Tax & ATO News Australia

Searching for tag: taxpayers

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

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

New Powers For ATO

I'm sure by now you have seen the recent press releases by the Tax Commissioner and the Assistant Treasurer announcing the Government's intention to provide the Commissioner with a statutory remedial power that will allow for resolution of certain unforeseen or unintended outcomes in taxation and superannuation law. If not, here is the original media release by the office of the Assistant Treasurer;

The Government is committed to providing more certainty and better outcomes for taxpayers and reducing the regulatory burden on individuals, business and community organisations. The complexity of Australia’s tax law, combined with evolving business practices, has increasingly led to unintended outcomes. Even though the Commissioner of Taxation endeavours to interpret the law to give effect to its purpose or object, there are instances where this is not possible.

To address this, the Government will provide the Commissioner with a statutory remedial power to allow for a more timely resolution of certain unforeseen or unintended outcomes in the taxation and superannuation law.This will allow the Commissioner to make a disallowable legislative instrument that will have the effect of modifying the operation of the taxation and superannuation law to ensure the law can be administered to achieve its purpose or object.

There are similar legislative instruments making powers in Commonwealth law currently granted to the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) and also the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC). The power will be appropriately limited in its application and will only apply to the extent that it has a beneficial outcome for taxpayers. It will only be available where the modification is not inconsistent with the purpose or object of the law and has no more than a negligible revenue impact. The Commissioner will consult publicly prior to any exercise of the power. This power provides a mechanism to deal with some aspects of complexity in the tax law, and provides more certainty and better outcomes for taxpayers. Josh Frydenberg, Assistant Treasurer.


My perspective on this announcement of new powers for the ATO, and the intention to correct any deficiencies in taxation and superannuation law, is that the law is complex, as we all know, and quite often unintended loopholes operate against taxpayers.

I have been involved in a number of cases, particularly involving superannuation, where it was clear that no mischief was done, but the tax law punished the taxpayer anyway. In most of those cases, the ATO has told me that they would love to help, but their hands are tied because the legislation won’t let them assist. In all cases we worked our way through it, but it was messy and took more time than it should have.

This new legislation will give the ATO power to correct those kind of unintended consequences where the legislation falls down. There are safeguards, thankfully, which require the ATO to only exercise its power to the benefit of taxpayers.

There will be legal purists who will quibble about providing the ATO with powers to make laws, even when those laws are beneficial to taxpayers, as arguable breaching the doctrine of separation of powers between the executive and the legislative arms of government. Overall, however, I think this is a sensible approach and as long as it is closely watched, should only be beneficial to taxpayers. 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 04 May 15

Corporate tax avoidance – what does Apple’s tax bill have to do with us?

On the face of it, the clever, multi-jurisdictional structures of companies like Apple and Google seem a clear case of corporate tax avoidance, and the Federal Govt in Australia appears justified in trying to stamp it out. Many reports and newspaper articles loudly proclaim that companies like Apple are only paying in the order of $193m tax in Australia on $27b revenue.

But like all things in tax, politics and computer design, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Firstly, there are a lot of moving parts in Apple’s international structure, which it must be stressed is completely legal.

Apple and other multinationals have simply done exactly what countries like Ireland and Singapore wants it to do: that is, bring its business to those countries in exchange for low corporate tax rates. It seems more than a little sanctimonious to criticise Apple for doing precisely what a sovereign country has encouraged it to do.

Or should we criticise Ireland for offering lower tax rates to attract the business? That would be odd, seeing as Australia (and most other countries) do a version of the same thing.

If Australia were striving to develop a healthy economy and thriving/robust society after years of internal turmoil and struggle, wouldn’t we as Australians want to try and find ways to attract investment and innovation to our shores?

Secondly, the law of unintended consequences is definitely something to watch. The Government’s own Parliamentary Budget Office has warned that unilateral diverted profits tax (a so called “Google Tax”) could lead to other countries imposing higher taxes on Australian businesses abroad in retribution.

Commentators and politicians tend to constantly overlook a fundamental feature of international taxation – profits are taxed at the source of the good or service, not where it is consumed. To be fair, commentators are not alone in overlooking this – the ATO has forgotten this on occasion as well, as the High Court case of Crown Insurance Limited, which I ran, shows.

The Managing Director of Google Australia, Maile Carnegie, clearly explained the issue by reversing the argument at the Senate Hearings this week:

“If you look at someone like Rio Tinto, they have 35 per cent of their customer base in China, but less than 1 per cent of their tax in China ... Google has a similar structure.”

Thirdly, as the Commissioner of Taxation has recently commented, major multinationals like Google and Apple are in continual dialogue with the ATO about specific items of income and deductions and are almost continually audited. These are frequently questions on which reasonable minds can differ, but the big companies have ample resources to properly argue their case with appropriate evidence, obtained in real time. In the words of Apple’s Tony King, "All our costs of doing business are reported in our books, and we buy products from affiliate companies outside of Australia. Apple has been operating in Australia for more than 30 years, and we now employ over 2,000 people here."

Transfer pricing is a well established mechanism by which multi-national companies are correctly taxed on the profit sources in specific countries. While Australia’s transfer pricing taxation regime is far from perfect, it is at least a well know, internationally accepted model that works.

As any business owner will tell you, one of the main objectives in how they run their business is how to remain competitive in a rapidly changing world, specifically, how to maintain profitability. Is it fair to expect any less from organisations like Google and Apple just because of their sheer size?

Google’s rep Maile Carnegie puts it this way, "I guess my answer to that one is that fundamentally, Google does not structure itself based on tax, it structures itself based on being competitive. We are not opposed to paying tax. What we're opposed to is being uncompetitive. And just like Australia needs to compete with Singapore or Ireland or the US or the UK for various things, we need to compete with the people sitting at this table as well as Tencent in China, as well as Ali Baba, who is now incorporated in the US. So we structure ourself to be competitive.”

Would you expect business owners or managers to respond in any other way?

Let’s take a moment here to consider the possible consequences.

My great concern is that taxes cannot be targeted at specific entities. Taxes that are introduced with the justification of a specific set of circumstances, quite frequently end up targeting taxpayers with completely different profiles.

So if the Treasurer introduces new legislation as a populist measure to counter the tax structuring of Apple and Google, we should all be very concerned to ensure that it does not end up catching ordinary Australian SME companies trading overseas. As we have seen, the consequences of poorly designed and administered tax can be incredibly damaging for individual taxpayers. These consequences should not be risked simply to grab a good headline that will have no other positive effect.

Putting it a little plainly.

Bad laws make bad results for the wrong people. The simple truth is that the more technical and complicated laws that are created, the more lawyers and accountants get paid to find loopholes (which we will, because greater complexity always results in greater loopholes) and you end up with an expensive cumbersome unworkable system that big companies with expansive legal budgets will always successfully exploit. Which of course greatly increases the chances of accidentally catching a little fish – the SME taxpayer – who cannot afford Apple’s lawyers and never thought for one second that the Google Tax would apply to them.


And don’t get me started on the possibility of retaliatory trade practices, identified by the parliamentary budget office, that’s for another article. 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 10 April 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

Share


Tax & ATO News Australia

Author: David Hughes

Last 12 months

Tags