Tax & ATO News Australia

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In Pursuit of a Fairer System

 The Federal opposition seems to be searching hard for the glib soundbites. The latest attack is on expensive accountants, who only the uber-rich can afford, who use their superior accounting skills at high cost, to manipulate their clients’ affairs to pay no tax.


I came across a recent article in Accountants Daily which reported:


Last week, Bill Shorten delivered the opposition’s federal budget reply speech in which he proposed a cap on the amount individuals can claim as a tax deduction for the management of their tax affairs.


“In 2014-15, 48 Australians earned more than $1 million and paid no tax at all. Not even the Medicare levy. Instead, using clever tax lawyers, they deducted their income down from an average of nearly $2.5 million … to below the tax-free threshold,” Mr Shorten said.


“One of the biggest deductions claimed was the money they paid to their accountants, averaging over $1 million. That’s why a Labor government will cap the amount individuals can deduct for the management of their tax affairs at $3,000.”


The article goes on to make a point about “individuals potentially getting penalised for simply having to deal with a complex tax system and ever increasing requirements of the Tax Office”. I agree with this, and think that this policy is one of the most stupid ideas I have ever heard. Who advises these people?


I strongly doubt that anyone is paying north of $1m for annual tax advice, no matter how complex their tax affairs, or brilliant their advisor's advice.
What is much more likely is that these people have been involved in complex and aggressive audits, and have had to fight to prove their case against a huge team comprising the Commissioner of Taxation's in-house lawyers, external lawyers, junior barristers and silk.


Defending yourself in the face of this is incredibly expensive, particularly when you as a taxpayer bear the onus of proof. What most people don't realise is that barristers charge taxpayers a much higher rate than they charge the ATO. In circumstances where the ATO's audits are often little more than guesswork, debt recovery proceedings commence immediately, and the courts have continually maintained that the onus is on the taxpayer to prove their case and their correct tax position, then of course the cost of fighting the ATO is going to be huge.


To make this not tax deductible is simply ridiculous.


I will give you an example of how ridiculous and expensive audits can be: a few years ago, one of my colleagues was selected for audit. He had been doing alot of driving in a particular year, and the resultant (high) deduction triggered an audit. Fair enough. But the audit quickly blew into a full investigation of every item of income and expenditure this taxpayer had incurred. It took months. The accountant was of great assistance, and because absolutely everything was done correctly, the auditor eventually signed off without a single disallowance.


The accountant had done a huge amount of work and did it very well and efficiently. The bill was, none-the-less, eyewatering. My colleague paid happily in consideration of a job well done.


Guess what happened the following year? My colleague was again selected for an audit. Why? Because he had claimed so much the year before as a deduction for managing his tax affairs.


You would laugh if it wasn’t so frustrating.


Here's a better idea - limit the tax deduction for managing tax affairs by all means, but if the ATO starts an audit, provide the taxpayer a voucher for use on the accountant or lawyer of their choice, equivalent to the ATO's cost of the audit and any appeals (including external lawyers as well as the ATO wages and oncosts). In reality it should be much higher to factor in overheads and the Commissioner's disproportionate purchasing power, but even at only 100% of the ATO’s costs that will be a significantly higher figure than the corresponding deduction.


Or better yet, why don’t we limit the ATO budget for each auditto no more than $3,000, including overheads and a share of fixed costs.

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 23 May 17

Consultation paper September 2016: Proposed changes to penalties for small business and individuals.

The ATO has recently released a consultation paper titled ‘Proposed changes to penalties for small business and individuals.’ More information on the proposed changes can be found on the ATO website.
 

Essentially, under the proposed changes, the ATO will provide ‘one chance’ before applying a penalty in the following circumstances:

  • For certain small businesses and individual clients, the ATO will not apply penalties for false or misleading statements for failure to take reasonable care for errors made in income tax returns and activity statements, and
  • the ATO will not apply failure to lodge on time penalties for late lodgement of income tax returns and activity statements


The ATO is of the opinion that it is open to the Commissioner to exercise his general powers of administration to give effect to these changes, and therefore a law change is not required.

