1.1 During public consultation for the Inspector-General of Taxation's (IGT) 2013-14 work program, stakeholders raised concerns with the Australian Taxation Office's (ATO) services and support for tax agents and Business Activity Statement (BAS) agents, collectively referred to as tax practitioners in this report. These concerns include issues with the Tax Agent and BAS Agent Portals (the ATO Portals), their ATO Relationship Managers, the management of the Lodgment Program and the ATO's consultation groups for tax practitioners. The IGT commenced this review in response to these concerns.1
1.2 The IGT invited and received many submissions to this review. The IGT also met with a range of tax practitioners and their representative bodies to gain a better understanding of their concerns and the areas that they considered require improvement. Their concerns may be broken down into the following themes:
- the ATO-tax practitioner relationship, including whether the relationship could be improved if the objectives and challenges of each party were better understood by the other;
- the ATO-tax practitioner engagement, including the adequacy of the ATO's current arrangements for tax practitioners to raise, discuss and resolve concerns as well as the ATO's communications resulting in strained relationships with clients, unnecessary delays and significant unbillable work for tax practitioners;
- the ATO's tax practitioner services, including functionality and reliability of the ATO Portals, the accessibility and consistency of advice from the ATO's Registered Agent Phone Line and the useability of the ATO website; and
- the ATO's Lodgment Program, including its design and operation not taking into account significant issues for tax practitioners and, in particular, the 85 per cent on-time lodgment requirement.
1.3 In order to address stakeholders' concerns, it is beneficial to first consider the role played by tax practitioners in the tax system, the various types of practices and services they provide, the obligations imposed on them by the various laws, regulatory bodies and professional bodies as well as the challenges they face in providing services to their clients.
1.4 The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) asserts that tax practitioners play a crucial intermediary role between taxpayers and the revenue authorities.2 In this tripartite relationship, tax practitioners contribute to the smooth functioning of the tax system and facilitate tax compliance.3 The OECD has observed that in no country surveyed would compliance with the tax laws be improved without the existence of tax practitioners:
Across the whole range of taxpayers, taxes and circumstances, the vast majority of tax advisers help their clients to avoid errors and deter them from engaging in unlawful or overly-aggressive activities.4
1.5 Tax practitioners perform a broad range of tax-related activities on behalf of a significant proportion of the taxpayer population such as preparing and filing tax returns, providing advice on the application of the tax laws and representing taxpayers in dealing with the revenue authority.5 As a result of their activities, tax practitioners are an invaluable source of knowledge and practical experience6 which may be drawn upon to develop more effective and efficient tax laws and administrative practices. As stated above, they also ensure a substantial proportion of the population comply with the tax laws, thereby facilitating a more efficient administration of the tax system for all parties.
1.6 In Australia, the level of taxpayer reliance on tax practitioner services began to significantly increase in 1986 with the introduction of the self-assessment system7 which effectively transferred the responsibility of interpreting and applying the tax laws to taxpayers.8
1.7 Taxpayer reliance on tax practitioners in Australia has also gradually increased over the last three decades due to a number of factors including:
- complexity of business operations and related regulations;
- individual taxpayer involvement in investment activities and income sources other than personal exertion;
- scope and complexity of tax law and related compliance; and
- use of the tax system to deliver social policies as well as to collect revenue.9
1.8 As a result, the proportion of taxpayers using tax practitioners has increased from only 20 per cent of individual taxpayers in 198010 to over 70 per cent of all individual taxpayers (8 million) and 90 per cent of all business taxpayers (2 million) in 2013–14.11 These current levels are among the highest in OECD countries, exceeding those of Canada (39 per cent), the United States of America (40 per cent), New Zealand
(50 per cent) and the United Kingdom (67 per cent).12 This highlights that tax practitioners, in Australia, have even a greater level of influence on taxpayer compliance.
1.9 Tax practitioners must apply to the Tax Practitioners Board (TPB), described further below, for registration pursuant to the Tax Agent Services Act 2009 (TAS Act 2009).13 It should be noted that more recently financial advisers, providing tax advice as part of financial advice, have been allowed to register with the TPB and this will become mandatory from 1 January 2016.14
Number of registered tax practitioners
1.10 According to the TPB, there were 54,939 registered tax practitioners, including 39,606 tax agents and 15,333 BAS agents in 2013–14.15 Each year, these numbers change as applications for registration are approved and existing registrations are cancelled.
