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  • Tax professionals: the big picture

    Find out how we work with and for tax professionals:

    Working with tax professionals

    We are committed to making it as easy as possible for you to work with us and help your clients.

    In 2018, 75% of individuals and 95% of businesses lodged their tax returns through a tax professional.

    Our message to individuals and businesses is clear and promotes choice – either self-prepare or use a registered tax or BAS agent.

    We have a dedicated focus on:

    • providing tax professionals with the right information when they need it
    • maintaining and enhancing our relationship with tax professionals.

    Working with you and your profession

    Support for tax professionals includes:

    • face-to-face open forums
    • livestream webcasts
    • weekly newsletters
    • social media channels
    • providing speakers for events and discussion groups.

    We continue to consult and co-design products and services with tax professionals. In 2018 over 750 tax professionals were consulted on more than 70 different matters including:

    • Single Touch Payroll
    • Online services for agents
    • the myGovID and Relationship Authorisation Manager
    • Cash Flow Coaching Kit
    • Digital substantiation.

    Consultation and engagement

    We have two main consultation groups that include members from the professional associations and individual agents – the Tax Practitioner Stewardship Group and the BAS Agent Association Group. These groups meet three to four times a year.

    We deliver 45 Open Forums every year across the country. These forums provide you with an opportunity to raise questions and discuss our latest updates and changes.

    The forum's current focus includes:

    • Single Touch Payroll
    • Online services for agents
    • myGovID.

    We encourage tax professionals to visit ATO Community which provides a forum to engage other tax professionals to find answers or ask questions about tax and super in a positive and productive way.

    We work collaboratively with agents to develop and co-design new products and services to ensure it meets the needs of tax professionals.

    Using technology to enhance interactions

    We are co-designing new products and services with the tax profession to cater for a modernised tax landscape.

    Over six million taxpayers interact with us online and more than 98% of individual tax returns are lodged electronically. We are introducing new digital systems and services for better resilience, capability and performance.

    Online services for agents

    A recent comparison of our digital services with 15 other tax revenue agencies found we offer the best online service for agents. We are committed to continually improving your digital experience, and have listened to feedback on issues with existing portals. To address this feedback we are refining functionality through a new, modern and intuitive platform.

    Online services for agents is our new, secure and more stable system for you to access services you currently use in the tax and BAS agent portals. Our new system is available in public beta and you can access it using any of our existing portal links. Access the Tax Agent or BAS Agent PortalExternal Link to take a look and start using the system, which includes new functionality not available in the portals. Tell us what you think by using the Give us feedback link at the bottom of each screen.

    We retained features that you have told us you like in the portals. Many new services and features are also available in Online services for agents, including the ability to:

    • use predictive search to find a client by name
    • work across multiple windows on different client records at one time
    • access your clients' processed tax returns from 2010 onwards, even if you didn't prepare or lodge the return on their behalf
    • set up payment plans for outstanding debts where eligibility requirements are met
    • check and monitor the progress of your clients' tax return in real time without needing to contact us.

    We are also making available similar functionality to digital service providers to include in their software.

    The existing tax and BAS agent portals will remain available to enable agents to transition to the new service gradually.

    Practitioner lodgment service

    The practitioner lodgment service (PLS) is your main electronic lodgment channel through your Standard Business Reporting-enabled software.

    The PLS provides the foundation for future enhanced services in your software.

    We will continue to work with you and your digital service providers to improve your digital service offer.

    See also:

    Single Touch Payroll

    Single Touch Payroll (STP) is a reporting change for employers that allows them to report payments at the same time they pay their employees. We are working with you to support the transition to STP as we know this is a big change for you and your clients.

    STP reporting started gradually on 1 July 2018 for substantial employers (those with 20 or more employees) as STP reporting solutions became available. As of January 2019, about 60% of substantial employers have come on board, covering approximately 4.5 million employees.

    The law to expand STP to small employers, with 19 or less employees, has been passed in parliament. They’ll need to start reporting any time from 1 July to 30 September 2019. If they need more time to get ready, they’ll be able to apply for a later start date. Small employers can start reporting any time before 1 July if they’re ready.

    Changes STP will deliver

    Employers will report payments such as wages, PAYG withholding and super information to us via their payroll solution at the same time they pay their employees.

    Some employers may need to update their payroll solution (accounting software) or choose STP-enabled software to report to us.

    Super funds will be required to report the payment of super contributions more frequently. Together with STP, this will give us better visibility of unpaid super.

    We know many employers will want to discuss these changes with a registered tax or BAS agent, so we are working together to deliver the transition to STP.

    How we manage debt

    We want to prevent debt where possible and make it easy for you and your clients to meet their obligations.

    If a debt arises for your client, we want to engage with you early to help them manage it.

    This includes helping you and your clients by:

    • working with accounting and bookkeeping professional associations and firms to roll-out the Cash Flow Coaching Kit to you for your small business clients across Australia
    • replacing the ageing tax and BAS agent portals with Online services for agents, a system which has been co-designed with the profession to improve your experience
    • improving our website to make it easy to find what you are looking for and simple to understand
    • delivering more dedicated communications to tax professionals on payment and debt processes
    • co-designing shareable resources with tax professionals
    • hosting regular Open Forums and Key Agent visits.

    It's important we work together to encourage taxpayers to contact us if there is an issue and deal with things before they escalate. We can help tax professionals’ clients with a debt through:

    • tailored payment plans
    • release from payment in cases of serious hardship.

