To set the scene for my theme this month, you must come with me on a trip to Egypt. We travel a short distance away from the hustle and bustle of Cairo, out into the peace and austere beauty of the desert at Giza.
We reach a location known locally as Nazlet El-Semman. But as we gaze across the empty expanse of sand, we spy a mighty monument with a name much more familiar to all of us: the Great Pyramid of Giza.
It towers 140m above us and, as we are lost in the majesty of the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, you might also wonder why I have brought you all the way here. For this reason: the Great Pyramid is a monument to the dynasty of Pharaoh Khufu who ruled here 4,500 years ago. But it is also a lasting relic of the world’s first ever public taxation system.
I see no path to a sustainable future that does not include a fair system of taxation
Unusually for the age, Khufu didn’t rely on slaves for his massive building works. Instead, he levied currency, goods-in-kind and fixed terms of labour from the populace. He sent his emissaries out into the country on regular revenue-raising expeditions, and the system was efficient enough to sustain a workforce that shifted thousands of tons of limestone and granite across Egypt to construct the astonishing edifice that still inspires us today.
Modern economies face challenges that are far more complex than anything the pharaohs would recognise – but the aspiration remains the same: how do we fund public investment in a way that is trusted by the public; where the burden falls as broadly as possible; that wins popular consent; and where tax raised is spent as wisely as possible for the greatest good of all the citizenry?
A healthy and fair taxation system is a sign of a healthy and a fair society
Much of what ACCA believes about the importance of public trust in tax is outlined in a Professional Insights report, Public Trust in Tax: Building Trust in Tax for a Sustainable Future 2023, written in association with CA ANZ and the International Federation of Accountants, to be published next month.
For my part, I see no path to a sustainable future that does not include a fair system of taxation. That means a system in which every economically active citizen and every business makes their contribution, and where there is full transparency and accountability for how government uses tax revenues for the benefit of all society.
Businesses must also recognise that paying fair tax is a privilege
I go further and say that a healthy and fair taxation system is a sign of a healthy and fair society. An unfair and inefficient tax system leads inevitably to an unfair and inefficient society.
In my view governments have a moral, ethical and political responsibility to protect and promote fair tax – but it cuts both ways. Individuals and businesses must also recognise that paying fair tax is a privilege, and the entry fee to a fair society that works for everyone.
I am reminded that in 1776 Americans fought a revolution over the principle of ‘No taxation without representation’. It’s true the other way, too. You don’t get fair representation without taxation.
The lessons from history are plain: public trust in taxation is the cornerstone of any civilisation, and any country, that seeks to build a lasting legacy that endures for generations.