A mirror of the general principle of source and residence taxation broadly setting the parameters of international taxation, and reflected in Australia’s income tax law, is that income of a foreign resident not from sources in the state is not taxable in the state (in this post called the Mirror Principle). In Australia:
- interests in real property in Australia and related interests; and
- interests in assets used in business in permanent establishments in Australia:
are designated “Taxable Australian Property” (TAP) (see Division 855 of the Income Tax Assessment Act (ITAA) 1997). TAP is used in Australian income tax law to apply the Mirror Principle.
Foreign resident capital gains from non-TAP disregarded
Property which is not TAP, that is, property not taken to be connected to Australia for income tax purposes in the hands of foreign residents includes shares and securities as opposed to property interests in or related to Australian land or of permanent establishments carrying on enterprises in Australia which are TAP.
Capital gains made by foreign residents from non-TAP assets are disregarded for tax purposes: section 855-10.
Trouble pinpointing trusts as foreign or not
Trusts are elusive and create enormous difficulties in the international tax system see Trusts – Weapons of Mass Injustice. Trusts can detach beneficiaries who benefit from property who may be in one state from:
- the trustee of the trust, in whose name the property is held, who may be in another state; and
- the activities of trust which may be in yet another state.
Apt taxation of those activities in line with Mirror Principle thus poses a significant challenge to governments. States are justified imposing laws to counter offshoring with trusts to ensure the integrity of their tax systems.
Some states don’t recognise trusts.
In Australia trusts are mainstream. Some types of trusts are considered tax benign and conducive to legitimate business, investment and prudential activity. Fixed trusts are often treated transparently for Australian income tax purposes so that a fixed trust interest holder is:
- taxed similarly to a regular taxpayer or investor; and
- no worse off, tax wise, than a taxpayer or investor who owns the property outright rather than by way of a trust beneficial interest.
So, consistent with the Mirror Principle that a foreign resident owner of non-TAP who makes a gain on the non-TAP shouldn’t be taxable on the gain, a foreign resident beneficiary (FRB) of a fixed trust can disregard a capital gain made in relation to their interest in a fixed trust: section 855-40.
Peter Greensill Family Co Pty Ltd (trustee) v Commissioner of Taxation
In the Federal Court case Peter Greensill Family Co Pty Ltd (trustee) v Commissioner of Taxation  FCA 559 this week the issue arose whether an Australian resident family discretionary trust – a non-fixed trust, was entitled to rely on section 855-10 and the Mirror Principle to disregard capital gains distributed to a FRB, a beneficiary based in London, of the trust from realisation by the trust of shares in a private company, GCPL, which were non-TAP of the trust.
Detachment of capital gains from the workings of trust CGT tax rules
The capital gains of a trustee are distant from the capital gains of a beneficiary under the ITAA 1936 and the ITAA 1997. Transparent treatment or look through to the capital gains of the trustee as capital gains of the beneficiary/ies became even more remote following changes to Sub-division 115-C of the ITAA 1997 including the introduction of Division 6E of Part III of the ITAA 1936.
These changes brought in distinct treatment of capital gains and franked distributions of a trust from other trust income following the High Court decision in Commissioner of Taxation v Bamford  HCA 10 and the clarification of taxation of trust income in that case.
Legislation unsupportive of transparent treatment
In Greensill Thawley J. analysed the provisions in Sub-division 115-C and Division 6E to deconstruct the applicant’s case to disregard capital gains using Division 855.
Section 855-40 specifically allows a FRB of a fixed trust to disregard non-TAP capital gains. The absence of an equivalent exemption for FRBs of non-fixed trusts is telling unless section 855-40 is otiose or represents an abundance of caution. Thawley J. did not follow that line. As the applicant in Greensill could not disregard the capital gains using section 855-40 in the case of non-fixed trust, or section 855-10, the capital gains were taxable in Australia.
Unless there is an appeal to the Full Federal Court the Commissioner can finalise his draft taxation determination TD 2019/D6 Income tax: does Subdivision 855-A (or subsection 768-915(1)) of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 disregard a capital gain that a foreign resident (or temporary resident) beneficiary of a resident non-fixed trust makes because of subsection 115-215(3)? as the Federal Court has accepted the view in it.