Australian tax commissioner Chris Jordan has been cleared by a parliamentary committee after a senator claimed he acted with contempt over refusing an order to provide details about businesses receiving JobKeeper.
The standing committee of privileges released its findings into Jordan on Tuesday, after senator Rex Patrick requested an inquiry last month following the tax commissioner refusing to produce the documents for the Senate on privacy grounds.
Patrick had led the request for the ATO documents amid criticism of the government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy providing profitable businesses with an increase to their turnover during the pandemic.
Jordan had used a public interest immunity claim as the basis of his refusal, arguing it would be unlawful to provide information involving about 10,000 taxpayers who shared their information on the basis it would stay confidential.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg had also written to the Senate defending Jordan’s public interest immunity claim — a move the committee flagged as raising procedural questions about whether a minister could make the claim on behalf of an independent statutory authority or officer.
But the committee ruled against finding that Jordan had acted with contempt, noting the ATO boss had proposed a potentially acceptable approach to providing the information.
Jordan has suggested it could be possible to supply information about JobKeeper recipients with enough detail for the Senate to fulfil its accountability function but still protect taxpayer information.
A Treasury Laws Amendment Bill 2021 also passed in September requiring publicly listed entities to notify the market of any JobKeeper payments they received during a financial year and of any voluntary repayments to the government.
The committee, responding to the treasurer’s decision to also intervene, agreed it “would be problematic for a minister to direct an independent statutory officer not to provide information required by the Senate”.
But the committee did not accept that the treasurer’s claim had been a direction to the commissioner, noting “it may have created that perception with some”.
“The treasurer’s claim did not identify any new basis for resisting production of the information beyond the grounds already raised by the commissioner and rejected by the Senate,” the committee wrote in its report.
Jordan said in a statement he welcomed the committee’s report.
“At all times throughout this unprecedented matter, I have acted in good faith with careful regard to both my statutory responsibilities and to the privileges and processes of the Senate,” Jordan said.
“One of my fundamental roles as commissioner of taxation is to ensure the integrity of the tax and super systems. Taxpayer secrecy is an essential component of these systems.
“In its report, the privileges committee noted that I had proposed an alternative and ‘potentially
acceptable’ approach to providing the information the Senate requires while maintaining the privacy of taxpayer information.
“I am committed to working constructively with the Senate and view my responsibilities in relation to the Senate order with the utmost seriousness.”