Tax & ATO News Australia

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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

The Simple Solution to Solve the Budget

I have had an epiphany.

I can solve the budget shortfall for the Federal Government by showing the Treasurer how to raise unlimited revenue. My plan is simple. The legislation is already in place and the Courts and the AAT have shown us that it is possible.

We are going to tax dead people.

I am not talking about an estate tax, or death duty. That would be politically unpopular.

No, what I am proposing is that the ATO issue default assessments under s167 of the ITAA 36 to every single person who has died in Australia since 1936. How can the Government do this, you wonder? That’s the beautiful part of my plan – all the ATO has to do is to make a determination under s170 that every deceased tax payer avoided tax due to fraud or evasion. Then the ATO can go as far back as it likes and raise new assessments.

The Courts have said time and again in cases like Rigoli and Futuris that the ATO does not even need to try very hard to come up with a figure. They just need to have a bit of an educated guess and then it’s up to the taxpayer to prove that this figure is wrong.

So each deceased taxpayer can get a tax assessment for, say, $10m. Section 177 means that’s proof they owe the tax. And the proof of tax evasion? Well, the ATO doesn’t need to prove that either. That’s up to the taxpayer too. If a figleaf of justification was required (and it’s not, according to the Courts) the ATO will say what it always does in such cases – any taxpayer who owed such a large amount of money must have known they had more tax to pay. Ergo they deliberately understated their taxable income, ergo tax evasion.

Cheating non-taxpaying bastards. We’d lock them up if they weren’t already dead. On the otherhand, fortunately for the Government, being dead makes it hard for the taxpayer to prove their case. If there is a material witness to a question of fact, Jones v Dunkel says you have to produce them to give that evidence or risk an adverse factual finding. And no-one is more material to a question of tax evasion by a taxpayer than the taxpayer him or herself.

The plan is foolproof. Naturally it’s extremely unlikely any money will be collected from estates that have already been distributed and finalised, but quite alot of people will probably cough up a couple of million each to save the cost and expense of having to fight a losing battle against the ATO, with their unlimited litigation budgets.

This was right in front of our eyes the whole time. The Courts and the AAT have already sanctioned it, as recently as last week. Check out this if you don’t believe me.

Well, that’s that problem solved. I’m off to the middle east next to solve that little pickle by introducing effective Workplace Health and Safety Laws.
  

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 09 July 15

TAXPAYERS STRIKE BACK

Federal Government slams the ATO approach to tax disputes.

The Federal Government yesterday published a bi-partisan report into the ATO’s conduct of tax disputes. I gave evidence to the House of Representatives committee on this issue last year, much of which was extensively quoted in the report. The report is damning of the ATO’s conduct in tax disputes. Unsurprisingly, I whole heartedly agree, and also I agree with the recommendations.

As any of you who have followed my rantings (sorry, my blog) over the years will know I have been banging on about this forever, for those of you who haven’t, strap yourselves in, it’s a pretty wild ride!

Currently Australia has a reverse onus of proof in tax matters. The ATO just has to say “we think you owe $1m in tax” and then the taxpayer has the job to prove that’s wrong. Actually, it’s even harder than that, it’s also the taxpayers’ job to prove what the right income is, not just that the ATO was wrong. So taxpayers are guilty until they prove themselves innocent. Yes, you read that right, we live in a country where you are guilty until proven innocent (at least as far as tax disputes go). Surely I am not alone in feeling incensed by this disregard of one of our most fundamental principles of law.

This has all kind of ramifications, when you consider the cost of litigation to prove yourself in court, which significantly favours the ATO (who have huge litigation budgets, and full time staff to do nothing else, who aren’t likely to be personally ruined by the outcome). But the cost is not just monetary, the time and stress of this process takes its toll too.

In the words of Bert van Manen MP* “The committee received evidence that taxpayers suffer enormous emotional stress. Disputes can contribute to marriages breaking-up,”

Add into this the fact that the ATO can, and does, commence debt recovery proceedings to take people’s property, bankrupt them, stop them travelling overseas and seize their bank accounts as soon as the assessment is raised, and before the matter is proved in court. Many of my clients have had problems with this, which I’ve blogged about over the years.

Worse still are allegations of evasion.

This is all about how long the ATO has to review your assessment. Generally, the ATO has four years (for SME type taxpayers) to amend an assessment – once you are outside that four year period, you are safe. But the ATO has an out – if they say that there has been fraud or evasion (ie deliberate action by the taxpayer to understate their taxable income), then the ATO can amend at any time going back well beyond four years.

The problem with this is that the onus is still on the taxpayer to prove their position – now how do you prove that you did not deliberately understate your tax? And bear in mind that you only have to keep records for five years, what happens when the ATO wants to go back ten years? How do you prove your position then?

Example;

The ATO says,“you received this $100k into your bank account in 2001 we’re going to call that your income and because you deliberately failed to disclose it in your tax return, we will assess you and now you owe us (with plus penalties and interest), $300k””

You reply, “But it was given to me by my grandmother just before she died”

They say, “Prove it”.

If you can’t prove it – because there’s no paperwork – then you are in serious trouble.

