Reflections on Project Wickenby
Written by Michael D’Ascenzo, former ATO Commissioner.
As Project Wickenby officially comes to an end, it seems timely to reflect on the journey, and the legacy the program leaves. As former Commissioner of Taxation I saw Wickenby as an important and pioneering way to protect honest taxpayers from those who would abuse Australia’s tax system.
During my tenure we saw a massive attitudinal shift in the way the community perceived and reacted to tax crime.
We began to see white collar crime being recognised by the community as serious crime. We recognised that there were real victims, and in relation to tax fraud it was the honest taxpayer that was being cheated. White collar crime was not to be left in the too hard basket. For example, the prosecution of those involved in tax crime built community trust in the tax system. Such action reaffirmed for the general public that the perpetrators of so called white collar crime were not above the law. Firm action showed that the Commonwealth had the resolve to bring these criminals to book notwithstanding the subterfuge, secrecy and misrepresentations that often clothed their fraudulent behaviour.
Project Wickenby had a lot to do with this change in perception. From the ATO’s perspective, Wickenby was our flagship in saying to tax evaders, ‘we will catch you’. We also reassured honest taxpayers - the vast majority of Australians - that we weren’t going to close our eyes to malfeasance. We and other Commonwealth agencies were prepared to do the hard yakka, collaboratively, to counter these secretive and fraudulent international schemes.
The rationale of Wickenby was to send a strong signal that would help sustain Australia’s tax system. It was this preventative, deterrent philosophy behind Wickenby that was its real strength. The message Wickenby sent is its primary legacy, more so than the actual dollar return on investment, although that too is impressive, with over $2 billion in liabilities raised. Promoters are no longer prepared to peddle these artificial international schemes and erstwhile or prospective participants now find them too risky.
It wasn’t always easy though. All sorts of claims were made against the project. The push back and evidentiary challenges were substantial. The evidentiary hurdles, the secrecy that enveloped the arrangements and the complexity of some of the schemes meant that at times the Commonwealth was not in a position to progress prosecution action. Nevertheless, the point had been made and substantial sums were often recouped in settlements.
Wickenby was also ground-breaking in that it brought the various arms of government together like never before. We saw unprecedented levels of cooperation and information-sharing between agencies. We broke new ground and exemplified the way different government agencies could work together in pursuing a common goal.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in the Wickenby cross-agency taskforce for their unwavering commitment to Wickenby and the harmonious working relationships that we enjoyed. I hope that they are as proud as I am about what we were able to achieve. Wickenby has been a spectacular success due to their efforts.
More generally, Wickenby has provided a template for whole of government action against serious crime. Today there are many taskforces which bring together the expertise of various government agencies. In the fight against serious and organised crime the ATO is no longer an outsider or bystander, playing a critical role in helping to take the profit out of crime. In large measure, Wickenby has shown the way.
Even though Project Wickenby is officially coming to a close at the end of this financial year, its deterrent message has been heard. Wickenby has reduced international tax evasion of Australian taxable income, it has recouped substantial amounts of tax, and it has provided the community with renewed confidence in its tax system. Wickenby has also provided the template for collaborative cross agency responses to serious and organised crime.