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  • Preface

    I would like to start this history with a few short comments about the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and the people I have met while researching and writing its history. I want to note that these people, many of whom are named below, greatly assisted me, but carry no responsibility for what is written in this account.

    The ATO is one of those organisations we all know about and all have to deal with, but it is an organisation we know very little about. We know about tax, everyone with an income knows about tax, but when we think about the organisation that collects it, what do we think of? Personally, I knew nothing. I write out cheques to the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation but had no idea who that person was. Like most people these days, I deal with the ATO through a tax agent, and I assumed that they knew everything there is to know about the ATO. When I talked to my agent, however, I discovered that he knew a lot about tax, tax law and ATO processes, but almost nothing about the ATO itself.

    I was intrigued. So, when the opportunity came to write this centenary history I accepted it enthusiastically. I thought it would be the opportunity to lift the veil on this apparently secret and secretive organisation. I was soon to discover my misconception.

    The first thing I learned about the ATO is that it is a bureaucracy, a very large bureaucracy. These days people tend to use the word 'bureaucracy' in a negative sense but the truth is that our modern civilisation could not exist without large organisations whose corporate knowledge extends well beyond the capabilities and understanding of any one person and continues while the people who work in it come and go. Bureaucracies were not new to me, before making the mid-life career change to history I had spent over 20 years in the Commonwealth public service so, as soon as I remembered the processes and procedures, everything ran like clockwork. However, the ATO is a much larger bureaucracy than I had been used to, and accountability and transparency have made processes more thorough since I was a public servant, so things move more slowly and thoroughly. Still, these thorough processes are necessary if public money is to be collected and accounted for in a way that taxpayers expect.

    The second thing I found is that although the ATO appears secretive, that is something of an illusion. Before I started the project, forms had to be filled in, applications vetted and so on, but that was only a necessary prelude to the project. My big expectation in undertaking this history was that there would be many doors in the ATO that would have to remain closed to me to preserve its secrets and that there would be whole areas of operations that I would have to leave unexplored. There were no such problems. The ATO is obsessive about secrecy, but that is largely because it takes great precautions to preserve taxpayer privacy. People were more than happy to talk to me about the work they did and their experiences of it, but stopped short as soon as the discussion seemed to be headed towards the details of individual taxpayers or other ATO clients. Once I had a security clearance and a building pass, I was free to come and go at any ATO site in Australia and talk to anybody who was interested in talking to me, without hindrance or hesitation, except for the taxpayer information. The only occasion on which I met some hesitation was when I asked to learn about the ATO's internal fraud prevention processes, but even then people were helpful and friendly once the secure door to that section was opened.

    Perhaps there are areas of the taxation processes that have to remain secret but I did not discover them, and I looked in detail at most areas of the history of the ATO's operations. But as I learned, the organisation has little to hide so I was free to explore any aspects of its history that were necessary to understand the ATO. In retrospect I realise that this lack of locked doors is not surprising because the organisation has been open to public scrutiny for many years and transparency has become almost second nature for it.

    This brings me to comment on the tax officers I had the opportunity to meet and talk to. Without exception they were friendly and helpful. From the Commissioner and the Second Commissioners through the various levels of the executive and through the rest of the organisation, people were generous with their time, information and stories of their experiences. Not all were happy with their lot in the ATO, but all were happy to talk frankly about their time in the organisation so I began to develop a sense of what life in the organisation had been like as far back as people's memories extended, from the 1930s in two or three cases, right up to current times. Without these many conversations this history would have lacked the important understanding of personal experiences, which is at the core of the ATO as an organisation.

    I'd like to acknowledge the value of the help all these people gave me over the time I worked on this history. There were over 150 of them so I cannot thank them individually here, although they are all named in the bibliography. As I write this, I think fondly of many individual moments, sitting in offices or conference rooms, talking to various people when they shared an observation, an experience or a confidence with me. I felt included in the life of the ATO and that helped me understand some of the things about the organisation that create its culture and values.

    There are some people who I would like to thank individually. First is Michael D'Ascenzo, the current Commissioner of Taxation for his support of this project and for the times he made available in his intensely busy day to talk about his experiences, ideas and hopes for the ATO.

    David Diment sponsored the project to write this history and I thank him for making this opportunity possible, as well as his enthusiastic and insightful support and help with various issues along the way. Thanks also to the steering committee who oversaw the entire project, reviewed drafts and ensured that everything ran smoothly. Members of the committee were Michael Monaghan, Alison Lendon, Philip Hind, Brett Martin, Roseanne McCann and Tom Byrnes.

    During occasions when I was in Canberra researching this history I had the opportunity to spend some very enjoyable sessions talking with Trevor Boucher, a former Commissioner of Taxation. I owe much of my feeling for the culture and values of the old ATO to his entertaining comments and stories and I will remember my time with him fondly. Trevor was in the process of writing his history of the schemes era of the 1970s and 1980s with the assistance of the cheerful and helpful Vicki Woolley. In helping Trevor with his history Vicki had earlier found her way through many of the archival sources of the ATO's past and this history would have been much the poorer without her unstinting help in finding my way through those sources as well.

    As part of the process of researching and writing this history I had the opportunity to travel to many ATO sites across Australia to collect information about the work and lives of tax officers across the nation. Visits to each site were organised by the individual site leaders and site coordinators. What enjoyable times we had and what important and useful things I learned during those visits! My gratitude to you all for the friendly assistance you gave during my visits.

    The most important people in the ATO for the success of this history has been those who have taken care of the day-to-day details of the project. When I started Karen Colquhoun and Margaret McKenna led me into the ways of the organisation and set me on my feet. A little later Andrew Liso took over the reins and has been of endless help and encouragement with great grace and style. Working with him have been, in turn, Kate Everingham, Wern Chee and Shan Gao, graduates on rotation who have cheerfully sorted out the details of trips and interviews and all the minute details of a project like this. Denise Webb also came on board during the project, to take control of the ATO Story collection, and her great work in reorganising it into order was vital to the whole process. My sincere thanks also go to the production team who have turned a collection of photographs and text into this finished and polished product. Without the help of all these people this project of researching and writing this history would have been much less enjoyable and much more stressful.

    My sincere thanks goes also to Valma Brown who has accompanied me through much of the work of putting together this history, has been a sounding board for many ideas and read and commented on the many drafts. More importantly for the reader, she selected the photographs included in this history, a painstaking task important to its overall success. Thanks also to my personal friends, Dot and Wayne, who were of great help during the whole project in taking care of Lily-Belle and Jo-Jo during our many research trips.

    The friendliness, encouragement, interest and assistance of everyone I met in the ATO has made the process of researching and writing this history a rewarding one. As much as those things, I have enjoyed this project because of the sense of community that exists in the ATO and the way in which I have felt included in it. As a result, just as I have come to understand the way in which the ATO and its people work for all Australians, I have come to feel a personal investment in the ATO as a national institution. I hope that this history helps to explain what the organisation was and what it has become, so that readers can come to appreciate its struggles and achievements in contributing to our Australian way of life.

      Last modified: 12 Nov 2010QC 23535