High Court allows Commissioner’s appeal in Qantas

Today the High Court handed down its decision in Commissioner of Taxation v Qantas Airways Ltd [2012] HCA 41.  By a majority of 4:1 (Heydon J dissenting) the Court allowed the Commissioner’s appeal and found that Qantas was liable to pay GST with respect to fares for travel which was not taken by passengers.

In summary, the view of the majority was that upon entry into the contract with passengers, Qantas made a taxable supply for consideration (being the fare) and GST was payable and attributable to the tax period in which the fare was received.  At [33] the majority said as follows:

The Qantas conditions and the Jetstar conditions did not provide an unconditional promise to carry the passenger and baggage on a particular flight.  They supplied something less than that.  This was at least a promise to use best endeavourrs to carry the passenger and baggage, having regad to the circumstances of the business operations of the airline.  This was a “taxable supply” for which the consideration, being the fare, was received.

My initial comment is that while this case involved the GST implications of a transaction which did not proceed to completion, the majority’s conclusion would appear to apply to all contracts, regardless of whether those contracts complete or not.  Accordingly, whenever a party enters into a contract and receives consideration (or provides an invoice), that party makes a taxable supply, with the supply being the entry into the obligations and or the provision of rights to the recipient.  This may raise a number of difficulties going forward.

In his dissenting judgment, Heydon J essentially approved of the reasons given by the Full Court.  In doing so, his Honour found that the expression “supply for consideration” connoted a bargained-for exchange of value for performance and identified the flight as what the passenger paid for. His honour also found that an interpretation of s 9-5 fastening on the latter supply (ie, the flight) conforms more closely to practical reality.