Reinventing the ATO

Chris Jordan, AO
Commissioner’s speech to the Tax Institute’s 30th national convention
Thursday, 19 March 2015
Royal Pines Resort, Gold Coast
(Check against delivery)


It is a pleasure to be here today delivering my third speech to the Tax Institute on the occasion of your 30th national convention. I’d like to acknowledge the ongoing work of the Institute, now in its 72nd year, and the critical role your 13,000-plus members play in our tax system as:

  • enablers and advocates for participation in the system
  • champions of tax policy and reform; and
  • our partners in the good administration of Australia’s tax and super systems.

I’m now into my third year as Commissioner, and I describe it in private sector terms, as a growth and development phase.

In the first year or so, we established new directions for the ATO; with a new mission and vision.

In the second, we set a course of transformational change, got some quick runs on the board and set plans for an enduring effort to improve the tax and superannuation experience for Australians.

Now in the third year, we are consolidating, building, evolving, listening and delivering on the promise of Reinventing the ATO – using our mission as the platform.

Our mission is:

‘To contribute to the economic and social wellbeing of Australians by fostering willing participation in the tax and superannuation systems.’

And I want to zero-in on ‘fostering willing participation’. Levels of willing participation in Australia are high – with the vast majority of people willing to do the right thing. We know that people are more willing to comply if it is easy for them to do so, and if they have confidence that others are complying.

Many things influence people’s attitudes to paying tax; fairness, complexity, social norms, personal beliefs, economic conditions, advice and relationship with their tax practitioner, and the experience they have with the ATO.

Using the best lever at our disposal; the service we offer, our reinvention program is aimed at improving the client experience; making it easier for people to comply with their obligations, so we can increase willing participation (or voluntary compliance as many describe it) in the tax and super systems.

You will see us deliver more new products and services and embed a culture in the ATO that is service-oriented, pragmatic, and conscious that time has a cost.

Announcing the Blueprint

I’ve been talking about reinventing the ATO for some time and we reach a significant milestone with the release today of our Reinventing the ATO Blueprint. This Blueprint describes the kind of experience that Australians expect to have when they deal with the ATO. It will guide everything we do in the coming years.

The Blueprint is available today on our website – with information for the whole community and ATO staff.

The Blueprint puts the client at the centre of everything we do – with their whole experience in mind – not just isolated interactions.

It has taken almost a year to pull together – reflecting input from thousands of people from different market segments, from members of the tax and legal professions, from other agencies, and from our own staff.

We conducted focus groups and one-on-one interviews with various stakeholders including business and intermediaries, to understand their current experience and how they would like it to change. We spoke with many tax professionals – perhaps some of whom are here today, and I hope you can see how your feedback influenced our thinking.

In summary, people told us:

  • They want to spend less time and effort complying with their obligations – they want us to get the basics right, minimise red tape and fix the bugbears and irritants in our systems. This means things like improving our website; removing old, useless material, rewriting content to make it easier to understand, and of course improving the search function.
  • They expect a range of easy to access, secure, and convenient channels that can be used when and how they want – including more through digital means, but not losing the option of talking to a real person. As an example, people love apps and want more information and services available on mobile devices, but also want to be able to use click to chat or after-hours call back services like the one we have for small businesses.
  • Clients and intermediaries in particular told us they wanted more certainty and to be able to trust our advice. This means clearer communication and early conversations to stop things going off the rails, and to identify the right issues needing attention. It also means optimising pre-filling where we can.
  • Citizens also expect a better whole-of-government experience with security of data and protection of privacy.
  • Everybody we spoke to wanted to know that we ARE dealing with people who are NOT doing the right thing or paying the right amount.

With all of this input, we have come up with the principles guiding the design of the new experience and they are:

  1. easy to get things right
  2. tailored experience
  3. excellent service
  4. fair and respectful treatment
  5. service delivered in the most effective and efficient way

While these things sound straightforward and just common sense – they are a lot easier to say than do. Our unique challenge is that we have a client base in excess of 15 million: more than 13 million individual taxpayers, more than 2.5 million small businesses, more than a thousand large domestic and international businesses, more than 42,000 registered tax agents, 15,000 BAS agents, around 500 software providers, and our own staff. A lot of different people to satisfy!

