, of course,
strongly reflect the interests of the authors and the witnesses. Partly in
response to questioning, a number of witnesses suggested criteria for a good
tax. There was some consensus that these were simplicity, efficiency,
effectiveness and fairness.
There was general acceptance of the notion that individual consumers' imports
should be treated the same for tax purposes as imports purchased from a local
However, several stakeholders suggested that the measure should be
opposed because it was a trade barrier. Others contested the idea that the bill
would create a level playing field. It was suggested that the measure was
inconsistent with the design of the GST.
The most common objections to the bill had to do with the method of
collection of the GST, both in terms of transaction costs and in terms of
creating a tax liability for entities which are not sellers of goods.
Concerns were further expressed that Australian consumers might lose access
to some online suppliers and, worse, that the additional costs for complying
importers would make them uncompetitive with less secure, reliable or honest
suppliers. This was especially so given the difficulties of enforcement if
compliance was not voluntary.
Several witnesses at the hearing complained that the process for
introducing the bill had been flawed, and, in particular, that the time before
the tax takes effect was far too short. Others suggested that it would be
better to wait until an international agreement had been reached on the
treatment of cross-border sales.
There was some discussion of alternative models that might have been
The strongest support for the bill came from bricks-and-mortar
retailers. The Australian Booksellers Association argued that it restored the
integrity of the GST and improved revenue collection, as well as creating a
level playing field. Similar views were expressed by the Australian Retailers
Association, the Australian Sporting Goods Association, and Mr Eddie Peters.
Professor Robert Deutsch made the point that, because the purpose of the
measure is to create a level playing field, it would even be reasonable if
there was a net revenue loss in the early years.
Several submissions supported the general principle of charging the GST
on low value imports. Amazon supported the reduction of the GST threshold to
Alibaba, eBay and Etsy described the objective of providing a level playing
field as 'laudable'.
The Conference of Asia Pacific Express Carriers (CAPEC) supported the bill 'in
so far as it endorses a fairer tax system through a [Vendor Collect Model]'.
However, a number of submitters and witnesses argued that the measure
would not achieve competitive neutrality. Representatives of electronic
distribution platforms pointed out that many of the sellers who used their
services had turnover of less than $75,000, so if they were Australian vendors
they would not incur the GST. Ms Angela Steen of Etsy said:
[A]s Etsy sellers are predominantly microbusinesses...few of
our sellers would ever reach the $75,000 threshold that would require them to
register and apply GST to sales under $1,000. However, as the legislation
currently treats platforms like Etsy as one individual seller, aggregating the
sales of all of our international sellers into one and requiring us, as a
platform, to register for the collection and remittance of GST, we would be
forced to apply this 10 per cent GST charge onto each individual seller's
product, even if this is the first sale that they ever make into Australia.
A similar view was expressed by Mr John O'Loghlen of Alibaba.
Several witnesses argued that the complexity of the tax would impose
costs on compliant businesses which would put them at a competitive
disadvantage versus non‑compliant businesses. Further, the difficulty of
enforcing a tax on foreign businesses meant that compliance rates would be low.
Amazon pointed to the complexity and the difficulty of enforcement:
In any week, there are over a thousand [low value imported
goods] suppliers that would be required to be registered for GST under the
Bill, many of which would have little or no incentive to charge their customers
GST. Where they do not comply, they benefit from being able to undercut the
competition and attract consumers onto their websites.
Adding to this incentive not to comply, the Bill will require
these offshore entities to develop bespoke systems to calculate, collect and
remit GST. This means compliant sellers and electronic distribution platforms,
which invest heavily in their customer service and value their strong
reputations, are at a disadvantage relative to non-compliant competitors.
A more specific issue of competitive neutrality was raised by freight
forwarders and express services. They noted that they will be required to
provide Vendor Registration Numbers to the ATO, whereas Australia Post will
not. Mr Kim Garner of CAPEC noted:
Adding costs to CAPEC members' operating models to increase
regulatory burden would give an unfair advantage to Australia Post.
