In this inquiry, the Committee examined the Australian Taxation Office’s points of engagement with taxpayers and other stakeholders, and reviewed its performance against advances made by revenue agencies in comparable nations.
The first thing to emphasise is that ‘taxpayer engagement’ in the current century is not what it was twenty years ago. Digitisation of tax lodgement processes, of financial interactions and information, as well as budget pressures have made it into a different business for governments and taxpayers. Tax administration has become a ‘service’, with automated systems designed to both reduce the compliance burden and to boost revenue collection up front.
This report provides a thorough review of progress in Australia’s tax administration systems against this background. However, it also goes beyond that to ask what taxpayers should now expect from a modern tax service which is largely or partly automated.
The terms of reference for the inquiry were very broad. The first opened the inquiry wide by bringing in the issue of taxpayer non-engagement. This meant reviewing approaches used to attack the black or cash economy, here and overseas. Another theme was how the enterprise of tax compliance could be aided by the new behavioural economics insights (BEI) approach, using digital tools or ‘nudges’ to make it easier for taxpayers to comply, and harder not to.
During the inquiry, the Committee received extensive evidence from the ATO about its ‘reinvention’ as a modern automated tax administration system—to deliver reliable and intuitive online systems, to increase cyber-security and taxpayer confidence in its fairness and facilities. This evidence gave much to be confident about.
However, the inquiry also raised alarms which the Committee was compelled to explore. In particular, the Committee was concerned that complexity in Australia’s tax system is impeding the ATO’s transformation into a fully automated and intuitive service.
Australia’s complex system for claiming workplace related deductions, for example, was highlighted during the inquiry as being out of step with approaches in most other advanced nations, which had almost universally standardised their approach. It was noted that Sweden, the United Kingdom and, closer to home, New Zealand, with simpler tax policy in this area, have moved faster to fully automated or ‘push return’ tax systems where few taxpayers have to lodge a form.
The Committee concluded that, under Australia’s self-assessment model, more should be done to make tax obligations easier for taxpayers to understand and simpler to comply with.
The Committee has made 13 recommendations in this report to achieve this goal. The first recommendation calls for a complete review of the tax system by 2022, to reduce complexity and to make it both easier to enforce and to understand.
The Committee also recommends for more immediate tax reform to close up tax loopholes, and to meet new challenges evolving with the increase in freelance and contracting work. These include the introduction of a standard workplace expenses deduction scheme, where a standard deduction applies unless fully substantiated claims are made; and consideration of a new graded ABN withholding tax system, akin to the model introduced in New Zealand.
Other recommendations go to improve the amenity of automated tax systems to assist taxpayers and reduce error. This includes monitoring outcomes for BEI trialling approaches to ensure these methods and tools are genuinely effective and ‘give more tax revenue for the taxpayers’ buck’.
Finally, there could be any doubt, this inquiry has confirmed that digitisation of tax services is the ‘silver bullet’ to new and traditional problems of tax administration around the world.
The Committee recognises the drivers, including the financial imperatives. However it also holds concerns that some Australians not ready for the transition—either through lack of opportunity, poor online access, or concerns about cybersecurity or privacy of personal information.
The Committee firmly believes that taxpayers have a right to exercise individual freedom of choice to meet their tax obligations, and should be able to do so by various mechanisms. Continued access to paper format tax returns and information at the myGov Shopfront is an important commitment here.
Finally, it is a fact that, in the 21st century, modern tax administration involves many partners—tax office professionals and outsourced staff, other government agencies, software designers and telcos, enforcement agencies and banks, as well as taxpayers, tax professionals and other intermediaries.
Taxpayers must have reliability in tax services and an unimpeded choice of tax service provider within this ‘eco-system’ of tax engagement.
To support this important principle, the Committee calls on the ATO, as a priority, to implement a service level agreement with stakeholders affected by the ATO’s changing practices, in particular tax agents who, at the coal face in the tax industry, experience delays during business peaks in activity.
The Committee also recommends that the ATO conducts a comprehensive review of its high level mission statements to devise a single cohesive and easily understood framework—‘a regulatory philosophy’, that clearly and simply outlines the rights and obligations of both the Tax Office and taxpayers in the tax engagement process.
Accountability is the key to confidence. The Committee believes that implementation of these measures will demonstrate the ATO’s commitment to both fairness and efficiency as its digital transformation evolves.
Jason Falinski MP