Thursday, 13 May 2010
Australian Tax Office
- That the Senate—
- calls on:
- the Government and the Inspector-General of Taxation to give assurances that any and all employees of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) will be invited to provide information to the Inspector-General of Taxation’s review into the ATO’s Change Program, and
- the Government and Inspector-General of Taxation ensures that there be no prejudice against employees of the ATO for providing information to the Inspector-General of Taxation; and
- requests that all employees of the ATO who provide information to the Inspector-General for Taxation be afforded protection under sections 15 and 16 of the Inspector-General of Taxation Act 2003, and exempted from any breach of section 70 of the Crimes Act 1914 in relation to the review.
This motion is essentially unnecessary. The government has been full and frank about the issues associated with the Change Program, which, I might add, commenced under the former government. It is ultimately administered by the independent ATO. Upon concerns being raised about the program, I acted and instigated the Inspector-General of Taxation review, and I acknowledge Senator Xenophon’s keen interest in the issue. The independent review should be allowed to run its course, without interference from parliament. There are various parliamentary acts under which the inspector-general acts. I would argue that parliament cannot break its own acts of parliament in attempting to instruct the inspector-general, who is fully independent and fully at arm’s length. That was the way the inspector-general was established, by the former government, so that parliament and I as minister could not influence the inspector-general once an inquiry was called. The inspector-general is unequivocally required to maintain the confidentiality of those who give information where this is requested as a result of both the Inspector-General of Taxation Act 2003 and the inspector-general’s public confirmation of this obligation, as set out in his recent advertisements seeking submissions for this inquiry. The former government established that parameter.
In addition, where an ATO employee indicates to the I-G that they have information relevant to the Change Program the inspector-general will formally ask the ATO employee to provide that information. The employee will then have the full protection of section 17 of the Inspector-General of Taxation Act 2003. The timing of the presentation to me of any report is a matter for the inspector-general. It is his decision. The act provides, for good reason, no power to direct a particular time frame. (Time expired)
by leave—I appreciate the comments of the Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law in relation to this matter, about which I have had a number of useful discussions with the minister’s office. But, with respect to the minister and to the government, the purpose of this motion is to make it clear that those tax officials who have information to give to the inspector-general, who, clearly, is independent, are given an assurance that there will be no recriminations against them from the Australian Taxation Office. There is a concern—and we know what happens to whistleblowers and of the retribution against them—that for this inquiry to be effective in relation to this very comprehensive Change Program, where there has been a cost blow-out in the hundreds of millions of dollars and chaos in terms of hundreds of thousands of returns not being processed in time, it is important that there be an assurance from the Australian tax office that there will be no recriminations against their employees for coming forward to the Inspector-General of Taxation.
I commend the minister for requesting the inquiry. This motion is about ensuring that the inquiry of the Inspector-General is as effective, as fulsome and as robust as possible. There is a genuine concern that the men and women of the tax office who are at the front line of dealing with this new IT system may be reluctant to come forward without these assurances. That is why I think it is important that we go down this path and request of the tax office that they give assurances to the Senate in relation to this. Also, in relation to the timing of it: it is a request, not an order, to the Inspector-General to do so. And it is only a progress report. I think it is important that we put this in context.
Again, I commend the government for instigating the Inspector-.General’s inquiry in relation to this. This would enhance the inquiry and enhance what I believe, genuinely, the government is trying to do—to get to the bottom of what appears to be a debacle in relation to the IT system.
Those who have been following this Change Program through Senate estimates would know that I have been very interested in this program for a number of years, even under the coalition government. I had some information right upfront that this Change Program in the Australian Taxation Office was going off the rails under the coalition and the minister knows this. He has been at those estimates and knows I was asking the questions. And then to hear him radio saying, ‘We don’t direct anything to the tax office; it is a separate sort of issue. It’s not us’—they report through to you!
They report through to the government and you cannot wipe your hands clean of this program. You listened to me, a number of times, in estimates. Under the coalition, this program was a stuff-up, a real problem. Then we have had small businesses impacted because of this Change Program and you go on radio and say, ‘It’s not me; it’s the tax office.’ Well, you knew there was a problem. What were you doing about it? So this motion is very important because it allows other people to come forward—and it actually allows the public to know what is going on—without any consequences to them from doing that. I think that is very important.
This is a big issue. That is the reason I have been chasing this one, for quite some time, through Senate estimates. I was a little annoyed to hear someone go on radio and say, ‘It’s not me; it’s the tax office.’ But you knew there was a problem. What did you do about it? This should have been checked—double-checked—before it went out. As the minister, you should do that. You knew there were problems and it was wrong. So this is a very important issue, and I will be supporting the motion.
Question agreed to.
I know Senator O’Brien makes a point every time of getting up to defend the government being negative with a motion like this one from Senator Xenophon, or when it comes from the opposition or when it comes from the Greens, but I want to point out that it is the job of the crossbench and the opposition to be not just seeking information from a government that wants to cover its tracks but also to protect whistleblowers and other people who act in the public interest. I do not know what the game-play is from Senator O’Brien, although I can guess it, but it is the quality of the move and the government should be supporting—
He is starting to complain now, Mr President! Senator O’Brien does not like me nailing him on the fact that this is a legitimate exercise—this is what Senator Xenophon and the crossbench and the opposition are charged with doing here in the public’s service. The government’s complaint about it and this repeated call, ‘We’re up against everybody on the other side and there is somehow some nexus about it,’ is completely false, manufactured and will not wash.