As well as increasing costs for freight companies, the exemption of
Australia Post could provide a way to bring taxable goods in tax free, further
disadvantaging the freight companies.
Online retailer Wiggle was also concerned that suppliers using postal services
might not apply GST.
Mrs Marisa Purvis-Smith of the Treasury explained that, where Australia
Post competes directly with freight companies, it would have to meet the same
Where Australia Post competes with cargo...then it will have to
do the same thing. It is in the mail stream only where it will not, which seems
to be a different market as well. Consumers choose other forms of shipping
other than Australia Post, or the Australia Post variants that compete, for
different reasons. They usually are happy to pay a little bit more to get
better tracking and faster delivery. In that market, Australia Post competes
with other companies, and where Australia Post competes in that market it will
need to do the same thing.
GST on low value imports as a trade barrier
A tax that is applied on imports which were previously untaxed is a
'barrier to trade'. A submission by Dr Chris Berg and Professor Sinclair
Davidson argued that the measure is actually a tariff, because it imposes the
GST on sellers who do not have access to input credits as an Australian based
seller would have.
Dr Berg and Professor Davidson also noted that the intention of the relatively
high $1000 threshold when it was first imposed was not only to reduce
regulatory burdens but also to facilitate trade.
A number of submissions made the general point that the measure was
anti-free trade. The Export Council of Australia said:
The proposed law is anti-consumer and anti-free trade in
nature at a time when we need to be seen as a leader and advocate for free
Disrupt Sports described the measure as 'anti online small business,
anti free trade and anti consumer'.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Australia also described the measure as
'anti-free trade in nature'.
Alibaba, eBay and Etsy argued that the compliance costs for overseas businesses
would constitute a barrier to trade, and the measure was 'contrary to
Australia's advocacy for free trade'.
The electronic distribution platforms made more pragmatic points about
the restriction of trade. Mr John O'Loghlen of Alibaba pointed out that his
company connected buyers and sellers. Australian companies such as Swisse,
Woolworths, and Chemist Warehouse used Alibaba to sell into China many times
the volume of goods that Chinese merchants sold to Australians. The
complications introduced by the bill could harm this trade.
Mr Jooman Park of eBay said that his company used one platform around
the world, but the effect of the bill would be 'almost the same as developing a
separate Australia site'.
Ms Angela Steen of Etsy said that blocking Australian users was a possibility
because of the complexity and risk imposed by the bill.
The effects on Australian businesses were also noted. The Export Council
of Australia pointed out that many exporters were also importers of components,
and would have to pay the tax on them, which would make them less competitive.
They further expressed concern that the measure would create a disincentive for
foreign firms to do business with Australia.
The Laminated Cotton Shop explained how it might be affected:
...as a small home based business I find platforms like Ebay
and Etsy give my handmade business visibility to a wide range of traffic that I
would not be able to obtain without spending thousands of dollars on SEO and
website optimisation. If these platforms are made to collect GST they will
start to make it harder for Australians to buy from international sellers on
their sites. The effect would be Ebay and Etsy would have very low traffic and
the whole benefit to local sellers of being on there would be lost.
Several submitters and witnesses pointed to the danger of retaliatory
action by other countries. Mr Paul Drum of CPA Australia noted:
Australian small businesses continued to be less likely to
use social media and online commerce for business purposes...Australian small
businesses selling online are significantly more likely to grow than those that
are not. But the uptake of these business tools has been sluggish, and any
retaliatory tax moves from offshore markets will further stymie development...
Mr John O'Loghlen of Alibaba said that reciprocal measures against
Australian businesses were likely because this measure was a world first and,
importantly, because it put overseas sellers at a disadvantage compared to
Australian sellers by denying them the GST threshold.
The revenue that would be collected
The estimated revenue in the first three years of operation of the
measure is projected to be $300 million, with $130 million in the third year.
Treasury confirmed that this represented a collection rate of about 27 per
(Note that not all low value imported goods are taxable.) The Treasury
estimates that collection rates could rise to about 54 per cent when
'compliance reaches maturity in 2022–23'.
