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Monday, 14 October 1985
Page: 1196

Senator MICHAEL BAUME(10.25) —I wish to raise the matter of regional offices of the Australian Taxation Office. I commend the Taxation Office for opening a regional office in Newcastle, which is staffed by a Deputy Taxation Commissioner, because in my mind there is no doubt that bringing the Taxation Office closer to people in large decentralised areas is very important. Apart from being useful in the sense that it means that people in these decentralised areas not only have the opportunity to discuss their problems with the Taxation Office but also the Taxation Office has the opportunity for surveillance in these areas just as it does in the larger metropolitan areas. I believe there is a two-way benefit. I notice, for example, that in the Newcastle area there had been a centre with 18 staff from about 1943 which had no doubt given excellent service to the Hunter region. On 1 July this year about 450 people have been brought into a new Newcastle office which has its own Deputy Commissioner. The executive and other key personnel are also involved. I quote from a circular called `Going Places With Tax' which goes to employees of the Taxation Office. It states:

Our aim for Newcastle is an office of some 800 staff, which will be achieved by adding taxpayers from the coastal region as far north as the Queensland border.

I commend this aim. It fits in with the general objective of providing tax offices that have the most effective number of staff. I agree with the point made by the Commissioner in this circular called `Going Places With Tax' that having 4,000-odd people in the Sydney office was really getting beyond the limits of effective operation. The office really became too big. There was a very sensible proposition by the Taxation Office to appoint a decentralised task force. There is no doubt that the results of this task force recommending these decentralisations has brought great benefit. For example, Parramatta has been a very great success. I understand that there are similar offices at Dandenong in Victoria, and Townsville in Queensland.

The interesting point is that over the past four years the number of Taxation Office staff has grown from under 12,000 to nearly 16,000. Despite the decentralisation to Parramatta, for example, the number of Sydney Taxation Office staff has grown back to over 4,000 which are dispersed through some eight city buildings. There is no doubt that the benefits of having these decentralised offices are very substantial. Taxpayers and tax agents are able to visit their local office which provides faster service.The smaller offices are more efficient. They process returns quicker, along with money and letters. These matters are handled much more speedily at the smaller offices than at the bigger offices.

One of the interesting points is that the Taxation Office also saves money on rent. Looked at in terms of Sydney rental costs, the Commissioner points out in his letter to staff that the Taxation Office now saves between $2m and $3m a year by moving 800 tax people to less central locations in Sydney. What interests me is what happens next. I commend the Taxation Office on what it has done so far. I support the view of the task force that there were four key matters in making recommendations for a new or expanded office. Those were:

the office needs to be in a major commercial centre

we need tax people prepared to work there

we need accommodation for 800-1,000 people

we need a representative mix of taxpayers so that we have an adequate career structure.

What concerns me is what the Commissioner is doing next. I notice from the circular that we are looking at seven areas in New South Wales-that is, six other areas apart from Newcastle. There are the southern suburbs of Sydney, Albury-Wodonga, Sydney itself, Chatswood, outer southern areas and, further in, Parramatta. I am most disturbed to note that in the latest circular from the Taxation Office dated 2 August to its staff it proceeds in this order of hierarchy: First, Chatswood; secondly, Hurstville; thirdly, Wollongong; and, fourthly, residual sites. I have no objection to the fact that plans for an office have now progressed to the stage where all that remains is for the construction work to commence the building at Chatswood, where the Commissioner is working towards a 1987 opening date. There is no doubt that there is demand in that area from taxpayers for that kind of service.

What concerns me though is having Hurstville as a second choice, and possibly Sutherland ahead of Wollongong. Hurstville is currently the preferred location for setting up an office in the southern suburbs of Sydney, and this proposal has received the support of the Committee for the Location of Australian Government Employment, which advises the Government on proposed new work locations. Frankly I cannot see how it is possible that the southern suburbs of Sydney should have any priority over Wollongong as the ideal location for setting up a tax office. Yet all the Taxation Office says is:

Recent research indicates that Wollongong could be a site for a future office.