 

The following parameters would apply to this proposal:

  • The one chance policy would be available to small businesses (with turnovers under $2 million) and individuals, subject to some criteria, with eligible taxpayers being informed at the time that the ‘one chance’ opportunity is provided.
  • This policy would not extend to taxpayers who demonstrate reckless or dishonest behaviour, or those who disengage or cease communicating with the ATO during an audit or review
  • Those who receive their one chance will be given a clear explanation of their error, and what they need to do to get things right in the future.
  • After the one chance has been provided, failure to lodge on time penalties would automatically apply if lodgement was not received by the due date.


The ATO claims that this policy is designed to benefit the taxpayer, as the taxpayer will save time and money by, for example, avoiding the need to research penalty information, lodge objections, and of course, release from the penalties that would otherwise be imposed.

 

However, those with a more cynical eye, or those who have more experience in dealing with the ATO, will likely have a different idea about the ATO’s motives, as well as the possible effects of the proposed changes.
 

Firstly, it is possible that these new rules may encourage overzealous auditors to circumvent the one chance policy by pursuing taxpayers for the 50% penalty rate for reckless or dishonest behaviour where they would not have previously.
 

There are also areas of uncertainty which have not yet been addressed by the ATO. Say, for example, that a taxpayer has not lodged their returns for the 2012, 2013, and 2014 financial years. In light of an audit, would the one chance rule apply to all three years, or just to the first year, with penalties then being automatically assessed for the following years?
 

The ATO’s intentions surrounding future penalties after one chance has been given are also cause for concern, particularly in light of the ATO’s statement that,

‘After the one chance opportunity has been provided, failure to lodge on time would automatically apply if lodgement was not received by the due date.’

Whilst according to the legislation penalties do indeed automatically apply, the current opportunity to contact the ATO to explain the reasons for delay seeking an exercise of the Commissioner’s discretion to remit the penalty seems to be closed to a taxpayer who has been given ‘one chance’.
 

A taxpayer with good grounds to be treated leniently would have to pursue more formal legal avenues, which would likely mean greater costs and more time, a result that is antithetical to the ATO’s supposed intentions.
 

While these proposed changes may appear good natured and well-intentioned at first glance, it remains to be seen whether the likely results of the changes will result in a net positive for the taxpayers of Australia.
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 10 October 16

Taxpayer Alerts

 I have blogged before about the change in the ATOs audit and dispute resolution approaches.

While some of this is great (for example, the ATO’s desire to resolve more disputes without going to court), one area that is increasingly concerning me is how the ATO uses Taxpayer Alerts in the audit process.

The ATO says that ..

We issue taxpayer alerts to warn you of our concerns about new or emerging higher risk tax or superannuation arrangements or issues that we have under risk assessment. Our aim is to share our concerns early to help you make informed decisions about your tax affairs.

This is a great concept: getting ahead of the curve and preventing a taxpayer from diving into an aggressive tax avoidance scheme is precisely the sort of pro-active and effective use of scarce resources that taxpayers want to see.

But the reality is that the ATO increasingly is using Taxpayer Alerts as an aggressive audit tool, rather than pro-active engagement.

I have seen a number of recent cases where the ATO has changed its position from established tax rulings and departed from established court judgments and created a new high water mark in a Taxpayer Alert. The ATO then uses this new high water mark as the benchmark to determine whether the taxpayer should be audited, and if so, if an assessment should issue.

This is particularly of a concern where the Taxpayer Alert identifies something that was done years in the past.

I support the use of Taxpayer Alerts when looking at amnesties for those people who may have already engaged in aggressive tax avoidance.

It bothers me greatly when auditors point to a taxpayer alert (particularly one that stretches the application of tax law beyond what is the ATO’s existing position) as justification for commencing an aggressive audit against a taxpayer. When that happens the taxpayer is bewildered, feels victimised and cannot understand why their accountant said that the arrangement was legitimate.

If you have received an audit or notification with reference to a taxpayer alert, please contact me. I am keen to pursue this issue further so that the use of taxpayer alerts is confined to worthwhile, proactive tax administration, not aggressive and ultimately pointless audits.

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 26 July 16

Freezing Orders and Disputed Debts: The Least of All Evils

Tax is a notoriously perplexing area of law.

However, few things are more perplexing than the inconsistent administration of the ATO’s disputed debt recovery policies.

