Tax Commissioner faces grilling

By Julian Bajkowski

A claimed rise in complaints to the Commonwealth Ombudsman about the Australian Taxation Office is set to take centre stage today when Taxation Commissioner Michael D’Ascenzo comes before the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA) this morning.

In a curtain raiser to what is anticipated to be a fiesty exchange, Public Accounts Committee chairman and independent lower house member Rob Oakeshott said last night that Tax will be grilled on its on its debt collection practices and the advice and services it provides to small business.

The issue of complaints against the ATO is a volatile one for senior bureaucrats, particularly as overall tax revenues fall. Part of the challenge is that the government must balance the interests of fully collecting its tax take while not being seen to be unfairly shaking-down economically vulnerable businesses.

Added to the combustible mix is the vigorous interest of independent members like Mr Oakeshott who are keen to directly and vocally represent the interests of their constituents rather than adhering to party tactics during committee hearings.

In its submission to the JCPAA, the ATO has already pointed to the challenging business environment as a handbrake on its ability to collect revenue.

“While we met our target for collectable debt for the first 10 months of the year, difficult financial conditions meant that we did not meet the target for the last two months, ending with collectable debt representing 5.5 per cent of total collections rather than our 5 per cent target,” the ATO’s submission said.

“Funding received in the 2012-13 Federal Budget should help us contain further growth in our debt holdings, while remaining empathetic to taxpayers in short term difficulties.”

The same document defends the ATO’s track record on complaints.

The ATO’s submission claims that there were “20 per cent fewer complaints in 2011-12 than in 2010-11 with the average time taken to resolve a complaint improving from 26 days in 2010-11 to 15 days in 2011-12.”

“We also continued to reduce the number and profile of complaints on hand from 962 at 30 June 2011 to 804 at 30 June 2012. The proportion of aged cases (complaints over 60 days old) relative to all complaints on hand was 4 per cent at 30 June 2012,” the ATO argued.

However it the number of complaints to the Commonwealth Ombudsman that will likely draw the gaze of the Committee this morning as these usually represent more serious and unresolved disputes that have been sent for an external assessment.

The ability of the ATO to keep pace with consumer technology trends is also set for a renewed showdown.

Tax’s previous steadfast adherence to Microsoft’s fading Windows platform, and its exclusion of Apple and open source products, on its eTax application is sure to again draw critical questioning immediately following the launch of the iPhone 5 and the fact that the ATO still does not have a mobile ‘e-tax’ app.

In its submission, the ATO said that it recognised “the growth in the use of non-Windows platforms and we are taking steps to enable Apple Macintosh and other non-Windows based platform users to access e-tax.”

“Due to a number of complexities related to IT security concerns and usability, e-tax for Apple Macintosh systems was not available in time for Tax Time 2012. We will continue to develop an Apple Macintosh version of e-tax to ensure the underlying technology can work effectively and securely,” the ATO said in its submission.

The ATO said it was now expected that a Mac version of e-tax to be ready for the 2013 tax year and that it was working over the longer term to build a web-based version that will “allow compatibility of the product with the majority of operating systems being used by the community.”

Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA) proceeding commence at 9am.

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