By Professor Miranda Stewart
State governments are keen to raise funds by privatising electricity networks, as has just been legislated in New South Wales, but a privatisation agenda can also cause an election loss, as shown in this year’s Queensland election. Electricity privatisation is controversial and the costs and benefits are hard to understand.
One of the less visible aspects of electricity privatisation is the tax treatment of the asset purchase for the private buyer. This year, one of the few High Court cases on income tax is about the privatisation of Victoria’s electricity transmission networks in the late 1990s. This is the case of AusNet Transmission Group Pty Ltd v Federal Commissioner of Taxation  HCA 25.
AusNet is a listed electricity transmission company that, in its own words, is Victoria’s ‘largest energy delivery service’. According to its website, AusNet owns and operates $11 billion of electricity and gas distribution assets that connect to more than 1.3 million Victorian users in a network of ‘49 terminal stations, 13,000 towers and 6,500 kilometres of high-voltage powerlines’. It’s not surprising that when AusNet has a tax issue, it is similarly large.
AusNet loses case on tax deductibility
AusNet (at that time called SPI Powernet) paid more than $2.5 billion for electricity transmission assets that it purchased in 1997 from a Victorian State-owned company. The asset purchase was just one element in the massive exercise of electricity privatisation (for more, see the first instance decision). The purchase price included the physical assets and the electricity transmission licence which would permit AusNet to operate the network. The contract also required AusNet to pay charges under the Electricity Supply Act 1993 (Vic) of $177.5 million in the 1999, 2000 and 2001 tax years, as the new owner of the transmission licence.
AusNet sought to deduct these charges as current expenses under the general income tax deduction rule (s 8-1 of Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 (Cth)). The Commissioner denied the deduction, arguing that the charges were instead capital in nature. It took more than a decade for this argument, arising out of a complex tax audit, to make its way to the High Court, where AusNet lost.
Applying Australia’s 30 per cent company tax rate, the deduction of $177.5 million was worth about $53 million to AusNet. With interest expense on unpaid tax, AusNet owed a total of $91 million to the Tax Office, of which it had previously paid $30 million. AusNet lost the case in the High Court and announced its ‘disappointment’ to the market in an ASX release. Continue reading