Thus the revenue would be, in today's values, in the region of $260
million a year. This is a very small amount compared with the $60,312 million
collected in GST in 2015–16.
Ms Erin Turner of Choice observed that Treasury had not fully modelled
the revenue from the bill and in particular the costs of collection. She was
not convinced that the revenue would exceed the costs.
Both Mr Paul Drum of CPA Australia and Professor Robert Deutsch of The Tax
Institute thought that the Treasury estimates of compliance were 'on the high
Amazon produced modelling by KPMG which suggested that using a different
collection method, the 'logistics model', under which GST is collected by
logistics providers such as Australia Post, express carriers and freight
forwarders, could increase collection rates to 70 per cent. (Note
that the modelling appears to assume that GST would be payable on imports
irrespective of the turnover of the seller.)
This would go further towards addressing 'the growing risk that the current
arrangements pose to the integrity of the GST base', which is one of the stated
objectives of the bill.
The method chosen to implement the policy
The proposal is that GST will be collected at the point of sale.
Overseas vendors with a turnover of $75,000 or more are required to register
for, collect and remit GST on low-value goods supplied to consumers in
Australia. This was largely found unexceptionable by submitters and witnesses.
However, the implementation of the scheme is more complex and
contentious. Freight companies and express carriers will be required to collect
Vendor Registration Numbers and submit them to the ATO. Electronic distribution
platforms will be treated as suppliers, and liable for GST on all the sales
that pass through the platform. Two schemes, one for consignments worth over
$1000 and one for consignments of $1000 and under, will continue to operate.
Freight companies and express
Freight forwarders, express carriers and parcels delivery services in
general support a Vendor Collection Model, in preference to collecting the tax
at the border. However, they strongly oppose a system which requires them to
collect ABNs and Vendor Registration Numbers. They argue that it creates
complexity and will result in unnecessary delays, as well as increased costs
which will be passed on to consumers.
CAPEC points out that its members deal with 220 countries, with different
business registration systems.
CAPEC argues that it would be more efficient for information to flow from the
vendor to the ATO.
As discussed above, freight companies expressed concerns that Australia
Post will not be under the same obligation to report Vendor Registration
Numbers, and will therefore have a competitive advantage.
The Tax Institute similarly thought that a model where goods entering the
country by mail were inspected at the border was necessary for the integrity of
However, Mrs Marisa Purvis-Smith of the Treasury explained that GST
would be payable by the vendor at the point of sale, regardless of the shipping
Electronic distribution platforms
Electronic distribution platforms ebay, Alibaba and Etsy expressed
disquiet that they will be liable for GST on goods which they have never owned,
held, tracked or traded. They liken it to a landlord or a shopping centre being
liable for GST on goods sold by tenants. They believe that the system will be
complex and costly to administer, and the costs will be passed on to consumers.
Mr John O'Loghlen of Alibaba was concerned about the complexity of the
...prescriptive rules and exemptions result in bizarre outcomes
such as crackers being taxable and dry bread being GST-free. Educating
[foreign] business on this complex system would be near impossible.
Ms Angela Steen of Etsy emphasised the company's role in supporting
sellers rather than selling consumer goods itself:
Etsy.com provides a platform for sellers to list, market and
showcase their goods. Etsy does not own, store, produce or warehouse these
goods in any way. We provide a platform to connect sellers and buyers, but each
Etsy seller individually can adopt their own Etsy shop policies. They fully
control their own product pricing. They are fully responsible for the delivery
of that product. Etsy does not hold, ship or deliver any of our sellers' goods...Our
business model does not currently support, nor was it ever built to support,
the collection of GST.