Strictly speaking, the Commissioner is free to take whatever steps whenever he pleases, regardless of the existence of a dispute – in fact, sections 14ZZM and 14ZZR of the Taxation Administration Act 1953 are explicit that liability to pay assessed tax is not suspended because of pending reviews or appeals. This means, once assessments are issued, the Commissioner is entitled to do what is necessary to recover. This is what makes PS LA 2011/4 so important – taxpayers need certainty on what they can expect when an assessment is issued and have a genuine dispute, because the ATO does get it wrong, often with disastrous results.

The ATO’s practice statement PS LA 2011/4 attempts, with very limited success, to define and clarify the circumstances in which the ATO will seek to collect and recover disputed debts. Relevantly, paragraph 43 of PS LA 2011/4 provides the Commissioner of Taxation will agree to deferral of recovery action where the Commissioner considers that a genuine dispute exists in regard to the assessability of an amount, but it is unclear on what terms the Commissioner will agree to do so. The practice statement talks variously about 50/50 arrangements (payments of 50% of the underlying debt) and security, but does not make clear the circumstances in which these will be considered.

Regrettably, I have been involved in many cases where a taxpayer has a genuine dispute, and is later exonerated at the conclusion of legal proceedings, but the Commissioner nevertheless proceeds with one of the many debt recovery options available to him in the interim. These include, for example:

  • Bankruptcy. This ultimately achieves little in the way of recovering revenue, and can be fatal to a taxpayer’s legal challenge to the assessments the Commissioner relies upon to bankrupt the taxpayer, as the taxpayer’s rights to seek review typically vest with the trustee, or liquidator or administrator of a corporate taxpayer.
  • Garnishee notices. These are issued by the Commissioner to third party debtors of the taxpayer, which require the debtors to make payments directly to the Commissioner in lieu of the taxpayer to discharge the taxpayer’s debt. Notices can be issued to a myriad of third parties, including banks and companies. This can severely impact the taxpayer by diverting business profits, proceeds from the sale of real estate, and any number of other debts a taxpayer may rely on for their business and personal use.
  • Departure Prohibition Orders (or DPOs), which prohibit a tax debtor from leaving Australia, regardless of whether or not they intend to return, and can be issued where the Commissioner holds a belief on reasonable grounds that it is desirable to do so.

Of course, all are inevitably hotly contested by the taxpayers involved. This simply creates ancillary and costly legal proceedings that can cripple a taxpayer without contributing to the resolution of the underlying dispute. Wasting scarce resources on contested debt recovery proceedings is not in the interest of the Commonwealth or taxpayers.

If the ATO’s true concern is that the debt may not be recovered at all, and that objection proceedings are just delaying the inevitable, then surely the ATO must accept that something that preserves the status quo addresses all of their concerns. Freezing orders are a way of achieving this.

In my view, rather than bankruptcy, garnishee notices, DPOs, or other such irreversible actions, freezing orders are a far better way of addressing the ATO’s concerns that assets may be dissipated, while still allowing the taxpayer to prosecute their case. Instead of depleting the taxpayer’s assets and depriving them of their means to contest their tax liabilities, freezing orders simply preserve the status quo for a period defined by the court to mitigate the dissipation of assets pending a final determination and judgment. Such orders were employed in the recent case of Deputy Commissioner of Taxation v Greenfield Electrical Services Pty Ltd [2016] FCA 653, as well as a sequence of related proceedings in Deputy Commissioner of Taxation v Chemical Trustee Limited (No 4) [2012] FCA 1064 and Deputy Commissioner of Taxation v Hua Wang Bank Berhad [2010] FCA 1014.

Ultimately though, within the current scheme of the tax law, we rely on the good graces of the Commissioner in such matters, and much of the way a matter progresses through review and court processes depends on the attitude of the Commissioner of the day.

My view is that PS LA 2011/4 would benefit enormously from a safe harbour approach, and in my respectful suggestion, the taxpayer should always be within that safe harbour wherever there was a genuine dispute. Such an approach would reflect the ATO’s reinvention, as perhaps would an overarching statement that the purpose of debt recovery is to collect the correct amount of revenue - and, more often than not, reasonable minds will differ as to what that correct amount is.