The change required to deliver on this kind of experience is neither superficial nor something done overnight. So to successfully deliver systemic and sustainable change, we have established six formal programs of work:

  1. Digital infrastructure – setting up the necessary equipment, systems, technologies, communications and software that will enable people to interact easily in the digital world
  2. Tailored services based on profile, history and circumstances – where people get what they need, when they need it, and in the form they want
  3. Smarter data – clever, fast and sophisticated use of information, with systems that are able to analyse, predict, anticipate, pre-fill, and generate meaningful risk profiles
  4. Working with partners – achieving business outcomes through healthy working relationships with the various players in the tax and super systems: our public service partners for whole-of government, international counterparts across jurisdictions, the tax profession, the software industry, other service providers etc.
  5. Workforce capability and culture – deliberate strategies to build capabilities and change our culture
  6. Governance and Evaluation – new accountabilities, forums, measures and reporting for reinvention

As these six programs of work go on, there is a concerted effort being applied to our business across the board. People from all over the ATO are doing what they can in their day-to-day business to improve the client experience – in ways consistent with the Blueprint.

What people are noticing already

My belief is that most people in the ATO, given the right environment and permission to question the status quo, will be able to work out ways to improve interactions, cut red tape, streamline processes and provide a better service. And we are already seeing it in practice:

For example, as a way of looking to improve external relationships, some of our Perth staff rebuilt their client engagement forums, inviting key members from advisory firms to discuss topical issues affecting their clients. By building more meaningful relationships, they’ve been able to implement a far more coordinated, streamlined operational model for client service.

This new approach hasn’t gone unnoticed by industry. Several senior tax advisory representatives remarked on the positive changes in the office, telling me complex issues which used to take a year or longer to answer can now be finalised in a few months.

This feedback reflects the service and relationship-based culture I want the ATO to be known for. And just yesterday I saw an article by a Perth law firm about their observations of the positive changes at the ATO.

We can no longer have a culture of risk aversion or simply doing things the way they’ve always been done. We are trying new things, listening and responding to feedback and putting ourselves in the client’s shoes.

Late last year I received an email direct from a tax agent who ran a small tax advisory business. A few months earlier he had contacted us for assistance with his lodgement program as he was having trouble keeping up with demand due to his business partner falling ill. One of our people, Philip, was assigned to manage his assistance program.

This is what the tax agent wrote:

“I cannot express how much Philip helped me over my period of difficulty. Philip was constantly in contact with me, often after his local time business hours. I understand that it is his job, but I believe the treatment and assistance he offered me was exceptional ... he gave me the impression that nothing was too much trouble and was continuously encouraging me.

“I have no doubt that my current situation would not have been at all possible without the active and valuable intervention and guidance from Philip.”

Another feedback letter I received recently was from a principal of one of Australia’s largest tax law advisory firms, highlighting the positive changes he is experiencing in his dealing with the ATO:

‘…the change now taking place is real and positive. It will inevitably lead to significantly improved relationships between the ATO and tax advisers, which will in turn enhance the effective operation of our tax system.

‘Over the past few months we have seen a significant shift in attitudes on the part of the ATO officers we frequently deal with at all levels of the tax office. Interactions have become far less confrontational, and rulings and advice emanating from the tax office have been far more objective.

These are examples of the kind of feedback we want to hear more often.

Building Confidence

To illustrate another significant shift in the way we think about things, we released Building Confidence earlier this month. Building Confidence is the new name for what was known as Compliance in Focus, and before then, the Compliance Program. So what’s in a name?

In short, Building Confidence defines the outcome we are trying to achieve – confidence in the ATO and the tax and super systems.

This online publication is about being transparent in our approach to fostering willing participation and dealing with non-compliance. It outlines how we are designing for the majority of people who are trying to do the right thing while taking a determined and firmer stand with those who are not. It explains how we are achieving fairness – striking the balance between encouragement and enforcement based on risk, transparency and behaviour.


Another area of concerted effort and improvement in the past 18 months has been our approach to dispute resolution. As you would know, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Tax and Revenue is currently running an inquiry into how we handle disputes and the Committee is due to report later this month.

