You’re looking at Nawaz Sharif, but do you pay your taxes?
It is no secret that Panama, with its strictest financial secrecy rules on the planet, has been a long-time friend to crooks, dictators, corporations and the ridiculously rich.
Turned into a tax and money-laundering haven in the 70s with the help of American banks, Panama’s financial laws remain extremely lax and welcoming. As a Panamanian lawyer put it in his 2014 VICE News interview,
“When it comes to money laundering, we offer full service: rinse, wash, and dry. You can go to any law firm in the city, from the smallest to the biggest, and open up a shell company with no questions asked.”
To be fair, not all corporations and rich folk head to idyllic sunny islands for shady activities. Offshore banking in places like the Cayman Islands and Panama is a good draw not only because they offer ways to minimise an entities’ taxable income but also because they boast quality legislation, economic stability and a lack of intrusive regulation.
But, the ability of the rich to set up insanely complicated legal loopholes so that they can get even richer rightfully hits a nerve for the majority of us not part of the global elite.
That’s why recent disclosures, dubbed by the media as the Panama Papers, clearly linking our prime minister and his family to offshore companies is so infuriating. That our PM is one of 12 world leaders named in the Panama Papers tax haven leak is not surprising. After all, the Sharif family has found itself in the crossfire of tax evasion allegations plenty of times before.
The Panama Papers only confirm what pretty much every Pakistani has long known: the prime minister and his family are not exactly clean.
On the face of it, being linked to an offshore account or company does not immediately signal illegality. What the average Pakistani is pissed off about is the dubious, unethical way in which Pakistan’s most prominent family chooses to conduct its affairs.
Our PM is allegedly a billionaire – twice over. And, if the Panama Papers are to be believed, the PM and his family own some of the most expensive real estate on this planet which include homes right across London’s Hyde Park. But Nawaz Sharif and his families’ questionable and, to put it politely, fairly unethical tactics of dodging taxes are not limited to the Sharif clan.
We are a dirt-poor country and are likely to remain so in the reader’s current lifetime because of our 200 million citizens only 0.5 % choose to pay income tax. In fact, the cost of running a local tax office in Pakistan is more expensive than the tax that we wind up collecting.
The problem of shady tax avoidance ploys runs in the veins of more than just one elite Pakistani family. Far too many affluent Pakistanis dodge taxes by colluding or bribing tax officials, conjuring up legal loopholes, or turning to offshore destinations. Even our country’s parliament is run over with lawmakers – custodians of our state – who not only skip tax-payments, they don’t possess tax numbers required to file their income taxes.
We are going to need a lot more than revelatory Panama Papers to fight against the home-grown crooks defrauding our tax collecting system. The leak will, without a doubt, deal a massive blow to the global offshore banking industry. But the Panama Papers only name a handful of Pakistanis leaving out the millions complicit in domestic tax evasion.
The problem is not on some tropical island a thousand miles away. It’s down the street from you and I, and before we attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of international tax avoidance schemes, we need to find a way to stop our own economic self-interests from sinking.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.