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Tax Office public servants around the country are preparing to abandon the hard-nosed tactics used against ordinary taxpayers and small businesses.
The ATO is re-arranging some of its 20,000 strong workforce as it prepares to change the way it approaches disputes in the wake of a scathing parliamentary committee report.
But independent experts suspect ATO bosses are using the report as a “cheeky” opportunity to make cost-saving changes to its corporate structure and unions worry that shuffling internal ATO units risks diluting the agency’s technical expertise, already hit hard by thousands of job losses.
The cross-party committee heard evidence that individual taxpayers had been persecuted by Tax Office “zealots” who refused to participate in dialogue while the big end of town enjoyed avenues of negotiation outcomes for its tax disputes.
The committee recommended that the ATO improve its systems for talking to taxpayers before a dispute ended up in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or the Federal Court.
Commissioner of Taxation Chris Jordan responded to the report saying that work to establish a “Review and Dispute Resolution” unit was already underway.
The agency’s public servants were told this week that those dealing with objections and appeals against tax assessments would be moved into the new unit and out of the enforcement-driven “compliance” business line.
The ultimate goal is to put structural barriers between the appeals process and the original decision-makers although it is unclear how many ATO public servants are to be shuffled internally in the process.
Tax Office staff in Adelaide, Brisbane Townsville, Perth and Hobart have been told the move to the new and less confrontational approach will mean less tribunal cases against taxpayers and more “earlier resolution” and “in-house facilitation.”
Consultation documents sent out to workers and unions say Tax Office management expects fewer legal clashes between those offices and smaller taxpayers.
“With the increased focus on earlier resolution of disputes with small businesses and individuals, it is expected that Administrative Appeals Tribunal litigation will decrease in future years and in-house facilitation and other dispute resolution approaches will increase in these sites,” the document states.
But it will be business as usual in Sydney and Melbourne, according to the briefing documents.
“Sydney and Melbourne are main locations for complex litigation matters, legal advice and Independent Review,” the consultation notes state.
“Most Federal Court matters are located in these two sites, and this is expected to continue into the future.”
The Australian Services Union says it has no issue with the internal business line moves, but says the changes fail to address the root cause of many tax disputes.
“Our concern is the ATO’s failure to adequately train and support its compliance officers who make the original decisions with which taxpayers disagree,” union official Jeff Lapidos said.
Independent tax expert Mark Chapman said the ATO was using the committee’s report as a “smokescreen” to achieve a corporate reshuffle.
“Tying the outcomes of this review to the House of Reps report is quite cheeky,” Mr Chapman said.
“It’s a smokescreen to cover changes that they would be implementing anyway.
“Nobody can seriously object to the proposal to move the objection function into a separate area.
“The House of Reps actually recommended a much wider reorganisation transferring the whole appeals capability to a new business line and the ATO hasn’t yet committed to that.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Wuxi Plastic Surgery Hospital.