While not desirable, disputes are a feature of a complex system. However, most interactions with the ATO do not end up in dispute. Of the 16.5 million tax returns, 19 million activity statements lodged, and various superannuation matters last year, there were around 27,900 objections. Of those, approximately 1,100 went on to a court/tribunal and only 169 cases went on to decision.

While these numbers are small in the broader scheme, their significance is not – they impact people’s lives and the matters themselves need to be resolved for the individual case and potentially the broader system.

We have a number of strategies in place to resolve disputes as early as possible:

  • early face-to-face or telephone engagement
  • increased use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), including use of independent parties and in-house facilitators
  • sensible settlement guidelines
  • separation of our review function out of the Compliance Group to include Independent Review for taxpayers with turnover of more than $250 million and objections for all large market audits (+$100 million), including Indirect Tax, Petroleum Resource Rent Tax and privately held groups

Since implementing these strategies, the average time for handling of objections has reduced by just over 20%, from 73 days at the end of 2012 to now an average of around 58 days. This figure also includes some backlog of very old and lengthy cases that we are focused on clearing by the end of the year.

While we are pleased with the progress of our new approaches to dispute resolution, we are continually monitoring and reviewing our thinking, our methods and results.

Just last month, at our ATO Executive Committee, we began to question the language we use around this topic – why use the word ‘dispute’? Doesn’t that start us off on different sides, set us up to focus on our differences? Perhaps it is just a matter of clarification or correction – not actually a dispute.


While we are committed to early clarification, corrections and resolution of disputes, litigation remains an important component of our dispute management strategy.

In keeping with the principles of being a model litigant, litigation is appropriate where:

  • there is a contentious or uncertain point of law which requires clarification and it is in the public interest to seek law clarification through litigation
  • the behaviour is such that we need to send a strong message to an individual – or broadly to the community that we won’t sit idly by
  • there is a longstanding unresolvable debt
  • the dispute is intractable, alternative means of resolving the dispute have been attempted but have not produced an acceptable outcome.

A recent review of our legal expenditure showed that last year the ATO’s [external] legal expenditure related to tax matters was $53.2 million, with a return of $998.68 million as finalised tax and penalty. Of the matters that reached the courts in 2013-14, 46 were found in full favour of the ATO, five in part favour and 10 against. Costs awarded to the ATO are up and costs awarded against are down – indicating we are litigating the right matters.

Debt management

Speaking of legal matters, let me turn to the area of debt management.

While the majority of taxpayers voluntarily pay their taxes on time or soon after, collecting outstanding taxes is an ongoing challenge for us. Despite our increased efforts, the amount of debt we have to collect has continued to rise in recent years.

We have shifted our approach to:

  • Increase help and support for people who are trying to do the right thing – giving them better information, additional tools and a more empathetic hearing. We now have online payment facilities (including for credit cards), SMS reminders, and we’re taking a more flexible and tailored approach so that payment arrangements are better suited to individual circumstances.
  • We are intervening earlier to prevent debts from escalating beyond people’s control – connecting with people to ensure they stick to repayment arrangements and prevent things getting worse.
  • Focus on business viability and ability to meet future obligations.
  • We will be taking legal action earlier when warranted. This means initiating bankruptcy and wind-up action where there is evidence that a taxpayer is insolvent, and looking to use other statutory powers where businesses have failed to pay employee superannuation entitlements or pay amounts held in trust.
    In the past we have waited for a taxpayer’s debt to escalate to on average over $300,000 before initiating bankruptcy proceedings, compared to other creditors who often take action at around an average of $35,000. For corporates, we wait for their debt to be more than $340,000 compared to other creditors who initiate action at an average of $93,000.
  • And we’re changing our correspondence, writing in plain English, not taxspeak, and being clear with instructions. We’re changing the look and feel of our letters so it is easier for people to understand what they need to do and where they are up to in the debt collection process.
  • As an example, we recently consolidated six separate system letters, which generated a million letters each year into a single, one page letter.
  • Some letters are being redesigned to be delivered via email, SMS, and myGov channels.

Large corporates

I am also pleased with the work we are doing with large corporates – focused on real-time and future compliance, good tax governance and risk management. Early engagement and the use of tools like Annual Compliance Arrangements (ACAs), Pre-Compliance Reviews (PCRs) and Advance Pricing Arrangements (APAs) are providing both the taxpayer and the ATO with greater certainty and confidence.

