Disgraced consultancy PwC’s recent attempts at redemption have failed spectacularly, with a Senate inquiry rejecting its internal “investigations” into the tax scandal.
Fronting the Senate committee into consultancies for the first time today, PwC management was accused of attempting to “cauterise” the scandal within Australia, including by commissioning a “review” it had deliberately nobbled.
Inquiry chair Liberal Senator Richard Colbeck told PwC Australia CEO Kevin Burrowes the firm had failed to be “open and honest” about what had occurred.
He said one of two recommendations in the inquiry’s June interim report was PwC be “open and honest” with the Australian Parliament and “with the international community” about what had occurred.
“This document that you’ve presented to us, I don’t think it reflects the reality of the situation,” Colbeck said.
“There were…recommendations about the process globally, and I’ve got to say, I don’t see any evidence that that’s what’s going on — other than an attempt to cauterise this whole process”.
“Agreed,” said ALP Senator Deborah O’Neill.
On September 27 PwC Australia released the findings of a “review” it had paid businessman Ziggy Switkowski to conduct but had secretly instructed not to review any of the tax leaks affair.
At the same time it released a document it called “PwC Australia’s Statement of Facts”, it said it had prepared with two law firms it had hired to help it “investigate” the tax scandal.
Greens Senator Barbara Pocock, said she had been swamped by concerned members of the public over the affair, with widespread public anger.
“It is fair to say the Australian public has reviewed your response around the tax scandal very critically, even cynically, the announcement of investigation findings that cannot be scrutinised,” Pocock said.
“There is very widespread criticism and understanding about what you did, I believe PwC has no friends, very few friends, in Australia at the moment”.
“I believe PwC has no friends, very few friends, in Australia at the moment” — Senator Pocock
The reaction of the Senate inquiry, which is comprised of members of all major political parties, is a major blow to PwC Australia, as well as to PwC Global, which is also desperately trying to stop the scandal from spreading beyond Australian shores.
On September 27, at the same time PwC released its reports, PwC Global posted a brief statement on its website saying a law firm it had engaged had “conducted their review” and “found no evidence that any PwC personnel outside of Australia used confidential information from PwC Australia for commercial gain”.
PwC Global provided no evidence to back the claims.
PwC Australia partners, including its former head of international tax Peter Collins, took confidential Australian Government tax data and shared it widely within the firm, both within Australia and internationally, and sold it for millions to multinationals seeking to avoid Australian tax.
The PwC partners obtained the information while providing “advice” on new laws aimed at preventing multinationals avoiding Australian tax.
Colbeck said PwC’s actions were “outrageous” and compounded by PwC’s ongoing failure to come clean.
“I find it hard to describe in polite terms how offended I am as a member of the then government, that was introducing significant tax changes in the interest of the Australian people, that your business was deliberately using confidential information to flat that process and to assist major corporations avoid Australian tax,” Colbeck said.
“I genuinely wonder how you believe you can recover trust, when all the systems that you say that you have, all the procedures you say that you have at a global level, and a local level, were ignored. They didn’t work”.
“I genuinely wonder how you believe you can recover trust” — Senator Colbeck
There were requirements for PwC, in its global systems, to “self-report” breaches, “yet nobody anywhere has done anything on this”, Colbeck said.
“I mean, on what basis can you say to us today that any of this is going to change”?
Colbeck said the Switkowski “review” was “inaccurate in the first couple of pages” by stating Collins has been “suspended” by government regulator the Tax Practitioners Board, when it fact his licence had been cancelled and he’d been banned for two years.
“So you give us a document, it’s your document…surely its checked?” Colbeck said.
Burrows said Switkowski was “an eminent Australian” who had “undertaken a very detailed review”.
PwC Australia CEO Kevin Burrowes fronts the Senate inquiry today. Source: Australian Senate
Colbeck responded: “Mr Burrows I’m not trying to reflect on Mr Switkowski because I get a sense of how difficult the job was having read the report”.
“I’m criticising you for a for allowing a document to go out that’s not accurate.
“I mean this is a further reflection to me about where you are at as an organisation with respect to the accuracy of what you do, this is my point, that you can’t get…an important detail right in the first few pages,” Colbeck said.
He said PwC, although releasing it on September 27, had had the completed Switkowski review “since early August”.
“Surely you would do a proofing fact checking of a document such as that, I mean this goes to your credibility, this is what you’re here to try and achieve, you’re trying to convince us as a committee, to start with, but also your clients,” Colbeck said.
“This goes to your credibility…that you can’t get…an important detail right in the first few pages” – Senator Colbeck
“I mean, I’d be terrified if I was a partner of your organisation that you can’t get that, at the top level, can’t get that detail right.
“How am I as a partner to be assured, as a partner who is jointly and severally liable for all the stuff that goes down, that you’ve got this going in the right direction?
Burrowes responded: “We’ve accepted all of Dr Switkowski’s recommendations, we have already started to make changes to our firm, as I alluded to in our opening statement…there’s a lot of work that we need to do to put right our firm, chair, I don’t deny that that is a huge task”.
Burrowes was appointed PwC Australia CEO in June, replacing Tom Seymour, was ousted over the affair, and who earlier this year publicly claimed the tax scandal was a “perception issue”.
Before his appointment Burrowes had been working in a global role for PwC in Singapore.
Senator Pocock said she had received “hundreds of emails, letter and phone calls” from members of the public with serious concerns over the affair.
“I was in the pub the other night and five people came up to me, I’d never met any of them before,” Pocock said.
“They knew PwC and what it did, and they were disgusted with what has happened. They’re well informed, they’re deeply critical, they’re taxpayers and they’re workers. Some of them are from your own firm — not one person in any of that correspondence has spoken in defence of PwC.
“They’re well informed, they’re deeply critical, they’re taxpayers and they’re workers” – Senator Pocock
“I have read every column inch of newspaper reports over the last five months which has spoken to these issues and just one piece was in support — a piece saying Peter Collins acted, quite entrepreneurially,” Pocock said.
She asked Burrowes: “What do you say about what you have done, and the way in which you have broken trust?”
Burrowes responded: “Senator in my opening comments I highlighted it was totally unacceptable, it was a breach of trust, it should never have happened. It should have been investigated many times and it wasn’t. We are sorry for that I can, I will apologise as many times as I need to”.
Pocock said PwC’s “failure to be absolutely clear about who did what” and to “apply appropriate consequences” was “a major issue for this committee” and illustrated by the firm’s “announcement of investigation findings that cannot be scrutinised”.
She said PwC continued to engage in “selective blaming of certain leaders” when “others remain in the firm” and “even the naming and shaming of persons who had nothing to do with the scandal at all”.
“This is a long and repetitive pattern of behaviour from PwC, that people on this side of the table, and many citizens have witnessed, which is to slowly leak out individual names and to fail to properly come clean about who did what within the firm,” Pocock said.
“Many innocent people have been thrown under the bus within this chapter”.
Pocock said “one of the real serious issues” she had was PwC directing Switkowski to not examine the tax affair, instead skipping the review “into the future”.
“You’ve skipped over the who did what phase, and the accountability phase,” she said,
“It told me how crap your business was internally, and how the systems that you parade to your clients don’t work” — Senator Colbeck
Colbeck said reading the Switkowski report “told me how crap your business was internally”.
“As I said to my colleagues this morning, I got more depressed because it told me how crap your business was internally, and how the systems that you parade to your clients don’t work,” Colbeck said.
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