'Debts don't magically appear': ATO defends its reputation from robodebt

By Julian Bajkowski

March 9, 2017

The Australian Taxation Office has diplomatically sought to distance itself from Centelink’s escalating ‘robodebt’ compliance automation drama, telling the Senate Community Affairs Committee that Tax’s involvement essentially stopped at the provision of annualised income data.

In a hearing that revealed agencies beyond the Department of Human Services are starting to fret about reputational contamination from the Centrelink crackdown, tax officials grilled by the committee conceded the level of negative publicity around the execution of robodebt was a concern.

“It was the volume of what was playing out,” ATO deputy commissioner for smarter data Greg Williams said, flanked by the ATO’s head of debt and general counsel.

“We are trying to maintain a level of integrity of the ATO in this exercise.”

Part of the reputational challenge facing the ATO is that although it has supplied Centrelink with annualised income data for cross-checking for more than 20 years, the blowback against Centrelink’s recent compliance automation efforts has Tax’s management visibly concerned they could be tarred with the same brush.

“In our opinion the [perception of] ATO involvement in the data matching we didn’t think was technically correct. We would say we are involved in the identity matching.

“We are not involved with the data matching on the DHS side,” Williams told the committee.

“The ATO is always conscious of its integrity in the marketplace.”

There are sound reasons for the concern too, given the ATO is the national collector of monies and has for decades been developing proactive strategies to either avoid debts occurring or managing them in a way that they can actually be paid.

Mr Williams said that the ATO had reached out to Human Services in December with a meeting held in February over the compliance automation issue.

“Some of the issues were around communication. Was there anything we could actually help with?” Willams said.

“We were advised there wasn’t any assistance required from the ATO.”

Some of the most intense questioning during the hearing was around what kind of data the ATO supplied to Human Services, and the level of detail of when people earned income it did or did not contain.

Tax’s answer to that was that it had only ever supplied income to DHS on an annualised basis, because this was how employers supplied it to the ATO.

Pressed further as to how the ATO may potentially have been involved in Centrelink’s bid to automate debt recovery, Tax again moved to create distance.

“We have not co-designed the system with them. We have not built anything with them. It is a matter for them,” Williams responded when pushed for detail.

The hearing also delved into comparisons with how the ATO generates and manages debts on its own side.

ATO deputy commissioner for debt Robert Ravallo said although the agency used external debt collection agencies, there were also number of internal processes that occurred, like Tax staff sending SMS messages and calling people to make them aware they owed money.

“Our focus is on people not getting into debt first,” Ravanallo said. “A debt doesn’t magically appear.”

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