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Thursday, 18 June 2020
Page: 3676


Senator PATRICK (South Australia) (16:23): I seek leave of the chamber to table some additional information.

Leave granted.

Senator PATRICK: I also rise to take note of the report. This OPD basically sought information in relation to the investigation of a public interest disclosure claim by Mr Richard Boyle, who worked for the ATO in Adelaide. The committee had the responsibility of examining whether or not the investigation occurred properly. The finding of the committee in its report is that the investigation was superficial. I'm going to leave it at that, because of the sensitive nature of it. It was a superficial investigation.

But, in the broader picture, it is really important that, if we are to protect whistleblowers, we've got to have strong legislation in place. When someone does blow the whistle, they need the confidence to understand that the matter will be dealt with properly. That's a really important thing. So, whilst this report relates to one particular member of the public, and his case is very public, we need to make sure that, whenever whistleblowers come forward, people do their job properly. Sometimes that will result in no finding of disclosable conduct. In other cases it might result in disclosable conduct being found and, hopefully, a remedy.

In this situation, on 12 October 2017 Mr Richard Boyle, who worked in the ATO's offices in Adelaide, made a public interest disclosure. It involved, basically, a claim that there had been an unethical directive given by senior leaders in the debt business line of the ATO. What this directive did was to say to ATO officers that, instead of issuing what's called a point-in-time garnishee notice that takes money from a business's account if there's a tax debt, they were to issue what are called enduring garnishee notices, which are very broad and, indeed, ongoing and have the real potential to destroy a business. So there needs to be a much, much higher threshold. The allegation was that the tax office had made this directive in order to be able to meet targets they had for the collection of tax. On 27 October, a short time later, the public interest disclosure was rejected by the ATO. Mr Boyle then, in November of 2017, went to the Inspector-General of Taxation and made a complaint. He redacted all of the information that he wasn't able to disclose to the Inspector-General of Taxation because of secrecy laws, and he lodged a complaint.

Mr Boyle having in effect tried to blow the whistle internally and then go to another authority—albeit not the correct authority; we'll probably talk about this later, but one would think you could go to the Inspector-General of Taxation for tax related matters—the next thing that happened was the airing on television of the ABC Four Corners program 'Mongrel bunch of bastards'. I apologise; that's the ABC's tag for that particular show. It examined whether the ATO was playing by the rules and acting fairly and ethically, and Mr Boyle appeared on that. That caused the government to announce some internal inquiries, and indeed the Inspector-General of Taxation decided to conduct an investigation into the issuing of garnishee notices by the tax office.

On 4 January 2019 or thereabouts, Mr Boyle was charged. He is facing, I think, something like 161 charges in relation to copying and disclosing taxpayers' information to the media. Now that matter's before the court, and I'm not suggesting whether that occurred or not, but it is a point of fact that he was charged. About four months after he was charged, the Inspector-General of Taxation found that indeed there were anomalies in the Adelaide tax office in relation to garnishee notices. So, in effect, what we saw happening was that a public interest disclosure was made, the whistle was blown, the ATO basically rejected the public interest disclosure, and then, when it was thoroughly investigated by the Inspector-General of Taxation, it was found that there were anomalies. This is the important point.

The ATO's investigation was superficial, and but for the superficial nature of the ATO's investigation into Mr Boyle's public interest disclosure the events that followed—the complaint to the IGT, the media programs, the charges and so forth—would never have occurred. We might see a fairly significant injustice—once again, I'm not going to whether or not the matters before the courts are justifiable. We have a situation where someone has blown the whistle, there was a real problem there and they've found themselves before a court. If the ATO had only done its job properly none of the alleged activities—they're alleged at this stage—would have occurred. In fact, in my view, the tax office would have been in a much better situation in that case. It's an important issue. I thank Senator Brockman for his chairing of this committee. It was a sensitive matter and I think the committee's done a good job in summarising the situation.

(Quorum formed)