1.11 The number of new tax practitioner registrations and existing registrations for the period from 2010–11 to 2013–14 is set out in Tables 1 and 2 below respectively.
|Year||Tax Agent||BAS Agent||Total|
Note: The TPB's Annual Reports do not provide information on the number of applications approved for all years. Therefore, the figures above may include registrations that have been withdrawn or rejected.
Source: TPB, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 Annual Reports.
|Year||Tax Agent||BAS Agent||Total|
Source: TPB, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 Annual Reports.
1.12 Table 1 shows that the total number of new tax practitioner registrations has increased over the 2010–11 to 2013–14 period, from 4,220 to 5,117 registrations. Tax agent registration, however, dipped almost 25 per cent in 2011–12 (from 3,438 in
2010–11 to 2,575 in 2011–12) before recovering in the subsequent two years (3,220 and 3,533). In contrast, BAS agent registrations doubled between 2010–11 to 2011–12 (782 to 1,577, respectively) and remained reasonably constant over the following two years (1,518 and 1,584).
1.13 Table 2 shows that the number of total tax practitioner registrations had fluctuated over the 2010–11 and 2013–14 period between a low of 52,347 in 2011–12 and a high of 55,350 in 2012–13. Total tax agent registrations had steadily increased year on year since 2010–11, from 37,435 to 39,606 in 2013–14, amounting to a 5.8 per cent increase over this period. However, BAS agent registrations, over the same period, had dropped 9.8 per cent from 16,990 in 2010–11 to 15,333 in 2013–14.
Numbers of ‘active' tax practitioners
1.14 Not all registered tax practitioners are ‘active'. Only 24,442 tax agents and 7,205 BAS agents in 2013–14 have one or more clients who are required to lodge a tax return or an activity statement.16 This may suggest that more than half of tax practitioners either lodge under a practice registration number (see below) or perform services for a limited number of clients such as themselves and/or other family members.
1.15 A break up of the total number of active tax practitioners in 2013–14 is provided in the following three tables. They present the number of active tax practitioners by number of income tax return clients, activity statement clients and the type of practice, or ‘practice tier', to which they belong.
|Number of clients||Number of
|% of total
|Less than 1000||20,036||81.9%|
Source: ATO, TPALS Tax Practitioner Risk Landscape Report (July 2013 to June 2014).
|Number of clients||Tax Agent||BAS Agent|
|Less than 100||17,049||7,161|
Source: ATO, TPALS Tax Practitioner Risk Landscape Report (July 2013 to June 2014).
|Tier (a)||Agent count||% of total||Count of clients||% of total||Average number of clients per agent|
|Personal Tax Focused||1,978||8%||1,672,000||11%||845|
(a) ‘Big 4' tier is made up of four accounting firms, Deloitte, KPMG, Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers; ‘Significant' tier is made up of large practices with more than 1,000 clients, including 50 or more business clients with net tax amounts greater than $10 million; ‘Medium' tier is made up of practices with more than 300 clients; ‘Small' tier is made up of practices with between 100-300 clients; ‘High Bulk' tier is made of practices that deal mainly with individual non-business clients and have more than 1,000 clients; ‘Personal Tax Focussed' tier is made up of practices that deal mainly with individual clients and have between 500 and 1,000 clients; and ‘Micro' tier is made up of practices with less than 100 clients.
Note: Averages and percentages are rounded.
Source: ATO, TPALS Tax Practitioner Risk Landscape Report (July 2013 to June 2014).
1.16 Tables 3 and 4 reveal that a significant number of active tax agents lodged income tax returns for less than 1,000 clients (81.9 per cent) and lodged activity statements for less than 100 clients (69.7 per cent). This data indicates that the typical tax practice has less than 1,000 clients and performs BAS lodgment services for a considerable number of their clients.
1.17 Table 4 also shows that almost all active BAS agents lodged activity statements for less than 100 clients (99.3 per cent), indicating that many BAS agents may have a smaller client base than tax agents. Such data may indicate that the tasks performed by BAS agents are time-consuming and/or that many BAS agents provide their services on a part-time basis.
1.18 Table 5 shows that active tax agents average 615 clients each. Active tax agents in all practices averaged more than 615 clients, with the exception of those agents in the ‘small' and ‘micro' tiers which averaged 189 and 31 clients respectively. Active tax agents in the ‘significant', ‘high bulk' and ‘Big 4' practice tiers all averaged over 1,000 clients (3,150, 2,851 and 1,906, respectively).
