Friday, April 10, 2015

Hockey wrong. ATO did publish tax dodgers' names

Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan says publishing taxpayers' personal details would be "unprecedented". Treasurer Joe Hockey says "confidentiality of taxpayer information has been a key feature of Australia's taxation system since the 1950s". Both are wrong.

Both have been stonewalling requests from the Senate economics committee to see the names of companies the Tax Office believes transferred a combined $31.4 billion to the low tax jurisdiction of Singapore in the year to June 2012.

But Fairfax Media can reveal that as recently as 1984 the Tax Office routinely published the names of taxpayers and companies it found to be engaged in breaches or evasion.

"It used to be called 'the honours list' internally," said former Tax Commissioner Trevor Boucher.

He stopped the practice in 1985 because of the workload and because of concerns that it exposed taxpayers to "double jeopardy," being both fined as a punishment and then having their punished in the annual report.

The last list published in 1984 details the name, suburb and occupation of each Australian found to have underpaid a significant amount of tax as well as the amount underpaid and the penalty applied.

In that year trade mark assistant Jeannie Abbott of Greenwich headed up the alphabetical list of Sydney underpayers and process worker Neim Aki of Yarraville headed up the Melbourne list.

The names were published only where the penalty tax due exceeded $1750 and after all appeal rights had been exhausted.

A separate list in the annual report detailed the taxpayers against whom the Tax Office had secured judgements in the courts.  Neither list included taxpayers merely suspected of underpaying.

While he stood by his decision to abandon the list and if he was still in the job today would not publish the names of companies he merely suspected of avoiding tax, he fully supported the Gillard government's move to require the Tax Office to publish the tax affairs of the 1600 private and public companies with turnover of more than $100 million.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott plans to wind back the requirement for private companies. Assistant treasurer Josh Frydenberg expressed concern that it could make their owners kidnap targets.

Mr Boucher said the kidnap fears were unrealistic.

"First, they've got to be pretty big companies," he said. "Second, you can go to the Securities Commission website and find who the directors and the principal people are. The publication of their tax details won't make any difference."

Labor Senator Sam Dastyari said the previous publication of taxpayers details showed treasurer Joe Hockey was wrong.

"We now know there are precedents," he said. "While the decision is the Commissioner's to make, if these details are kept hidden it makes it hard for even the Treasurer himself to know what kind of companies are using tax havens."

A spokeswoman for Mr Hockey said the confidentiality provisions of the Tax Act had always been respected by governments of both political persuasions.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald