Tax & ATO News Australia

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Analysing the Systemic Issues Within the ATO

Those of you who have read my rants (blog) know by now my thoughts on the systemic problems within the ATO, but in light of the recent reports by ABC News and Fairfax Media about alleged abusive practices by the ATO, I thought it might be a good time to reiterate.

The alleged abusive practices that are currently in the spot light are not a universal problem, but it is definitely cultural, not an isolated occurrence. There are many officers in the ATO who are reasonable, understanding and work tirelessly to ensure the correct amount of tax is levied and collected. Unfortunately, there are also a significant number of ATO officers who have an institutional bias against tax payers, calling them crooks and cheats, and assuming facts before they are proved.

Regrettably, over many years, I have seen that once a preliminary view is formed, the ATO do not have good systems for reversing that view. The true separation of objection officers from auditors has been successful, in my view, but regrettably debt collection is an entirely separate issue. I have had many matters, including very recent matters, where aggressive debt collection has proceeded (including departure prohibition orders, supreme court proceedings and garnishees) despite there being clear and undisputed evidence that the debt being chased was well in excess of what was genuinely owed.

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.

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 statement made in the Sydney Morning Herald article, that the ATO targets small businesses more than larger ones because the latter have more money to fight back, certainly has a grain of truth to it. There is no doubt that big business has a greater ability to negotiate favourable payment terms compared with small business. The ATO is open about this – they identify the risk of recovery as being a major factor in aggressively pursuing debt collection. The difficultly is that when combined with the conclusive presumption that an assessment is correct, notwithstanding there being genuine grounds to dispute it, a perceived risk of recovery of an incorrect assessment means that small business taxpayers are frequently pursued for debts that are ultimately proved to be wrong. This does not happen at the big end of town.

When analysing the systemic problems at the ATO, there seems to be two things that can be done to set things right;

  • (1) no debt should be pursued while there is a genuine challenge to the validity of the debt; and
  • (2) if a taxpayer incurs costs in setting the record straight because of ATO errors, 100% of the taxpayer’s costs must be reimbursed.

Taxpayers by and large try to do the right thing. Australians are not tax cheats. Tax laws are horrible complex and even the ATO frequently changes its position on issues. Too easily differences in opinion, or even reliance on old ATO’s views, are considered to be ‘tax avoidance’. By all means the ATO should chase those who deliberately flout tax laws with the full force of the law, but don’t call small business owners tax cheats when they are trying their best to interpret on the fly laws which are neither simple nor well explained. If a mistake occurs, or there is a difference in interpretation, give small business owners the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to sort through the issues without the threat of aggressive debt collection and financial destruction. 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 10 April 18

Franking Credit Proposed Changes

Politicians just cannot help mucking around with tax laws. I am not the first person to talk about this, and right now I am obviously not the only person, as the Federal Opposition’s latest thought bubble on refunding franking credits is roundly and rightly criticised.


In the interests of fairness and balance, I want to talk about another ill-thought out and retrospective proposed change which the current Federal Government is planning to make to small business concessions. But before I do that, just one quick comment in relation to the Opposition’s franking credit problem that I have not seen anyone make. Bear with me – this is a bit mathsy:


The Opposition’s proposal is that the government will stop drawing cheques to people who receive franking credits in excess of their taxable income. Practically, as has dominated the press in recent days, this targets self funded retirees who received franked dividends from companies, but do not have large taxable incomes because they are receiving tax-free superannuation pensions. The theory apparently being, well hey, they are not going to vote ALP anyway. So far, so cynical. And to someone who doesn’t understand how franking credits work, it kind of makes sense: why should the Government be sending out cheques to all of these wealthy old people?


But here’s the rub – there is absolutely zero difference to the budget bottom line whether a rebate is represented by a payment from the government or a reduction in tax payable by a tax payer. In either case, this is money that government does not have.


To give you the example, take two people: Vince a self funded retiree with a self managed superannuation fund with $1,000,000 of Australian blue chip shares in it, and a Federal Politician with a randomly selected salary of $375,588 per annum and the same number of shares. We’ll call him Bill. Let’s ignore Bill’s perks and any other tax breaks – I have never acted for a Federal politician in a tax matter, and frankly I’m happy to keep it that way.


Vince receives fully franked dividends of $50,000 per annum. The way franking credits work is that is cash of $35,000 and franking credits of $15,000. Vince therefore has pension income of $50,000, from which he is exempt from tax. Under the current system the franking credits are refunded to him, so he gets $15,000 from the Federal Govt. This is what the Opposition wants to stop.


Bill on the otherhand is on the top marginal tax rate. He pays lots of tax – if you ignore his fully franked dividend of $50,000 (same as Vince’s) he pays $142,246.60 in tax (before medicare levy). But watch how Bill’s full franked dividend of $50,000 is treated. He gets the same amount of cash - $35,000. But as a result of the franking credit, his tax bill only increases to $149,746.60. If he didn’t get the franking credit, his tax would have been $164,746.60.


