ATO whistleblower faces six life sentences, roughly the same as Ivan Milat

His hearing, scheduled for March 1, comes after the bipartisan House Standing Committee on Tax and Revenue on Friday released a scathing report into the ATO, referring to it as an “annus horribilis” performance report.

It makes 37 recommendations for reform.

The recommendations made in this report intend to adjust the imbalance of power perceived by taxpayers in their engagement with the ATO.

Parliamentary report

“As the committee commenced its annual report review in March 2018, there was an acceleration of bad press as the ATO fought off allegations of systemic unfairness to small business, and performance-driven debt action, which were televised,” the committee said.

“The recommendations made in this report intend to adjust the imbalance of power perceived by taxpayers in their engagement with the ATO, and to ensure that, under the ATO’s Reinvention [agenda], willing engagement will be the test for fair treatment.”

Some of the recommendations are profound, including a new ATO charter, an appeals group headed by a second independent commissioner (as also pledged by the federal Labor opposition), the transfer of debt recovery functions into the ATO’s compliance operations and a restructure of compensation processeses.

It called for the tax regulator, the Inspector General of Taxation (IGT), to be given more resources, renamed the Tax Ombudsman and tasked with conducting a broad review of the role of outsourcing in changes to its performance and culture.

Ali Noroozi.

Ali Noroozi.Credit:Nic Walker

Several of these recommendations were proposed by the former IGT Ali Noroozi for years and some of them shortly before his departure late in 2018. 

“In the committee’s view, the Tax Commissioner should strike a note for fairness and respect between the ATO, tax agents, and taxpayers in all his public statements, and this guarantee should be consistently extolled and consolidated in all ATO vision documents,” the parliamentary report said, putting the responsibility for implementation at the feet of the Treasury and the ATO.

There are already changes afoot a new Small Business Tax Tribunal appeals body will start operating on March 1.

The body is an initiative of the federal government to make life easier for small businesses battling the ATO. Its establishment was sparked by revelations from Boyle and others in the joint media investigation.

ATO whistleblower Richard Boyle.

ATO whistleblower Richard Boyle.Credit:James Elsby

In a twist of irony March 1 is the same day Boyle’s court hearing is set down in the Magistrates Court of South Australia.

Boyle, who had worked for the ATO since 2005 revealed that his area in the ATO had been instructed to use more heavyhanded debt collection tactics on taxpayers who owed the ATO money.

He said they were told to start issuing “standard garnishee” notices to meet ATO revenue targets.

A garnishee is a tool that allows the ATO to seize funds from the bank accounts of taxpayers who had been assessed to owe the ATO money, sometimes without their knowledge.

In one internal email, supplied to the media investigation by Boyle, an ATO officer tells staff “the last hour of power is upon us… that means you still have time to issue another five garnishees… right?”

The explosive allegations triggered a series of investigations into the ATO which resulted in both sides of politics announcing policies to improve the lot of small businesses when they are dealing with the ATO.

But the lot of Boyle is a timely reminder of the risks whistleblowers take.

Days before he went public his home was raided by the AFP and the ATO which alleged in a warrant he had illegally taken copies of taxpayer information, photos of ATO computer screens or emails.

Weeks earlier he had declined a settlement with the ATO on the basis he didn’t want to be gagged from exposing questionable behaviour inside the country’s most powerful institution.

His fate is now in the hands of the courts.

Adele Ferguson comments on companies, markets and the economy.

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