‘Groundless mischief-making’: ATO stand firm on EBA strategy

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday March 15, 2017

Senior management at the Australian Taxation Office has come out guns blazing in a war of words with the Australian Services Union’s Tax Officers’ Branch, rejecting sensational claims about its enterprise bargaining tactics that appeared in the local newspaper yesterday.

In another example of a government agency refusing to allow critical perspectives in the media to go unchallenged, the ATO strongly rebuts claims that it secretly sent personal details of staff to a company conducting enterprise bargaining ballots so it could identify who was most likely to vote for and against its latest EBA proposal.

The ATO accuses ASU Tax of “groundless mischief-making” and “seeking to bargain through the media”, rejecting all the key elements of the salacious tale, published in The Canberra Times yesterday.

The thrust of the provocative article was that Tax had been “busted” using ORIMA Research, a firm the agency contracts to run the staff ballots, to analyse voting patterns of its staff members. But the article provided no evidence that the data provided to the firm was in fact used for that purpose and the agency rejects the claims completely — describing each claim as an “assertion” and its side of the story as a “fact”.

The ATO says the decision to share personal details of employees with the firm was legally and ethically sound. It argues that otherwise, staff who were “on leave or not rostered on during the voting period” could not cast their vote, and states categorically that the information was not used for any other purpose:

“The ATO does not know how any individual employee voted. We do not receive detailed information for business units less than 100 people in any location.

“None of the employee information provided to ORIMA Research for the purpose of running the ballot was retained or used by them for any other purpose. The ATO’s only interest in receiving this information was to ensure that staff across all our sites and business areas participated in the vote process.”

The provision of home addresses and private email addresses to the firm was completely above board, according to the ATO, and in fact was “essential for the proper conduct of the vote” which involved emailing a link to all staff. According to the ATO, ORIMA used the details to make sure it sent the link to the correct person, that nobody voted twice and that all votes were counted.

Staff were also asked to agree to a privacy statement explaining the process and being given the opportunity to opt out:

“From the commencement of this bargaining process, the ATO has provided employees on leave the opportunity to opt into receiving communications about the enterprise agreement to their personal email address and/or personal mobile phone.

“Employees were asked to agree to a privacy statement and that their information could be provided to the external vote provider to ensure that they were able to receive any advice about our EA, and they were able to participate in a vote.”

The statement rejects claims from ASU Tax secretary Jeff Lapidos that they “rigged the voting process” and may have breached the Privacy Act as “baseless” comments that would only “erode the spirit of good faith bargaining” and unreasonably cause Tax officials to distrust their superiors.

While accusing the union of using underhanded tactics in the bargaining battle, the ATO asserts it has simply followed “standard procedures” and tried to negotiate in good faith:

“The ATO did not covertly or secretly provide information to a third party. The process that we have followed is in line with broader practices for enterprise agreement ballot processes across the APS.

“Provision of employee information was essential to the proper conduct of the vote, for all employees that worked at the ATO during the voting period.

“This was about nothing more than covering off the basics to ensure the integrity and accuracy of our vote process. Employee information was used to ensure the vote link was sent to the correct person and they were correctly identified, that employees could only vote once and their vote was received and counted. This is standard practice.”

Lapidos said he would complain to the privacy commissioner about the provision of the personal details to the company, which was reportedly exposed by a staff member via a freedom of information request. The ATO says it is confident in its external legal advice and promises to “openly share this advice and detail of our process” if an inquiry eventuates.

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