Ms Kristen Foster of eBay said:
I think it was the representative of the Treasury who
mentioned that the GST needs to be applied at the point of sale. We do not see
any of that money transferred across from consumer to eBay, so it is even the
simplistic way that GST is done that is not really being clearly thought
Online retailers, including Wiggle and ASOS, were concerned about the
complexity of the scheme and the possibility that non-compliance could give
less reputable firms a competitive advantage. In particular, both retailers
pointed to complexity and impracticality of operating two systems, one for low
value goods and one for goods over $1000. Not only would there be extra
administrative cost for them, but there was the potential for delays and double
taxation if goods were stopped at the border.
ASOS was also concerned about the need to distinguish supplies to
consumers from supplies to businesses. It does not collect that information at
point of sale, and to do so would slow down the sale.
Several submitters and witnesses favoured a 'logistics model' under
which GST is collected by logistics providers such as Australia Post, express
carriers and freight forwarders (as opposed to the vendor collection model).
Amazon, in particular, submitted detailed analysis. It argued that the logistics
bodies had the electronic data collection and transmission systems in place to
enable the collection and remittance of the tax.
Mr Jooman Park of eBay pointed out that, while electronic marketplaces
cover 25 to 30 per cent of imports, logistics companies handled virtually all
Perhaps most tellingly, Mr John O'Loghlen of Alibaba gave this
[Alibaba has] a minority share in Cainiao, a global logistics
business that helps move over 60 million parcels around the world every day,
including within Australia. Because of this, we are in a unique position where
we can deeply assess the impact of collecting the tax from the perspective of
both logistics providers and electronic distribution platforms. After an
internal assessment, we are strongly of the view that the proposed measures
should be abandoned and replaced with a fairer, more effective model based on
logistics providers being responsible for the collection of GST on low-value
However, Ms Erin Turner of Choice drew on the experience of consumers in
the United Kingdom to argue that the logistics model was not desirable for
them, in terms of cost and timeliness. She said:
Whenever we [have] seen modelling on a logistics model,
usually it does rate favourably, but those readings may not be looking at the
costs that are passed onto consumers, and that is what we encourage any
assessment look at. A system is still high cost if the costs are not borne by
government or businesses but are foisted onto consumers. Any assessment needs
to be holistic.
Mr Kim Garner of CAPEC also suggested that favourable analyses of the
logistics model tended to ignore or understate the cost of collection. He
offered some arithmetic:
If we use an example of collection at the border, in 2014–15
the CAPEC members, the four companies, brought 8.8 million low-value shipments
into the country. That is 34,000 per day. If we have to collect that at the
border, we have to make contact with 34,000 consignees. So it is a phone call;
it is trying to find out what their numbers are. You call them and then you
have to go through process: 'Are you reregistered for GST or are you not? Is
this exempt or is it not? Are you are resident or are you not? Is this related
to carrying on an Australian enterprise?' We would have to go through that
34,000 times a day with someone to work out whether GST is collectable or not.
Then if it is, you have to make arrangements with them to actually collect it.
Mr Paul Zalai of the Freight and Trade Alliance was sceptical as to the
capacity of the integrated cargo system to cope with the amount of data the
logistics model would generate.
Another model that was proposed was based on using the self-assessment
data already collected by the integrated cargo system for monitoring
compliance. CAPEC argued that there was already sufficient data for the ATO to
collect the tax and monitor compliance. Alternatively, the vendor could
communicate directly with the ATO.
The Treasury response
Mr David Pullen of the Treasury noted that the Organisation for Economic
Co-operation and Development (OECD) had canvassed various models and concluded
that the one used in the bill may result in good collection rates with
relatively easy compliance:
The OECD...reaches conclusions such as that a border
collection model for low-value goods is a very inefficient model to pursue
given the growth in online sales and the cost of collection, and the amount of
revenue that you would raise on each low-value good is quite low compared to
the cost of collecting for each item. It also includes some conclusions around
the vendor collection model. It identifies that it could improve the efficiency
of the collection of VAT on low-value imports. It talks about e-commerce
platforms already having most of the information that would be needed to assess
tax liability. It says that taxing electronic distribution platforms could also
provide an efficient and effective solution. It talks about the context of a
vendor collection model potentially combined with an intermediary model such as
utilising online platforms. It says that such a model may allow small and
medium sized businesses to comply more easily.