ACAs as a service include speedier resolution of technical issues, solutions to compliance irritants, centralised points of contact and ongoing dialogue on technical matters, including access to ATO senior officers.

Pre-lodgement compliance reviews (or PCRs) are used to work with taxpayers to help get things right up front and to prevent the need for audits.

Advance Pricing Arrangements give taxpayers the opportunity to reach agreement with us regarding their international related party dealings on a prospective basis. This resolves any uncertainty around those dealings, supports business planning while also reducing compliance costs and double tax exposure.

While the APA program is open for business, we won’t rubber stamp aggressive profit shifting structures.

In July, we will provide large businesses with a guide to help them self-evaluate their governance framework and strategic and operational tax risks.

The pilot of our External Compliance Assurance Process (ECAP) is wrapping up now – with encouraging results. We will take our time to consider the findings and decisions about the long-term future of ECAP will be made in the coming months.

International matters

The international dimension to our work is increasing across most client segments and we have to adapt to this being part of business as usual.

I am pleased with our efforts in the international tax arena so far and want Australians to be confident that we are doing what we can to ensure that individuals and companies pay the right amount of tax here in Australia.

Our focus areas in the international arena are:

  • Base Erosion and Profit Shifting
  • Offshore tax evasion
  • Collaboration across jurisdictions and with other tax agencies
  • Capacity building, especially with developing nations.

Our approach is two-fold; firstly, do what we can now with our current joint compliance initiatives to challenge the assertions, behaviour and operating principles of some individuals and multinational enterprises. And secondly, continue to work with Treasury and our international counterparts on the OECD Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) action plan.

This year I have taken on a role as Vice-Chair of the OECD Forum on Tax Administration (FTA) with responsibility for revitalising the JITSIC Network (Joint International Tax Shelter Information and Collaboration).

The JITSIC Network focuses specifically on tackling cross-border tax avoidance and evasion and first started in 2004, with just a four-country membership (including Australia), with representatives based in Washington and London.

Earlier this month I attended the FTA Bureau meeting and sponsored my first JITSIC meeting with the expanded membership of many more jurisdictions – 38 countries and growing.

Let me make one thing clear – with so many tax authorities committed to working closely together, at Australia’s instigation, we will have much more timely and detailed information available to us on aggressive tax avoidance.

I will be seeking tangible outcomes and developments in what can be a complex and difficult area of tax administration.

The strategies and initiatives we have in place are making a difference:

  • We have dedicated leadership and capability – the ATO is committed to building on our strong expertise in international tax matters. We now have more people in our International area and more senior leaders dedicated to the cause than ever before
  • Active stakeholder engagement with business and advisers, financial institutions, tax agencies, international bodies like the OECD, and partner agencies like Treasury and with Government
  • Better intelligence and risk assessment domestically and across the globe using:
    • AUSTRAC data, referrals from law enforcement agencies, accountants, lawyers and financial institutions
    • using Exchange of Information with treaty partners (which allowed us to raise an additional $730 million in liabilities between 2012 and 2014);
      In the case of the recent HSBC Swiss data, we received data from a tax treaty partner on 261 HSBC Swiss bank accounts held by Australian taxpayers back in 2010. We checked the data against information these taxpayers had reported as income from these accounts to the ATO and against our other intelligence data sources. In some cases, it was found that taxpayers had correctly reported these accounts to the ATO. However, there were a number with discrepancies and as a result we initiated a number of reviews and audits, which have resulted in more than $30 million in additional tax liabilities.
    • We also benefit from informants and leaks – since 2006, we have identified about 1900 Australians and offshore promoters. We have undertaken about 800 audits, reviews and nudge letters, resulting in $340 million in liabilities being raised and 18 successful prosecutions.
  • We offered concessional treatment for taxpayers to make disclosures of offshore income and assets. Under Project DO IT that closed in December 2014, 5,600 people came forward and we anticipate disclosures of around $600 million in income and $4 billion in assets. More than 140 were high net wealth individuals (with over $30 million in assets) and over 800 more from wealthy Australians who have assets of more than $5 million. We are now analysing the intelligence from that project, particularly in relation to advisors and promoters.
  • We set up our active compliance program called International Structures and Profit Shifting (or ISAPS). ISAPS:
    • clusters common issues and like cases, so-called typologies, so that we can treat BEPS risks consistently and holistically
    • it explores business models and challenges assertions there is no or little taxable presence in Australia
    • and it focuses on joint compliance with the counterpart tax agency or agencies and follows our prototype E6 model we used for looking at technology companies internationally between six tax authorities.
      By 30 June, 2015 we will have conducted around 200 reviews and 41 audits under ISAPS and to date we have raised in excess of $250 million in liabilities. We expect to deliver our revenue predictions of $1.1 billion by 2017. 
  • We also have Project Wickenby – the cross-agency task force playing a pivotal role in the Australian Government's fight against tax evasion and crime. It was established in 2006 to protect the integrity of Australia's financial and regulatory systems by preventing people from promoting or participating in the abusive use of secrecy jurisdictions.

