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Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Page: 3282

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Barnett)—I present a response from the Assistant Treasurer, Senator Sherry, to a resolution of 13 May 2010 about a review of the implementation of the Australian Taxation Office’s change program.

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) [5:56 PM] —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

This is a response to a resolution of the Senate from the Assistant Treasurer in relation to the Australian Taxation Office change program. This resolution of the Senate was supported by all non-government senators on 13 May. It relates to a motion concerning the Inspector-General of Taxation’s change program review. We know that there have been significant difficulties with the change program, that a number of tax office officials have been very concerned about the change program and that the Inspector-General of Taxation, following a request from the Assistant Treasurer—and I commend the Assistant Treasurer for using his powers to instigate the inquiry—is now looking at this review of the change program. We know that the change program has been fraught with very significant difficulties, with returns not being processed properly. Various parts of the whole issue of the processing of returns are now not coming within the change program. We know that the review of BAS, the business activity statements, has been postponed, notwithstanding that this program will be costing taxpayers approaching $1 billion. It is close to $900 million. It is a cost blow-out of some $400 million. There are very real concerns about this.

It is worth noting that all employees of the tax office were sent an email from the Commissioner of Taxation, Mr D’Ascenzo, and the subject was the Inspector-General of Taxation’s review of the change program. It essentially said that they could make submissions, but I am concerned about the tenor of that letter. I am concerned about the tone of that letter in that the commissioner said in his email to all employees:

As a tax officer you should be aware that privacy and secrecy laws still apply to any submissions you may choose to make. Given this, I would like to remind you to be careful in providing confidential information and that the law does not allow you to disclose identifiable taxpayer information unless directly requested to do so by the inspector-general’s office.

The commissioner goes on to say:

If you are unsure about any of your obligations as a tax officer, I encourage you to discuss this with your manager.

He also goes on to say:

If you are reading the inspector-general’s guidelines and you or your manager have any further questions in relation to the inspector-general’s review, you may contact corporate relations.

He also said:

If you have any particular concerns about any ATO matters, please feel free to contact ATO with your concern.

I am concerned that that does not give the full story. In effect, it is saying: ‘You can go to the inspector-general but be very careful of the information that you give.’ I note the Assistant Treasurer’s response in relation to that motion. My concern is one of emphasis. I do not believe the commissioner’s letter makes it clear that, if a notice is provided by the Inspector-General of Taxation to an employee of the tax office, they are free to make any submission they want that is relevant to the inquiry, and that could consist of providing personal details because those personal details would only be provided to the Inspector-General of Taxation, not to the public at large and not to an external source. That should be made clear in order to determine the nature and extent of the problem with the change program. There is a concern that tax officers may be fettered by the commissioner’s email to his employees.

I think all tax office employees need to understand that if the Inspector-General of Taxation provides them with a notice under the legislation that sets up the Inspector-General of Taxation then they are completely protected in any information that they give to the Inspector-General relating to this inquiry, including any personal information, because in order to determine what is wrong with a change program you sometimes need to find out about individual cases of concern where the system has failed. There have been many, many such cases. So I hope that, in the context of the document that has been tabled today and in the context of the commissioner’s email to his employees, every tax office employee that has relevant information about the unfortunate debacle that has been the change program comes forward. If they are provided with a notice by the Inspector-General, under section 17 as I understand it—and there may be other sections of the act—they are completely protected in the information they give.

It is not quite right for the tax commissioner to say, ‘You should be aware that the privacy and secrecy laws still apply to any submissions you choose to make,’ because if the Inspector-General of Taxation has made it clear that they are protected—they have been provided with a notice requiring that tax officer to provide evidence—they are completely protected. I do not think that the tax commissioner’s email to his employees is sufficiently clear in relation to that.

I note that the Assistant Treasurer has discussed the matter with the Commissioner of Taxation and he has been assured by the commissioner that there will be no prejudice to officials who provide information to the review. The Assistant Treasurer said, ‘Although I should add that officials must comply with the requirements of the law in providing such information.’ I think it is pleasing that the Assistant Treasurer sought those assurances. He is to be commended for that but all those tax officers out there who have information about the mess that is the change program need to know that they are protected if they are provided with a notice by the Inspector-General of Taxation. I do not believe that the commissioner’s email to his employees was sufficiently clear in that regard.

Question agreed to.