Senator Rex Patrick has led the call for the tax commissioner to produce information about the large Australian companies who were recipients of JobKeeper payments.
Two senate orders have been moved in parliament, demanding that the Australian Tax Office (ATO) boss Chris Jordan provide information about payments to all companies with a turnover more than $10 million and who were recipients of the government’s JobKeeper scheme.
Jordan has consistently refused to hand any information over on the basis of public interest immunity, with the Senate now warning the commissioner that he could be fined or imprisoned under the Parliamentary Privileges Act for failing to follow the Senate’s orders.
The ATO boss argues it would be unlawful to provide the information because the information related to about 10,000 taxpayers who had shared their information on the basis that it would stay confidential.
A disclosure to parliament would discourage “the essential flow of information needed for the efficient and effective administration of a self-assessment tax system,” Jordan said.
According to the ABC, the construction and retail industries benefited the most from the JobKeeper program based on new data published by the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) with an estimated $828 million and $460 million respectively going to companies that had increased revenue.
A total of $4.6 billion dollars from the program is believed to have flowed to firms that saw revenues rise in the first three months of JobKeeper.
The data was based on ATO information and was disclosed to the public broadcaster by Labor Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury Andrew Leigh after growing political frustration that more transparency about the scheme will not be made available.
A push by Leigh to introduce new laws to get the ATO to publish the names of all the businesses who have received the wage keeper job subsidy and have a turnover more than $10 million was defeated in the Senate. This defeat led Senator Patrick to successfully move a motion ordering Jordan to provide the information instead.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has added his two cents to the stoush, claiming that disclosing the information would “undermine public confidence” in tax law and administration.
The treasurer’s backing of Jordan has done little to stifle the determination of Senator Patrick, who has now asked for contempt proceedings to be brought against the ATO boss for ignoring a lawful order of the Senate. Patrick says the issue of transparency concerns the use of taxpayers’ subsidy — not about accessing personal or private information.
“A final order by the Senate to the tax commissioner must be complied with and it would set an unacceptable precedent were the commissioner’s non-compliance with the order be allowed to pass,” Senator Patrick said.
“Failure to comply with a final lawful order of the Senate is a contempt.”
Patrick has now made a motion to refer the matter to the Senate Standing Committee on Privileges, which will determine what the next steps will be.
“Whilst the Treasurer had attempted to intervene on August 26, by advancing his own public interest immunity claim, the Senate order was not directed at the Treasurer and he has no power to countermand an order of the Senate,” Senator Patrick said.
“This is an important matter that must be resolved.
“The parliament, empowered directly by voters, is supreme. There is a lot at stake. I will now commence the process of asking the Senate to refer the tax commissioner to the Privileges Committee of the Senate.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson from the ATO told ABC News that the commissioner found “himself in an unprecedented situation given the government has logged its own claim for public interest immunity in respect of the documents sought under the order”.
“It is the commissioner’s understanding that if the government’s claim for public interest immunity is accepted by the Senate, it will have the practical effect of relieving him of his obligations to provide documents in response to the order,” the spokesperson said.