Written in collaboration with Nicholas Dodds.

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 08 June 16

External Scrutiny Into the ATO

The house of representatives committee on taxation is currently accepting submissions into the external scrutiny of the ATO. This is after recent comments from the Commissioner of Taxation, Chis Jordan that there is too much scrutiny of the ATO. 

Encouragingly, Liberal Senator, Bronwyn Bishop, has resisted this call, saying that given the ATO’s role is to collect money and this has the potential to effect peoples’ lives, parliamentary scrutiny should remain.

More critically, the power that the ATO has to collect money is virtually unlimited, as I have written about before. This power, coupled with a culture that oscillates between rabidly aggressive (at worst) to uncompromising (at best), means that there is always a real risk that an individual ATO officer will go too far and destroy someone’s life in the meantime. This has happened, and I have personally been involved in many such cases, including cases that are deserving of compensation, so badly has the ATO behaved.

The Inspector General of Taxation, Mr Ali Naroozi, does an excellent job of scrutinizing the ATO, with limited resources. Mr Naroozi is a sensible and appropriately skeptical watchdog and needs more scope to review what the ATO does, not less. It would be an absolute disaster if the parliament was convinced that the ATO should be unsupervised.

If parliament agreed with the Commissioner of Taxation in this regard, the result will only be worse for taxpayers, including in particular those many taxpayers who are ultimately showed to have done nothing wrong. There must be consequences if the Commissioner’s actions cause an individual who has not avoided tax at all to lose their business, their house or worse. This has happened, and must not happen again.
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 22 March 16

Taxpayers Still Guilty Until Proven Innocent

I have written previously on the highly-publicised culture change and reinvention of the ATO, and the steps being taken by Commissioner of Taxation Chris Jordan to modernise the ATO’s approach to review and dispute resolution. However, this has been against the backdrop of the immense debt collection and recovery powers wielded by ATO officers, documented abuses of these powers costing taxpayers their homes and businesses, and recommendations by the Inspector General of Taxation and parliamentary committees to rein in these powers and the potential for their misuse.

In March 2015, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Tax and Revenue issued a report into tax disputes. After hearing stories from taxpayers and tax professionals who have witnessed ATO maladministration and its consequences firsthand, the Committee made a number of recommendations to curb the ATO’s powers.

The biggest and most significant recommendation of all is that the ATO should bear the legal burden of proving an allegation of fraud and evasion on the part of a taxpayer. Where the ATO makes a finding of fraud or evasion, it enables the ATO to go back indefinitely to raise assessments for years long past. This puts the taxpayer on the back foot from the outset by requiring them to disprove whatever nefarious scheme or mischief the ATO can concoct in its imagination, and forces the taxpayer to rely on aged records that may no longer exist in the task.

This is inconsistent with the operation of all other areas of our law, where the party making the allegation is required to prove that allegation – and you are innocent until proven guilty. But not in tax matters.

Surely then, even the ATO can agree that it is at least fair in some circumstances to shift the burden from the taxpayer to the all-knowing, all-seeing taxman, right?

Wrong. In December 2015, the government rejected the Committee’s recommendation out of hand, suggesting that:

“A shift in the burden of proof to the ATO after a certain period has elapsed would be counter-productive and encourage sham behavior by taxpayers associated with fraud and evasion.”

It also suggested that the fact that the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Federal Court consider whether the ATO position on this question is sustainable on the evidence before them in litigation deals adequately with the existence of fraud or evasion.

This is not an explanation that justifies why taxpayers should be unfairly prejudiced. A sham is where someone does something that appears to be one thing, but is actually hiding something else.

The real sham happens when the ATO manufactures a finding of fraud or evasion, without proper evidence, to allow them to tax to someone they do not have the power to assess.

The only real risk is that faced by the ATO: that the ATO would have to do its job better and be accountable to the taxpayer for its actions and decisions, supporting them with proper reasons and proper evidence. Evidently, this is something the government and the ATO are not prepared to do in a meaningful way here.

It seems to me that until the ATO is willing to come to the table and acknowledge the evidence and advice about the misuse of its powers, all the talk of a reinvention and a new way of doing business is exactly that – just talk.
  