    With audits and reviews of nearly 5,000 offshore scheme cases, more than $2 billion in revenue has been raised and 44 criminal convictions recorded.

Working with the Tax Profession

As I’ve said many times before, the tax and super systems are complex, with many stakeholders playing a role in making them work. You, as representatives of the tax profession, are critical partners. As the world around us changes our lives, it changes how we operate and how we perform our roles – true for the ATO and true for you.

Last year we did some research with professional associations and tax professionals to understand what is important to you and how you want your experience in the tax and super systems to change. What we heard from those conversations was that:

  • you want to be recognised as partners
  • you want us to help you adapt to the changing needs of the environment and your clients
  • you want to engage with government and link clients to your practice through a single and secure digital entry point
  • you want to be able to fulfil obligations through integrated practice software that links your client’s software and the ATO’s software

We also heard that:

  • people are searching for the answers themselves
  • more clients are expecting to be able to manage their simple tax affairs themselves but want more advice on complex matters.
  • when your clients do things for themselves, you want to be able to see what each other is doing
  • more clients are asking for advice on international matters

So, like the ATO, your businesses are facing a juncture – and I can see that when I read Tax Vine – we could continue on the same path and improve existing services, where change will be incremental and unlikely to meet client expectations. Or we can adapt to the exponential growth of the internet, social media, cloud computing and broadband etc.

To help us adapt to this digital age and dynamic environment together, we have formed the Future of the Tax Profession Working Group – with the membership consisting of representatives from the tax professional community including professional associations, software developers, the Tax Practitioners Board, tax and BAS agents and the ATO.

The meetings are co-chaired by the ATO and professional associations, and focus on two distinct areas: how we successfully manage and support tax practitioners through the changes during 2015-16, and what the tax profession will look like in 2020 and beyond.

This month we will publish a roadmap of change for the tax profession. This roadmap will explain what is changing when and what support is available from the ATO, tax professional associations and software developers.

Based on the advice of the working group, our efforts for 2015 and 2016 are targeted at:

  • maintaining and improving the stability of the tax agent portal
  • making existing portal services available to software providers, so they can provide them in tax professionals practice management software
  • working with software providers to ensure their products are sufficiently tested and contain the most up-to-date information
  • engaging with a broader cross-section of the profession (like our current suburban open forums) to ensure everyone is prepared for going online
  • ensuring access to the latest information and a better experience on the website

This month tax agents will be able to start accessing their individual clients’ correspondence through the portal. We will be working together with the tax professional community to design and develop functionality that will alert you to any online interactions your clients have with the ATO.

We are continuing to explore and develop new services for tax agents such as online payment and payment arrangements, and prefilling through practice software – which will reduce the time needed to do basic things like rekey data. This should equip and free-up tax professionals to provide even more value-add to clients.

Next year your 2016 Tax Time software will need to be SBR-enabled (Standard Business Reporting). SBR-enabled software will provide benefits such as:

  • client updates that take effect immediately, rather than having to wait overnight
  • bulk client updates
  • pre-filled reports with the most up-to-date information
  • re-usable information and reports for different government agencies
  • all portal services will be in your practice management software, so you won’t have to keep switching between different systems.

This has been a big investment by the ATO and in particular by software developers. Our partnership with software developers is going to be of growing importance in future years.

Looking ahead

So what else is coming this year?

Everyone should start to see and feel a change when they deal with the ATO – whether that is on the phone, in our written correspondence, in person, or online.