Then it says this most curious thing:

The viability of any proposal to set up a new branch office in this city, however, relies heavily on sufficient staff being interested in working there.

The issue is whether there is demand for the services of the tax office. That should be the No. 1 priority-a priority not mentioned in the First Assistant Commissioner's latest circular of 2 August. The first priority is whether a tax office is needed in Wollongong, not whether the staff would like to work there.

Let us get our priorities straight. There is no doubt that in terms of unemployment, for example, there is a great need for Federal Government activity to take place in the City of Wollongong. There is no doubt that there is demand in that region. If it is good enough to have a regional tax office with a deputy commissioner in Newcastle, surely it is good enough to have one in Wollongong.

I am most disappointed to see that there is a prospect of Wollongong being downgraded in the latest internal circular within the Taxation Office, long after Hurstville. If this is simply to placate the southern suburbs because Chatswood is getting a go, it strikes me as a most curious approach. I hope that the Taxation Office does not depend in its decision making on the requirements of its staff rather than on the requirements of its customers. There is no doubt that it might find it much easier to staff a Hurstville or a Sutherland office-I have nothing against either of those locations-on the basis that there will be more staff readily available. There is a good case perhaps for setting up such an office, and I do not wish to argue against it. All I wish to argue about is the fact that without doubt a tax office is needed in Wollongong. I am astounded that at a time when there is talk of having a new Commonwealth centre built in Wollongong, which will be a stimulus to the region, that concurrent with the planning of that office in Wollongong there should also be an intention by the Taxation Office to occupy a large portion of that building. Unless the Government itself imposes some discipline on the Taxation Office by instructing it that there are other factors to be considered apart from the convenience of the Taxation Office, such as the convenience of the people involved, I fear that Wollongong will be pushed way down the list of priorities. The indication is that Hurstville or Sutherland is above it now.

I stress that I am in no way downgrading the very efficient operation that is conducted on a small scale in Wollongong now, but it is a very small office with 14 or 15 or so staff. There is nothing like the 600 staff that would be the objective which one would have if one were to set up a fully integrated operation covering the whole range of tax procedures. Unless there is that full range, the capacity to provide a career structure for people, success will not be achieved with regionalised offices. I think the Wollongong region has every reason to feel let down by the Government on this score. It will be disappointed by the Taxation Commissioner's lack of enthusiasm to proceed with Wollongong. I simply hope that the Government will intervene in this matter and will recognise the important nature of this region, the high level of unemployment in this region and the stimulus that would be given to the region by adding another government service to it, particularly in a situation where one is not simply uneconomically diversifying a service by the Government, but where investigations in the past have demonstrated that it is in the interests of the service itself to decentralise. I quote once again from the circular `Going Places with Tax' signed by Mr Boucher, the Commissioner, on 12 June 1985 in which he said:

From our experience and the results of overseas research, it seemed that an effective size would be about 800 staff; and that an office of about 800-1,000 with a balanced workload would be more efficient than the larger offices which have grown up over the years.

One can see that Newcastle would achieve that by going to the Queensland border for their customers. Exactly the same situation obtains in Wollongong where it can go to the Victorian border, stretch inland to Campbelltown, which is only half an hour or so away and is a major growth centre.

I cannot see why the Wollongong region should not be given a far higher priority. As I understand it, the Wollongong community is strongly behind it. The Lord Mayor, Frank Arkell, is strongly behind it and he is also the State member of parliament for that region. I do not know whether the other State members in the region, who are all members of the Australian Labor Party, are concerned or have taken any action. I have not heard of their taking any positive role in such a matter, nor have I heard of the Federal Labor members who overwhelmed the region getting off their backsides in this matter. But it seems to me absolutely vital that the Government should serve this area not only on account of the fact that there is a demand, but also because it would be more efficient for the Taxation Office to do so. I hope that the Government looks at this very seriously indeed.