Protecting our community chest: it's everyone's turn

Ross Greenwood

Ross Greenwood

This issue we are joined by Ross Greenwood, business and finance media commentator, who shares his perspective on community attitudes toward the ATO as well as the imperative for ongoing adaptability in a world that is changing at an ever-increasing pace. Ross is the Nine Network's business and finance editor and host of the top rating radio program, Money News.

Over the years I have come to recognise that the ATO is much, much more than a collection, administration and compliance agency. It is a massive network of communication, IT, legal, enforcement, human resources, accounting, and government.

That's what it is, a bigger question is what does the community and its elected representatives want it to be?

The quotation that every tax officer knows, inscribed on the Internal Revenue Service head office in Washington is: 'Taxes are what we pay for a civilised society' by Oliver Wendall Holmes.

If more in the community embraced that message then the job of compliance would be so much easier. The reputation of all Australian tax officers would be so much healthier. It would be as it should be: a respected job upholding the welfare of the community.

I know this is where the ATO has been evolving for many years with the improved use of technology and the taxpayer charter to improve the treatment of taxpayers as customers, not suspects.

This has been a long quest, as can be seen by the quote of former ATO Commissioner Robert Ewing in 1920: 'Suspicion of taxpayers by officers of the Department breeds distrust of the Department by taxpayers.'

But there is the other side, equally true.

'Now of course I am minimising my tax. And if anyone in this country doesn't minimise their tax they want their heads read. Because as a Government, I can tell you, you're not spending it so well that we should be donating extra.' That from the late Kerry Packer, and a sentiment that runs deep inside many Australians still.

Packer's sentiment goes to the heart of the dilemma between the administration of the ATO and the political heart-beat in Canberra. The philosophy of any new administration often means serious adjustment to the way the ATO responds. Yet it must do so silently and sincerely. For that, foremost is the ATO's culture and ethos.

For this reason, the hearts-and-mind campaign must be never-ending. Regardless of the political preference of the government in power, the ATO must remain trusted as being an honest, open organisation that is recognised for fairly collecting the revenue that keeps Australia strong. A small glance at the tear-gas filled streets of Athens in recent months might serve as a reminder of what occurs when there is a sustained break-down in public finances and tax compliance.

In Australia, in my opinion, the reputation of the ATO is well and truly intact, despite some vigorous public and political attacks in the past year. It was no different in Robert Ewing's day. It will be no different for the ATO and Commissioner 90 years from today.

Where rightful criticism levelled at the ATO, and other institutions, will be their inability to adjust to public shifts in communication, in banking, in work practices and business (on this subject I checked and, yes, the ATO has recently started a Twitter account, perhaps the most efficient and powerful means of communication today).

In the middle of one of the most prosperous eras in our nation's history, the pressures are greater than ever. The big economic challenge for Australia is to improve productivity in the face of a high currency and increasing difficulty for retailers, manufacturers and more service industries. And the ATO is not immune from the pressure of doing things better, with fewer resources.

Then there is the challenge of our ageing population. The tax system is the key player by progressively adjusting to the times while supporting companies and individuals in need while diligently pursuing its collection duties.

And this rate of change will not stop: cannot stop. Consider even in the past 18 months the explosion of online retailing (both local and international) and the challenges of trying to pursue cross-border taxation schemes. Electronic wallets will shortly change the way we transact and with more use of smart-phones, even the ubiquitous credit card could go the way of the portable cassette player within a decade.

Of all the assets of the ATO, adaptability must be among the first and foremost.

    Last modified: 21 Mar 2012QC 28286