    We will continue to improve and refine our approach in line with the recommendations of these reviews.

    If clients get into debt

    A client’s experience will depend on their tax circumstances and previous payment behaviour. Two clients with a debt may experience different approaches, including:

    • early action – we engage early to support and assist taxpayers to address a debt while it is manageable
    • firmer action – for the minority that don't engage with us, we will take firmer action to prevent an unfair financial advantage
    • stronger actions – we may take stronger legal action to recover a debt, exercising the same rights available to any other creditor.

    Working with collection agencies

    We refer some debts to external debt collection agencies for collection on our behalf. It's important to remember:

    • we do not sell the debts and they always remain payable to the ATO
    • we do not pay external collection agencies a commission – they are paid on a fee-for-service basis
    • we make sure they provide a professional service and their negotiations with clients should be of the highest quality
    • external collection agencies use taxpayer nominated contact details and should only contact the taxpayer or their nominated representative between 8:00am and 8:00pm Monday–Friday.
    • external collection agencies do not undertake legal recovery. Once a debt is referred to a collection agency the referral will usually stay with them for 90 days. They will contact the taxpayer or their nominated representative to seek payment or entry into a payment plan. If that does not occur the debt is returned to us and we continue collection action.

    Support and assistance

    We recognise taxpayers can experience challenging economic conditions, mental health issues or unexpected events. We will look at your client's situation and work with you to find a solution.

    We can offer a range of options including:

    • remitting penalties or interest charged during the time your client has been affected
    • offering payment plans tailored to your client's individual circumstances, including interest-free periods
    • releasing your client from some or all of a tax bill when certain criteria are met.

    In 2017–18 we negotiated 1.1 million payment plans, an increase of 150,000 from the previous year. Of this, 790,000 were for small businesses.

    For taxpayers experiencing serious hardship we gave full or partial release from payment in 2,174 cases.

    Records for April 2018 show we have 4,300 disputes on hand – 0.0003% of all taxpayers. Less than 5% of these have recovery action underway. In recent years we have:

    • increased the amount for payment plans via our automated phone service from $25,000 to $100,000
    • accepted direct debit payment plans over the phone from tax agents or authorised representatives where there is no existing direct debit request authority
    • enabled sole traders to set up plans to pay debts up to $100,000 via ATO online for both income tax and activity statement debts.

    Managing disputes and settlements

    The number of appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) against our decisions dropped more than 60% in five years – from 922 in 2013–14 to 342 in 2017–18.

    Our approach has:

    • meant that 85% of tax litigation decisions in 2016–17 were favourable to us.
    • seen a 30% reduction in the time taken to resolve a dispute since 2016–17.

    In 2017–18 more than 36.5 million returns were lodged, from these:

    • 361,107 (1%) adjustments from audits were made
    • 24,350 (0.07%) objections were received
    • 478 (0.001%) cases were lodged to courts/tribunals
    • 102 (0.0004%) cases proceeded to decision.

    We have a number of services to help resolve disputes, which tax professionals can recommend to their clients, including:

    • free in-house facilitation
    • a test case litigation program
    • dispute assist
    • settlement.

    The use of settlements as a form of alternative dispute resolution is part of our commitment to earlier and more effective dispute resolution.

    Free in-house facilitation service

    In-house facilitation is a free mediation service for less complex disputes. It can be requested by taxpayers, their representatives, or their ATO case officer.

    In 2017–18, we received almost 250 referrals for in-house facilitation from individuals and small business taxpayers, almost twice as many as received in 2016–17. Nearly all of our free in-house facilitations in 2017–18 were able to partially or fully resolve the dispute.

    Test case litigation

    Our test case litigation program provides financial assistance to taxpayers where litigation outcomes will clarify the law and develop legal precedent where there is an issue that:

    • requires law clarification
    • affects a significant section of the public
    • has considerable commercial effects for an industry.

    Dispute assist

    Dispute assist is a new, free service supporting unrepresented individuals and individuals in businesses where significant personal circumstances have contributed to their dispute. The service provides an independent, experienced disputes guide, who provides support and assistance through the process.

    Penalty relief initiative

    We are improving our processes to make it easier for taxpayers to get things right and to ensure a fair and consistent approach to the way we administer penalties. Our penalty relief initiative is assisting eligible small businesses with a turnover of less than $10million and individuals, to understand where they made an error and how to get it right in the future, instead of applying a penalty.

    In its first six months from 1 July 2018, penalty relief reduced false or misleading statement penalties for failure to take reasonable care by 83.8% for small business and 89.2% for individuals.

    See also:

    What attracts our attention

    We want to provide appropriate guidance to taxpayers on the behaviour we expect of them, and what behaviour would raise concern.

    Law companion rulings and Practical compliance guidelines are available for more guidance.

    Law companion rulings

    Law companion rulings (LCR) are released as soon as the Bill becomes law. They give certainty on our view of the law at the earliest stage. Public rulings are binding advice, they express our interpretation of the laws we administer.

    To be protected by an LCR, you must have relied on it in good faith. If you rely on a LCR in good faith, you will be protected (as a normal public ruling) in relation to underpaid tax, penalties or interest.

    Practical compliance guidelines

    These go beyond our usual interpretation of tax law. They provide useful insights into practical implications, and our administrative approaches, and contain clear statements of how they can be relied upon by taxpayers.

    They clearly outline a range of low-risk behaviours that are unlikely to attract scrutiny.

    Last modified: 02 Jun 2020QC 57214