1.19 Table 5 also shows that ‘small' and ‘micro' tax agents make up a substantial proportion of the tax practitioner community (60 per cent), however, they represent a little over a million clients (7 per cent). Active tax agents in the ‘significant' and ‘high bulk' practice tiers make up a small proportion of the tax practitioner community (12 per cent) but represent over 8 million clients (61 per cent). Active tax agents in the ‘medium' practice tier (19 per cent) also represent 3 million (20 per cent).
Tax practitioners by entity type and age
1.20 Not all of the ‘active' tax practitioners are individuals, as companies and partnerships may also be registered as tax practitioners. Table 6 below presents the number of registered tax practitioners by entity type.
|Tax (financial) advisers||9,844||224||4,280|
|% of Total||73.8%||2.3%||23.9%|
Source: TPB Internal Document, provided to the IGT by the Chair of the TPB on 10 February 2015.
1.21 Table 6 shows that a significant proportion of registered tax practitioner entities are individuals (73.8 per cent). These figures make up both active and inactive tax practitioners.
1.22 The ATO has separately advised that during 2013–14, there were only 14,841 active individual tax agents and 4,971 active individual BAS agents.17
1.23 The ATO collects data on the age of these active individual tax practitioners and is set out in Table 7 below.
|Age category||Tax agents||% of total||BAS agents||% of total|
|29 or less||288||1.9%||137||2.8%|
|70 or more||1,729||11.7%||44||0.9%|
Source: ATO Internal Document, TPALS Tax Practitioner Risk Landscape Report (July 2013 to June 2014).
1.24 The data in Table 7 reveals that the majority of active individual tax agents are over 40 years of age (84.9 per cent), with the largest proportion of such agents in the
50-59 age category (28.1 per cent). The majority of active individual BAS agents, however, are aged between 30 and 59 (85.3 per cent), with the largest proportion of such agents in the 40-49 age category (37.2 per cent).
1.25 It should be noted that over a third of active individual tax agents (37.4 per cent) and over a tenth of active individual BAS agents are 60 years of age or older and may be eligible for retirement. In contrast, very few active individual tax or BAS agents are 29 years old or younger (1.9 per cent and 2.8 per cent, respectively).
Types and mix of tax practitioner services
1.26 The types of services that tax practitioners undertake are indicated in the results of an ATO survey of approximately 5,000 randomly selected tax practitioners. These services are shown in Table 8 below.
|Type of service provided||Tax Agent||BAS Agent|
|Preparing and/or lodging tax returns||99%||6%|
|Preparing and/or lodging BAS||98%||97%|
|Assistance in establishing new businesses||78%||38%|
|General advice on appropriate record keeping practices||76%||77%|
|Advice on tax planning||75%|
|General bookkeeping services (other than generating & lodging BAS)||56%||95%|
|Consulting on specific areas of taxation legislation||44%|
|Setting up accounting software||42%||80%|
|Training in the use of accounting software and/or spread sheet packages||35%||65%|
|Self-managed superannuation fund audits||31%|
|Independent audit services||24%|
|Financial advice services||10%|
|None of the above||1%||1%|
Source: ATO, 2013 Tax Practitioner Research (July 2013) p 57.
1.27 Table 8 shows that almost all surveyed tax practitioners provided tax return preparation and lodgment services. However, a significant proportion also provided non-tax services including assisting clients to establish new businesses, advising on appropriate record keeping practices and providing general bookkeeping services. The range of tax and non-tax services provided by tax practitioners is often referred to as a ‘whole of service' or ‘whole of practice' approach.
1.28 Not all tax practitioners provide the same services and the mix of their services differ depending on their respective practices or business models. For example, tax practitioners may work as part of a larger tax practice and perform tax return preparation and lodgment services as an adjunct to their main business advisory services.
1.29 Tax practices that specialise in servicing particular categories of taxpayers may also tailor their services accordingly. For example, individual taxpayers with simple tax affairs may only need their annual tax return to be lodged and simple advice on allowable deductions against their salary and wage income. Taxpayers seeking to address their previous non-compliance, on the other hand, may require reconstruction of their affairs over many years and an experienced adviser to liaise with the ATO in relation to any potential punitive action.