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 20 January 16

ATO Annual Report

On 1 December 2015, the ATO released its annual report for 2014-15. The report provides statistics, details and commentary on the ATO’s performance across a number of key areas. It also showcases the ATO’s reinvention and recent switch to a more commercial approach to interaction with taxpayers, with a view to achieving better and more sensible outcomes. At the outset of the report, Commissioner Chris Jordan summarises this new way of thinking in his personal review:


“With the intent of building community trust and confidence, we shifted the way we interact with clients and stakeholders to be more collaborative, more relationship-oriented, more outcome and future-focused.”


The report goes on to list significant achievements of the past year, including improvements to the ATO’s dispute resolution process with early engagement, use of independent facilitators, increased alternative dispute resolution, and new settlement guidelines. Continuing to improve results in prevention and early resolution of disputes is also listed as an ATO goal looking ahead. Indeed, this is reflected in a number of statistics made available in the report:

 

  • The ATO settled over 1,000 cases in the 2014-15 year, compared to around 390 the year before. 84% of these were settled prior to litigation, compared to 77% in the 2013-14 year.
  • Then, in litigious cases, the ATO also settled 80% of all court cases prior to any hearing.

 

This not only reflects the ATO’s new commercial approach to dispute resolution, but also a more measured approach to litigation, and the cases the ATO is prepared to contest. Critically, this saves time and money for all parties, where previously a dispute may have spiralled out of control until a Tribunal or Court decision.

We are involved in many negotiated disputes and applaud the ATO’s reinvention in this respect. However, while the ATO grapples with this transition, remnants of the old ATO mindset remain. This is particularly evident in the continuing aggressive and inappropriate use of wide debt recovery powers, and gung-ho auditors looking to make a good impression.

Ultimately, the 2014-15 annual report shows the ATO is taking steps in the right direction at the executive level, but on the front lines, there is still plenty of work to be done.

            

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 03 December 15

ATO Wiretaps

The Federal Government is seriously considering giving the ATO wiretap powers, or more accurately, powers to access metadata, including stored phone calls, emails and SMSs.

A Government committee has argued that these powers are necessary to protect against serious crime, such as tax fraud, and noted that “Al Capone was caught through the tax system.” I kid you not.

I will leave the critique of an argument that leads from the premise of Al Capone to the conclusion of ATO needing more power to the logicians. My primary concern is that it is absolutely crazy to give the ATO more power when the Inspector General of Taxation and other Federal Government committees have already concluded that the ATO is abusing its current powers.

I have described them as monkeys with machine guns. This will potentially give the monkeys a surface to air missile.

It may surprise people that the ATO does not currently have the power to intercept telecommunications. There is a very good reason for this – the ATO currently must pass on the role of criminal investigation and prosecution to the crime authorities, specifically the Australian Crime Commission and the Australian Federal Police. Those authorities of course have the power to investigate all Federal crimes (including tax fraud), and can access telecommunication to do so.

However, there is a critical oversight role in that any warrant must be approved by a Federal Court judge. While this is quite easy to do in practice, it forces the bodies involved to turn their attention to the existence and seriousness of potential crime.

It is well established that the ATO can use its own significant investigative powers for the purposes of auditing and amending assessments. These powers can be (and are) used without any suspicion of wrongdoing – simply as a fishing expedition. The logic is that this is acceptable as far as it goes, because the ATO is simply raising assessments (although I have huge problems with this power being abused as well).

What happens when the ATO’s wide reaching powers are merged with the kind of powers usually reserved for criminal investigation and then only with the oversight of the courts? The power will be enormous, and the potential for abuse of that power will be correspondingly frightening.

I am genuinely concerned about the impact of these proposed changes on the rights of small businesses and individuals. As always with such measures, it is not the criminals who will be affected – there are already significant powers that can be used appropriately to catch the crooks. The people who will be affected are the kind of people I act for: people who do nothing wrong and are targeted by the ATO because of a data matching computer’s algorithm which no-one truly understands.

This is scary stuff.


  

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 28 September 15

Culture Change & The Reinvention Of The ATO

Anyone who has received an email from the ATO recently will see that their new email sign offs proudly state “We’re Reinventing”. At least sometimes they do - I suspect some ATO officers remove this logo in some correspondence.

And therein lies the problem with cultural change in an organization as large and entrenched as the Australian Taxation Office. I think the Commissioner, Mr Chris Jordan, is brave and visionary in trying to reinvent the ATO into an organization that is more approachable and responsive to taxpayers. A significant number of ATO officers, particularly in the Review and Dispute Resolution (‘RDR’) section of the ATO are on board with this new approach.

I shared a panel with two Assistant Commissioners on Friday 28th August 2015 in Brisbane to discuss RDR’s approach to mediation and their own project, in-house facilitation.

In-house facilitation is a form of mediation run by ATO officers who truly do act independently. I think this is a brilliant innovation and at its best, works very well. I have been involved in several facilitations, all with great success.

I am greatly concerned, however, that the good intentions of the Commissioner and those in RDR and the goodwill being developed by this approach is being eroded by some people within the ATO who do not believe in it. One matter in particular suggests to me that some within the ATO are prepared to walk away from a concluded deal from a mediation.

Hopefully these issues can be resolved and I look forward to hearing from the RDR Assistant Commissioners as to how they hope to address this problem in the future.
  

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 17 September 15

The GST Issue With Uber

The ATO recently announced their view that popular ride-sharing facility Uber is a taxi service for GST purposes. For those who are unaware, Uber is a platform by which private individuals can register and make their own vehicles available to the public, drive passengers to their desired location for a commercial fare, all via a simple smartphone application. While it has enjoyed phenomenal success and is available in 200 cities across 55 countries, this GST ruling is only the latest development in a long list of regulatory hurdles faced by the company.

Typically, businesses with a GST turnover of less than $75,000 are not required to be registered for GST. However, the exception to this rule is found in s 144-5 of the GST Act, which states that if you provide “taxi services” as part of an enterprise, you are required to be registered for GST, regardless of turnover. The ATO identifies three key points underpinning this approach:

First, it avoids the confusion that would arise if some taxis had to charge GST, and some did not;
Second, to avoid the issue of a passenger using a taxi on a business trip, which is a creditable acquisition for GST purposes, and wanting to claim an input tax credit against the GST included in the fare, but potentially being prevented from doing so; and
Third, the state authorities regulating traditional taxi services adjusted all meters to reflect GST after 1 July 2000. If only some drivers were registered for GST but all drivers collected this higher rate, it would disadvantage drivers who had to be registered under the ordinary $75,000 threshold but provided the same service.
This extends to taxi drivers, chauffeur-driven limousines, hire cars, and, now, Uber drivers. This means charging GST, lodging Business Activity Statements, and claiming Input Tax Credits for transactions entered into while providing “taxi services”.

While the object of the section is arguably to promote uniformity in the industry, the decision that Uber is part of this industry suddenly presents a huge compliance burden that did not previously exist for the company and its drivers. The company has since argued it is being unfairly targeted, and to find out whether this is the case, it is necessary to have regard to what precisely it is that the ATO considers a ‘taxi service’.

Guidance can be drawn from ATO ID 2002/23, which notes the term ‘taxi’ is not defined in the GST Act, and so the term should take on its ordinary meaning. To this end, the ATO referred to the Macquarie Dictionary 1997 definition, being ‘a motor car for public hire, especially one fitted with a taximeter.’ Applying this definition to Uber’s method of operation, it is certainly possible to consider Uber cars as being for public hire, and thus taxis for the purposes of the GST Act, with all the responsibilities that entails. By registering and providing your availability, any member of the public looking for a lift can simply request one through the Uber app on their smartphone, and the driver will meet them for pickup and drop off – ironically not dissimilar to the apps now available to request conventional taxis here on the Gold Coast.

It seems that while Uber has tried to take a revolutionary approach to travel-for-hire by pioneering the ride-sharing industry, for GST purposes, it’s actually nothing new at all - at least in the view of the ATO. With Uber strongly foreshadowing a legal challenge in reply, it will be interesting to see whether the courts share the ATO’s view, or whether they limit the scope of the term ‘taxi’ to the traditional metered model, and the impact that such a decision will have on this section of the transportation industry. 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 28 May 15

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Tax & ATO News Australia

Author: David Hughes

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