Mrs Marisa Purvis-Smith of the Treasury said that one of Treasury's
priorities was to keep trade flowing across the border. Another was for the
consumer to have a good experience. Keeping administration costs down was also
Mrs Purvis-Smith noted that the solution chosen involves a balance, and
including electronic platforms increased the efficiency of compliance for the
measure. This is particularly important given that the number of businesses
involved is likely to grow quickly. With regard to the logistics model, in fact
the logistics companies do not necessarily have the information needed to
collect GST. Further, the logistics model could involve a second point of
payment for the consumer.
Treasury had liaised with the main players in the industry, including overseas
and online suppliers, and believed that suppliers had the capability to
implement the model. She conceded that suppliers would need to make system
Impact on consumers
Various impacts on consumers, all unfavourable, were predicted,
including the obvious outcome that the tax would increase prices. In addition,
the costs of implementation, which could be substantial, would also be passed
There was also concern that platforms might close their operations to
Australian consumers. Mr Jooman Park of eBay said simply:
If the legislation passes as is—while we have no tax
collection capabilities—it will force marketplaces like eBay to prevent
Australian buyers from purchasing from foreign sellers. Because we do not want
to violate the law, we may have to stop all overseas sellers from selling to
Ms Erin Turner of Choice was particularly concerned for regional
consumers and consumers with disabilities:
Anything for them that means they cannot get the goods easily
delivered to their home is going to have a significant impact. This is not
about cost and price; this is about the convenience that online shopping brings
to their lives.
She also referred to people who had non-standard needs in terms of
clothing sizes or sporting goods.
It was also thought possible that the measure could cause reputable
businesses to close access to consumers in Australia, or at least to increase
their prices, and that this would force or encourage consumers to use less
It is clear that there will be significant challenges for some parties
in implementing this measure. As discussed above, it will require changes to
the systems of the entities required to participate in the scheme.
CAPEC suggested that implementing the measure could take two or three
years. The system changes are complex:
There is obviously a large investment required. If it is
implemented as is then we have to report the VRN, the ABN and the extent to
which it has been treated as a taxable supply. To actually put that through our
worldwide systems would be an enormous task. Each member company has spoken to
their IT people and just even trying to scope what that would take would be an
enormous task. Each of us has hundreds of different types of airway bills,
hundreds of different types of front-end systems that those things go into
which then flow into back-end systems.
Further, express carriers cannot implement the changes unilaterally. Their
systems have to tie in with those of the vendors.
eBay described the system changes similarly:
...[B]usinesses will be required to design, test and implement
substantial, far-reaching changes to global business models to accommodate
Mr Jooman Park expanded on this at the hearing:
...[W]e do not have tax collection capabilities...we do not even
receive money from buyers. If the bill passes, we are not sure whether we can
build tax collection capabilities into our system. eBay's business operates on
one global platform. Adding tax collection capability to our platform only for
Australia will cause major disruption to our global business, not to mention
the significant financial investment we would have to make to build such
processes and systems...This bill simply shifts expensive compliance costs from
government to marketplace operators.
Mr Kevin Willis of Amazon also emphasised the unusual nature of the
From Amazon's perspective, and from my own personal
perspective—having done cross-border trade compliance for 36 years—there has
never been a tax of this magnitude. When you think about the vastness, the
complexity and the number of players that we are talking about—which grows
exponentially daily, as cross-border e-commerce and the attraction of the
marketplace takes hold, including in Australia—it is difficult to quantify what
the implementation costs are, as well as any impact on revenue, for instance.
A number of submitters and witnesses commented on the timeline,
requiring implementation by 1 July 2017. Reactions included that it was
it would take vendors two to three years and express carriers another year
and that the time allowed for implementation was absurdly short.
There was some questioning of why such haste was needed. Ms Erin Turner
of Choice remarked:
I find it quite strange to see legislation that requires
implementation just months after it is passed. It is very different to the
other legislation we work on in financial services...all of those bills have had
lead times of 12 months or more.