In other words, Bill gets the full use of the Franking Credit, because he pays $15,000 less tax than he otherwise would, whereas Vince misses out on the benefit completely. Put in reverse, the Federal coffers pick up $15,000 from Vince, the pensioner on $35k per annum, but don’t get the $15,000 from Bill, the politician on $275,746, after tax.

 

Not very fair is it?


My good intentions of providing balance must be sacrificed on the altar of brevity. I have already gone on too long. I will criticise the Government in Part 2.
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 19 March 18

Walsh and Commissioner of Taxation [2018] AATA 235

In the decision of Walsh v Commissioner of Taxation, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal examines an applicant for review by a taxpayer of a decision of the Commissioner not to revoke a Departure Prohibition Order issued. Deputy President Molloy ordered that the Departure Prohibition Order be revoked on the basis its continuation did not serve the intended purpose and intrusion imposed on the taxpayer outweighed the protection of revenue.

 

Following an audit of the taxpayer’s affairs conducted by the Australian Taxation Office, the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation (‘DCT’) issued amended assessments and notices of assessments of administrative penalties for the financial years ended 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008, on the basis that:

 

  • a sham arrangement existed between an Australian resident company and a company registered in Vanuatu, and monies transferred were the taxpayer’s assessable income; and
  • amounts credited in the loan account of the Australian resident company were deemed dividends and thus assessable income.


On 30 November 2010, the taxpayer objected to the assessment and on 10 August 2012 the Commissioner affirmed its decision. Accordingly, the taxpayer sought review of the decision on 9 October 2012, which was subsequently withdrawn and dismissed.


On 20 August 2015, the Commissioner issued a Departure Prohibition Order (‘DPO’) on the basis the taxpayer had a tax liability of $1,692,445.73, and that he failed to make an arrangement to pay his tax liability and there was a risk to revenue.


Subsequently, the DCT initiated proceedings in the Queensland Supreme Court to recover the tax liability and obtained a default judgement against the taxpayer.


On 2 December 2015, the taxpayer applied for revocation of the DPO, but the information provided by the taxpayer was not to the satisfaction of the Commissioner of Taxation (‘Commissioner’) to allow the revocation.


On 4 January 2017, pursuant to debtor’s petition, trustees of the taxpayer’s bankrupt estate were appointed.
The taxpayer sought to have the Tribunal review the Commissioner’s decision not to revoke the DPO on the basis of three grounds.

 

The DPO was no longer lawful


It was contended by the taxpayer that pursuant to the Bankruptcy Act 1966 the taxpayer could not be subject to the DPO as a creditor cannot enforce any remedy against a bankrupt person in respect of a provable debt.


Conversely, the Commissioner contended the notion that no bankrupt who was at the time of the bankruptcy in debt to the Commissioner could ever be subject to a DPO had been rejected by the Federal Court in Edelsten v Federal Commissioner of Taxation.


Ultimately, the Tribunal was not satisfied that the DPO was rendered unlawful by virtue of the taxpayer’s bankruptcy.

 

Continuation of the DPO does not serve the purpose


The Tribunal observed that the central purpose of Part IVA of the Taxation Administration Act 1953 (‘TAA’) is the prevention of persons with tax liability leaving Australia, where in the Commissioner’s belief reasonably arrived at, the recovery would or might thereby be impaired.


It was observed that the DPO had been in place for two years, over that time no contributions to revenue were made and the taxpayer did not have assets to pay the tax debt. Additionally, even if the DPO was set aside, the trustees would still control possession of the taxpayer’s passport and his ability to depart Australia.


In all the circumstances, the Tribunal was not satisfied the departure of the taxpayer from Australia would make it less likely that his tax liability will be discharged in either whole or part, or that the Commissioner’s ability to recover the tax would be impaired. Accordingly, the Tribunal found that the purpose of the legislation would not be met by the continuation of the DPO.

 

Freedom of movement


The Tribunal referred to Poletti v Commissioner of Taxation, where the Full Federal Court commented that the ‘severe intrusion’ of a DPO upon an individual’s ‘liberty, privacy and freedom of movement’ must be balanced against the protection of the revenue.


As the taxpayer’s principal place of resident was in the United States of America with his wife and young daughter, the Tribunal accepted the DPO operated as a particularly severe intrusion on his freedom of movement.


The Commissioner in relying on Troughton v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation (‘Troughton’) submitted that the factors concerning the personal hardship on the taxpayer and his family do not justify the revocation, but a consideration relevant for a Departure Authorisation Certificate under s 14U TAA.


However, the Tribunal found the comments in Troughton were directed to the facts and circumstances of that case and not made with the intention of laying down any principle of general application.


The Tribunal noted that the discretion to under s 14T(2) TAA to revoke a DPO is wide in terms. Accordingly, the Tribunal found it unlikely that the legislative intention behind exercising that discretion would allow the decision maker to ignore the impact the continuation of the DPO would have on the taxpayer and his family.


On this basis, the Tribunal found that the taxpayer’s family circumstances would weigh heavily in favour and against the continuation of the DPO.

 

Co-authored with Ben Caratti
 

Posted in: Tax & ATO News Australia at 28 February 18

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

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Author: David Hughes

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