The issue as I put it to the Committee is that,

“there are still too many ATO officers whom I would describe as zealots and who seem to approach their duties as auditors or objection officers or debt collectors as though all self-employed people or business owners are tax cheats and should not be believed.
…In too many cases that I see, an ATO auditor will form a very early conclusion about the bona fides of a taxpayer. After that view is formed, no amount of evidence or legal submissions can convince some auditors that amended assessments should not issue to increase the amount of tax payable.”

Not surprisingly some of the claims made by others during the inquiry were that ATO auditors exhibited ‘digging-in’ or intransigence, becoming emotionally invested, not being prepared to accept that a taxpayer could be right on a matter of fact and bringing up trivial issues late in an audit after the taxpayer rebuts the initial ATO position.

The issue that doesn’t get spoken about enough is the toll this takes on a person’s mental and emotional health, there was evidence given during the inquiry that was quite frankly heart-breaking.

“Mr Pilgrim, a retired builder, stated that the dispute had a substantial negative effect on both his marriage and his business:
We went from 2007 through to 2010. The whole of our life was put on hold. My business suffered because I did not know from one day to the next whether I was going to be in business–I didn’t know if the ATO was going to send me bankrupt. It cost me my business and also my marriage, that part of it… I spent months backwards and forwards with the ATO, disputing the facts with my figures. That is why they reduced it back to that amount of money.

Ms Judy Sullivan from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) advised that taxpayers have committed suicide at the conclusion of a tax dispute:

I am sure you will be hearing from a number of taxpayers about the emotional toll of these sorts of things. I have had clients in the past who have committed suicide after coming out the other end of an audit for a very serious allegation that was in fact settled. There is stress on families because of the length of time and things like that. You see a lot of marriage break-ups and emotional stress from these sorts of allegations.”

In response to this evidence, Commissioner Chris Jordan stated, ‘We do know that delays in dispute resolution have real, physical and sometimes paralysing impacts for business and individuals.’ And Second Commissioner Andrew Mills had this to say, ‘For those who have been adversely affected by our poor handling of their disputes, I would like to extend my sincere apologies.

It’s a great start, and I do appreciate the recent improvement in the ATO’s handling of tax disputes but it has to translate to all ATO employees. There are still far too many recalcitrants from the old school of zealotry, and until these zealots are forced to embrace the new ATO approach, lives will still be destroyed.

Legislative change is needed. With the release of the Tax Disputes Report, finally, the government recognises this need. Amongst its 20 recommendations, one of the proposed changes is a recommendation to reverse the burden of proof position, so the responsibility is on the ATO, forcing it to prove that you committed tax evasion – that is, that you deliberately did something to reduce your income.

“Recommendation 7
The Committee recommends that the Government introduce legislation to place the burden of proof on the Australian Taxation Office in relation to allegations of fraud and evasion after a certain period has elapsed. The change should be harmonised with the record keeping requirements. These periods could be extended, subject to concerns of regulatory costs on business and individuals.”
This is a massive step in the right direction as it will make the ATO actually look for real evidence of wrong-doing, rather than just make the assessment and leave it to the taxpayer to prove.

In the report you will be able to read the evidence I gave during the inquiry, stating my belief that “under current laws and systems, it is too easy for the ATO’s powers to be misapplied”. This is obviously something that I feel very strongly about, and I will be pursuing this over the coming months, and I hope you will bear with me as I rant about it in future articles.

I sincerely hope that these recommendations are quickly adopted by parliament and legislation is quickly introduced and passed.


*Committee Chair of The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Tax and Revenue

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 27 March 15

ATO's power to amend assessments is subject to certain time limits BUT they can (and do) extend

The Australian tax system operates as a self-assessment system. This means that when you lodge your tax return, the ATO accepts the information in the return at face-value and issues you with an assessment notice based on that information. However, this does not mean that the assessment is final as the ATO can conduct an audit and amend your assessment. Fortunately, the ATO’s power to amend assessments is subject to certain time limits.

 

For most individuals, the ATO has two years to amend an assessment after the taxpayer has received the notice of assessment. The two year period also applies to companies, trusts and partnerships which carry on a small business entity. A small business entity is a business with an aggregate turnover of less than $2million in a financial year.
 
However, if an individual, company, trust or partnership carries on a business that is not a small business entity, then the period extends to four years.
 
It is important to note that the ATO has the power to amend an assessment at any time if the Commissioner of Taxation is of the opinion that there has been fraud or evasion. The problem with this rule is that it is subjective as it is based on the Commissioner of Taxation’s opinion.
 
One of my clients is faced with a situation where the ATO has amended his assessment nine years after the notice of assessment was issued based on the fact that the Commissioner of Taxation is of the opinion that there was evasion. The onus of proof rests with my client. Therefore, my client has to prove that there was no evasion.
 
Generally, it is not necessary to keep records indefinitely, but as the ATO has the power to allege tax evasion and assess you retrospectively, you should strongly consider keeping records, at least in electronic form, for longer periods than are legally required.
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 15 April 13

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Tax & ATO News Australia

Author: David Hughes

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