ATO responds to press freedom campaign

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday October 23, 2019

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The Australian Taxation Office is not happy with some claims the media has been making as part of its Your Right to Know campaign.

The ATO has released a statement letting everyone know it “strongly disagrees” with the allegation that it can take money directly out of people’s accounts without notifying them. 

One such claim came from the Courier-Mail.

“Why would the government be so determined to punish whistleblower Richard Boyle over his concerns that the tax office was abusing its powers?” the News Corp publication wrote on Sunday.

“At every turn tax office superiors thwarted Boyle over what he saw as the ATO’s heavy-handed debt collection tactics on ordinary Australians and small business, including seizing money from bank accounts sometimes without their knowledge.”

The article refers to whistleblower and former ATO staffer Richard Boyle, who alleges the department directed him to issue indebted taxpayers with garnishee notices in June 2017. Garnishees allow the tax office to order a bank to hand over money from a taxpayer’s account without consultation. Boyle faces a series of charges for which the maximum penalties add up to 161 years in prison, after speaking out.

“Surely, you have a legitimate right to know about allegations that the ATO is withdrawing money from people’s savings accounts,” the Courier-Mail continues.

“Why should this be kept secret from you? Why should Boyle be facing the prospect of life in prison for wanting you to know?”

Taxation commissioner Chris Jordan says the claim is ridiculous. 

“This statement is categorically incorrect and we strongly refute and object to it. We do not take money from people’s bank accounts without extensively attempting to inform them first,” he says. 

“This misleading statement would have you believe that we go about helping ourselves to large sums of money from people’s accounts at a whim without them knowing. This is ridiculously incorrect.”

The statement is part of Jordan’s efforts to get the ATO’s position into media reporting of Senate estimates hearings, as he and other officials like the heads of the Australian Federal Police and Department of Home Affairs have done in the past. Some senators were surprised by the defensive claims, which Jordan also made in his opening statement before asking to table a detailed timeline of events leading up to the termination of another ATO whistleblower, Ron Shamir. The committee paused to deliberate and decided to give the document to the Inspector-General of Taxation instead.

“This is an employee whose unfair dismissal claim was rejected, with the full bench of the Fair Work Commission stating his termination was as a result of his unjustified non-performance of duties,” Jordan said of Shamir.

The ATO claims it provides indebted taxpayers with “every chance to rectify their tax situation and pay the amounts due under the law” and only uses garnishees “and other firmer actions” as a last resort.

On average, the ATO interacts or attempts to contact a taxpayer 19 times before exercising garnishee powers, it says.

The ATO argues that it considers all aspects of a taxpayer’s circumstances when pursuing a debt, and is concerned that the Your Right to Know campaign will cause unnecessary harm.

“The fictitious example used in the advertising campaign and associated website is alarmist and misleading. We are concerned this coverage serves only to create tension and worry for taxpayers where it did not previously exist, and perhaps even stop people from coming to us to get their tax affairs back on track,” it says.

Jordan has one message to taxpayers: “If you have a debt and are trying to do the right thing, we’re committed to understanding your situation and helping you.”

The media campaign kicked off on Monday when numerous Australian papers blacked out their front page, in a call for greater protections for press freedom.

The ATO says it does all it can “to be open and transparent when responding to media requests”. The department notes that it responded to 622 enquiries from media outlets, and facilitated 183 interviews with journalists in 2017–18.

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