In particular, you will see a marked improvement by the middle of the year to our website – it will be easier to search, navigate and understand.

For individuals

From this month, myGov users linked to the ATO will start to get mail sent to their myGov inbox – 3.3 million people have already linked their account.

For tax time 2015, myTax will be more tailored, personalised and streamlined. More people will be eligible (potentially up to five million individuals), including those with other income including superannuation pensions, lump sum payments, managed investment funds and foreign pensions, as well as additional tax offsets and deductions associated with these income types.

People will also be able to use their myGov account to link to the ATO to:

  • View their income tax and activity statement accounts and transaction details
  • View their lodgement history and future obligations
  • Manage Pay as You Go Instalments

For Tax Time 2016, we are planning to have a single myTax product for all individuals, whether they have simple or complex affairs. All going smoothly by then, e-Tax, the veteran of almost 20 tax times and itself a pioneer of electronic lodgement, will be hanging up its e-boots.

For your 2016 return, from July 2015, people will be able to use our app to capture tax-related deductions ‘on the go’. The app will record, classify and upload work-related deductions data direct to their myTax return in time for Tax Time 2016 – which means the days of the shoebox full of old receipts are gone.

We want to give people certainty and today I am announcing our new ‘OK letters’ for some eligible individuals with simple, straightforward affairs.

From September, as a pilot, we will be issuing an ‘OK letter’ to more than half a million (500,000) taxpayers that confirms their 2015 tax return is closed from further review, audit or any kind of compliance activity.

By using pre-filling and background analytics, we can provide this confirmation to these taxpayers within about a month of them lodging their return – except in cases where there is good reason to suspect fraud or false claims.

This concept means taxpayers doing the right thing can lodge their return, receive their letter and move on without any worries about a future audit or review. This initiative reflects our emphasis on helping and rewarding people who comply with their obligations. We hope the pilot is a success so that we can expand the ‘OK letters’ to many more people.

For privately-owned groups and wealthy individuals

From late April, we will have a new online resource dedicated to privately-owned groups and wealthy individuals – a segment which encompasses over one million entities and individuals.

The new online resource will provide relevant and up-to-date information, as well as give guidance on the kinds of issues that draw our attention, as well as describing how the ATO and this client segment can work together better.

Also from late April, for the largest taxpayers in this segment (more than $1 billion turnover or $500 million in assets), we will provide our assessment of their tax risks and any issues we have concerns about. We will also be having personal conversations with all of these taxpayers and their advisors.

Other taxpayers in this segment whose activities have attracted our attention will also be provided with a report setting out our risk assessment and concerns.

We believe sharing our risk assessments and concerns helps direct attention to the right issues, makes transparent our processes, helps build a constructive relationship and provide more certainty to clients.

To the same end, from April, approximately 30,000 privately-owned groups including wealthy individuals, with a low level of risk, will be told that their income tax affairs for previous years lodged to date will NOT be subject to further review.

For private, class and product rulings, we are adopting an early engagement model for private groups and wealthy individuals with complex matters. Again we will be picking up the phone and meeting with people face to face more often to ascertain what really needs resolution.

For small businesses

By July, thousands more small businesses will be able to pay all their employee super contributions at once, to the Small Business Superannuation Clearing House.

This is due to the change in eligibility (now number of employees – 19 or fewer, or turnover up to $2 million).

We will continue to enhance the Small Business Newsroom. The online newsroom already has more than 13,000 subscribers with almost half of them opting out of general mail and choosing to access information through the newsroom instead. We have been able to eliminate the need for 16 hard copy newsletters.

Both the AUSkey and ABN registration processes are being improved. We've updated instructions to make it easier to sign up/register and are constantly looking to enhance this experience based on feedback.

We’re also planning to release our new Personal Services Income (PSI) decision tool on later this year, in preparation for Tax Time 2016. This tool will analyse individual circumstances and provide guidance on how to include this income in their income tax return.

This tool will help thousands of small business taxpayers navigate the PSI regime, helping them and their representatives understand their entitlements.


Thank you for the opportunity to talk about reinventing the ATO.

Thank you also for your support, input and feedback over the past year.

I look forward to working together in the next 12 months and reporting back at your conference next year.

If there is time I’m happy to take some questions.


Last modified: 19 Mar 2015QC 44569