1.30 As highlighted by the OECD, the tax practitioner's duty is first and foremost to their client:
Professional and ethical responsibilities to the client and to the law are uppermost in the mind and actions of any tax adviser. This is expressed in different ways but the overarching principle is constant: the tax adviser's loyalty is to the client; and the duty of loyalty to the client is to represent their interests and give best advice.18
1.31 Whilst tax practitioners are duty bound to act in the best interest of their clients, they must operate within the boundaries of the law which is becoming increasingly complex and at times uncertain.
1.32 Tax practitioners also face strong pressures from their clients to price their services competitively, particularly as their services are often viewed as a compliance cost or overhead. Thus the efficient and expeditious resolution of their issues with the ATO is critical to ensuring their client's comply with complex tax laws at minimal cost.
The Tax Agent Services Act 2009
1.33 Tax practitioners also need to abide by the laws, the TAS Act 2009, and regulation which govern their profession and how they provide their tax services.
1.34 The TAS Act 2009, amongst others things:
- requires those who provide tax practitioner services for a fee (or other reward) to be registered;19
- establishes the TPB, who is responsible for the registration and regulation of tax practitioners20 as well as being responsible for ensuring compliance with the TAS Act 2009; and
- legislates a Code of Professional Conduct (Code) to govern tax practitioners.21
1.35 The Code establishes mandatory requirements for the professional and ethical conduct of registered tax practitioners, including the duties such practitioners owe to their clients and the TPB.22 Failure to comply with the Code may result in the TPB providing a written caution, issuing an order for the tax practitioner to take certain actions (such as completing a course of education or training) or suspending/terminating registration.23 The principles within the Code are set out in five main categories which include honesty and integrity, independence, confidentiality, competence and other responsibilities.
1.36 Importantly, the principles set out above do not require the practitioner to ensure that their client's compliance obligations are satisfied on-time. Rather, the relevant principles above require them to:
- comply with the taxation laws in the conduct of their own personal affairs;
- provide their services competently and take reasonable care to ensure that taxation laws are applied correctly to the facts in relation to any advice provided to a client;
- not knowingly obstruct the proper administration of the taxation laws; and
- act lawfully in the best interests of the client and advise clients of their rights and obligations under the taxation laws.24
1.37 According to the ATO's website, failure to comply with tax practitioners' own personal tax obligations may also result in ATO compliance action against them.25
Non-tax related regulation
1.38 As many tax practitioners provide non-tax related services, such as audit and assurance, financial advisory and superannuation services, they also need to comply with other laws, regulations and standards of conduct set out by other regulators such as the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC). For example, those practitioners who provide financial services are required to fulfil a number of obligations to obtain an Australian financial services licence under the Corporations Act 2001.
1.39 Some of the above non-tax compliance obligations may be due when tax related requirements are also due, resulting in parts of the year being particularly busy for these tax practitioners. For instance, during the end of the financial year, BAS agents are required to lodge BASs, ensure superannuation guarantee compliance, undertake payroll reporting, contractor reporting and year-end accounting preparation.
1.40 Many tax practitioners are also members of professional bodies and associations, whose brand may provide a competitive advantage over non-members as it is signifies a higher standard of skill and experience. Such bodies include CPA Australia, Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CAANZ) and the Institute of Public Accountants.
