PwC scandal reveals rot at the heart of the state

James Plested

by James Plested

Sunday, 04 June 2023 –

It’s curious, to say the least: in 2015 Peter Collins—then head of international tax at the Australian branch of global consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)—was appointed to advise the federal government on a planned crackdown on multinational tax avoidance, and no-one seems to have thought there was a problem with that.

Were those involved stupid, or was something more sinister at work? How did they not foresee that Collins would use the knowledge gained from his role to drum up millions of dollars’ worth of business for PwC from companies keen to get around the new laws?

To an outsider observer, it all seems very predictable. Collins’ appointment came, after all, less than a year after the publication in late 2014 of the “Luxembourg leaks”—documents given to a journalist by Raphaёl Halet, an employee of PwC’s Luxembourg branch, showing that the company was involved in an industrial-scale global tax avoidance operation with its multinational clients.

Even without the evidence provided by Halet, it was by then well established that selling their expertise on tax avoidance to the highest bidder was a core part of the business model of PwC and the other “big four” consultancies (Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG). Their shady dealings went well beyond tax avoidance too. These are companies with a long track record of doing basically anything, however immoral, if it helped them or their clients make more money.

They were, for example, up to their neck in the shonky banking practices that led to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. One or another of the “big four” were responsible for auditing the accounts of almost all the major banks that ended up collapsing during the crisis. Not only did none of them give any warning of what was about to occur, but they even allowed banks to pay out significant dividends to shareholders just months before they went under.

This wasn’t because they didn’t know there were problems. A junior auditor from Ernst & Young (EY) uncovered an accounting trick Lehman Brothers was using to hide its massive debt back in 2006. When he raised his concerns with his superiors, however, it went nowhere. Lehman Brothers, at the time the fourth largest investment bank in the US, collapsed on 15 September 2008, very nearly taking the entire global financial system down with it.

In the years since, there have been a series of other scandals. McKinsey—another global consulting giant—has been linked to the US opioid crisis (it advised pharmaceutical companies how to boost sales of addictive opioid-based drugs like OxyContin), the mistreatment of immigrants in US detention centres (it advised the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to cut costs in its facilities by, among other things, spending less on food for detainees) and large-scale corruption of government officials in South Africa.

EY was back at it in the late 2010s too, this time being implicated in the collapse of German payment processor and financial services company Wirecard. Despite having been Wirecard’s auditor for more than a decade, it apparently came as a complete surprise to EY when, in June 2020, the company’s entire business was revealed to have been based on fraud.

One indication of the “moral fibre” of PwC’s Australian branch is the fact that in 2018 it offered to make war criminal Ben Roberts-Smith a partner at the firm. The contract was ready to be signed when Fairfax media broke news of the former SAS soldier’s murder of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan, rumours of which were circulating well before the story went to press.

Those involved in the appointment of Peter Collins to his role as an adviser on Australia’s multinational tax crackdown have pointed to the fact that he was made to sign multiple confidentiality agreements. They talk as if this formality should have been enough to stop him doing what he did. Given the very public track record of PwC and other major consulting firms, they should have known better. The fact that they didn’t points to something rotten at the heart of capitalist democracy in countries like Australia.

PwC and other global consulting giants were then, and are even more now, an established part of the furniture in the upper echelons of the state. Governments dole out huge sums for their services. Data from the Australian National Audit Office show that $888 million was paid to consultants by the federal government in the 2022-23 financial year. In Victoria, research by the Community and Public Sector Union found that almost $1 billion has been spent on consultants by the Andrews Labor government since it came to power in 2014.

Focusing on this spending alone, though scandalous enough in itself, still doesn’t really capture how cosy the relationship has become. There’s more than just a revolving door between consultancies such as PwC and the ranks of politicians and senior bureaucrats. The door is kept wide open. Though they do regularly switch back and forth between roles in a formal sense, it matters little at the top levels whether someone is employed by a consultant or by the state—they are all assumed to share the same outlook and be working towards the same goals.

That’s the most likely explanation for the appointment of Collins not raising any eyebrows. Whatever his “day job” at PwC, he and his colleagues were established and trusted members of the state’s inner circle. It’s likely it simply didn’t occur to the government officials he worked with that he would ever do anything seriously at odds with their own priorities and goals.

This brings us to the most disturbing aspect of it. The growing power and influence of the consulting giants at every level of government and in every sphere of policy aren’t really, as commonly presented, a matter of “state capture” by the private sector. When it comes to the genuinely ruling-class elements within the state, it’s more collaboration than capture.

Increasingly, it seems, governments and the most senior bureaucrats they appoint prefer the advice of private consultants to that of (what remains of) the public service. Public servants are frequently honest and decent people who often have some commitment to providing “frank and fearless” advice based on serious research and analysis and an assessment of what’s in the public interest. Consultants like Peter Collins, on the other hand, are only really interested in making money. As such, they’re much more likely to provide the kind of advice that governments want to hear.

The growing role of consultants in the capitalist state—not just in Australia but around the world—reflects the increasingly naked class warfare at the heart of our society. It’s becoming more difficult for governments to square the circle of serving the interests of big business and the rich while seeming to govern in the interests of all. What the ruling class expects of governments is simply too out of step with what the mass of ordinary people demand.

In many places in the world, and throughout the history of capitalism, this divergence of interests has been “solved” on the level of politics via limitations on democracy or outright dictatorship. The consulting giants’ increasing integration with the state, and the kind of unaccountable, morality-free and unabashedly pro-business perspective they implant there should be seen as a step along that path.