On the other hand, Mr Paul Zalai and Mr Kainoa Lincoln of the Freight
and Trade Alliance thought that their members could probably implement the
measure in time. They conceded that this depended on the capacity of other
systems to handle the measure, and also that their members had a relatively
simple customer base.
The Australian Retailers Association was anxious to avoid delay. It was
pointed out that the measure had been discussed for a long time and also that
the original GST implementation took a little over a year from the passage of
Mrs Purvis-Smith of the Treasury noted that the starting date of 1 July
2017 had been known since the measure was announced in May 2016. She conceded
that system changes would be necessary. She noted that some platforms already
had services that enabled businesses to differentiate import duty from sale
price, and could handle the complexity of United States consumption taxes which
varied from state to state.
A good deal of attention was given to how the measure was to be
enforced, given that the vendors it purports to regulate are generally
overseas. The ATO noted that it had identified a relatively small number of
organisations that would be required to comply. The ATO would work with them to
help them understand their obligations, which were straightforward. Given that
they were predominantly large organisations with a history globally of complying
with their obligations, the ATO expected a high rate of compliance. In part,
the ATO relied on other businesses to complain where organisations were
avoiding their obligations.
Electronic distribution platforms were concerned that the measure would
be difficult to enforce, particularly as there was no way to identify goods at
the border. Mr John O'Loghlen of Alibaba pointed out that a business using its
own website is not liable for GST until it reaches the threshold of $75,000
When they do exceed this mark, the onus will be entirely on
them to report and collect the tax. The ATO is not equipped to monitor millions
of Chinese businesses, and this will create an incentive for some businesses to
dodge the tax and cheat the system.
They noted that the Treasury's projection of the revenue to be raised by
the tax suggested a relatively low compliance rate.
Freight companies noted that the fact that Australia Post was not
required to report Vendor Registration Numbers or ABNs created an easy channel
The Australian Retailers Association noted that blocking of websites was
one available method of enforcement which had been discussed by government
Choice, in particular, expressed 'major concerns' about this suggestion.
Mrs Purvis‑Smith of the Treasury noted that while that power might
exist, the ATO had never used it to date.
Mr Paul Drum of CPA Australia described the measure as a 'voluntary tax'
because it would not be enforceable.
However, Mr Michael Croker of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand
suggested that Australia was an important enough market for overseas businesses
to see compliance as in their interest.
The committee notes that the imposition of GST on low value imported
goods has been the subject of extensive inquiry and research. The case for
equal treatment of offshore and onshore retailers is clear, as is the need to
protect the GST base, given the expected rapid increase in the volume of such
imports. The committee therefore regards this legislation as a step in the
The committee acknowledges the concerns of freight services that they
are being asked to collect business information, but considers that this will
become routine in a reasonably short time. While Australia is an 'early
adopter' of this measure, it is likely that other countries will implement
The committee accepts that the role of electronic distribution platforms
is different from that of sellers. However, it believes that the bill
represents a pragmatic solution to a difficult problem. It notes that the
platforms have been able to make arrangements for a variety of situations in
The committee does not accept that the measure is a barrier to trade, as
it merely extends a tax that is already paid on purchases within Australia to
low value imports direct to consumers.
While alternative models have been suggested, the committee does not have
sufficient information before it to form the view that any of these models is
preferable to the one envisaged in the bill. It also notes the OECD's work in
the area and that the OECD analysis, while not arriving at a specific
recommendation, is consistent with the proposed model. The committee suggests
that Treasury better articulate the rationale for its chosen model.
The committee notes the concerns expressed about the proposed
implementation date, and the complexity of implementation and enforcement. It
accepts that businesses may need more time and assistance to develop their
systems to implement the measure.
The committee recommends that the bill be passed, but that the
implementation date be delayed to 1 July 2018. The committee urges the
government to note the concerns raised in paragraph 2.78.
Senator Jane Hume
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