1.41 Members of such bodies are bound by ethical, technical and professional standards as set out by the Accounting Professional and Ethical Standards Board. Generally, in relation to Taxation Services, Accounting Professional and Ethical Standard 220 requires tax practitioners to comply with certain ‘fundamental responsibilities' regarding public interest, integrity and professional behaviour, objectivity, confidentiality, professional competence and due care. The standard also provides instructions in relation to specific taxation services. For instance, in relation to the ‘Preparation and lodgment of returns to Revenue Authorities':
A Member shall prepare and/or lodge returns and other relevant documents required to be lodged with a Revenue Authority in accordance with the information provided by a Client or Employer, their instructions and the relevant Taxation Law.26
1.42 Membership of such bodies as the Institute of Certified Bookkeepers, Australian Bookkeepers Association and National Tax Agent Association27 will also require compliance with similar obligations. Members of the Tax Institute are required to adhere to the Code of Professional Conduct in the TAS Act 2009.28
1.43 In addition to the obligations imposed by the laws and regulations explored above, tax practitioners currently face a number of challenges as a result of new technology, globalisation, client demand for a wider range of services, future changes arising from ‘disruptive' technology and an impending generational change.29
Current impact of technology, globalisation and client demand for services
1.44 The increasing use of private sector and ATO accounting and tax return preparation software has allowed taxpayers to fulfil their tax lodgment obligations themselves. For example, taxpayers may access their tax details through the MyGov platform, which allows access to a range of online government services including MyTax for the lodgment of income tax returns. As this practice becomes more widespread, tax practitioners, particularly those whose clients are individual taxpayers with simple tax affairs, may suffer considerable revenue loss. By contrast, increased cross border transactions, in part facilitated by new technologies, have enabled smaller businesses to enter international markets, driving a demand for a mixture of local and foreign tax and business advisory services.30
1.45 One response to these challenges has been for some tax and accounting practices to merge, consolidate or change business models to specialise in certain tax areas to meet particular taxpayer needs or expand to non-tax related services, such as business and financial advisory services.31 For example, in relation to businesses engaging in cross border transactions, the ATO has observed that tax practitioners increase their capability with both local and foreign tax systems and with general (e.g. labour) or specialist (e.g. agriculture) business arrangements.32
Future changes arising from ‘disruptive' technology
1.46 According to the ATO, the tax practitioner environment in the next decade will be characterised by even more changes and continuing innovation as a result of ‘disruptive' technology.33 These changes are also foreshadowed in a recent OECD paper, which envisages a future state where tax compliance obligations are ‘embedded' into taxpayers' natural systems:
In the seamless (invisible) self-service stage, rather than establishing, enhancing or integrating self-service channels, driving self-service involves embedding services in the natural systems, processes and activities of taxpayers, which can eliminate the need to interact with the revenue body altogether. The approach to service design in the final stage of service maturity, while primarily focused on the taxpayer, also needs to involve development of an in-depth understanding of the natural systems in which taxpayers function: the environment, processes, touchpoints, information and data flows, as well as other parties that taxpayers engage with in the course of their day-to-day activities.34
1.47 In line with these forecasts, the ATO has initiated a number of technological changes that are aimed to be implemented in the near future. Examples of such initiatives will be described in later chapters.
1.48 Future fundamental shifts to tax practitioners' business models and workforce are also expected, resulting in further changes to the professional capability of tax practitioners.35 For instance, the ATO anticipates that small and medium enterprises will increasingly look to tax practitioners to provide a higher level of advice drawing on insights gained from improved data analytics:
Services may include the provision of advice which may be based on sophisticated data analytics ‘distilling' vast amounts of information into actionable insights, as well as non-financial information which is increasingly recognised as being as important as financial information in affecting business value and risk. Advice could also include risk management around data security, devising new business propositions and benchmarking services to ensure their clients are keeping up with competitors; generally being a more integrated part of their clients' business.
This trend need not be restricted to large professional services firms like the big four. Smaller firms will have access to increasingly more sophisticated online products and services to enable them to provide this higher level advice to their clients.36
1.49 In addition to the changes arising from technological change, the ATO expects a large cohort of older generation tax practitioners and government administrators to leave the workforce over the next decade, taking with them knowledge that may not have been transferred adequately to the younger generation, including in-depth understanding of tax policies and historical rationales for certain practices. This change has the potential to reduce the effectiveness and quality of some intermediary services and administrative decision-making.
1.50 Notwithstanding the significant amount of experienced practitioners who may retire or otherwise leave the industry, the ATO believes that new entrants will drive cultural and practice shifts:
[The future generational change may involve] a significant amount of experienced practitioners retiring or otherwise leaving the industry, and a new generation, with new sets of values, native digital competency and new career expectations, entering. This will drive cultural and practice shifts in the industry, and also significant more movement of people across organisations and also into and out of the tax profession as employees become more ‘portable'.37
1.51 As shown in Table 7 above, however, over 25 per cent of active individual tax agents may be eligible to retire now, with a further 25 per cent who will be eligible to do so over the next decade. In the light of these numbers it is difficult to envisage that new entrants will completely address the issues arising from this impending generational change without a substantial focus placed on improving the services and support that the ATO provides the tax practitioner community.
1 The review was commenced pursuant to section 8(1) of the Inspector-General of Taxation Act 2003 (prior to its being amended on 19 March 2015). The terms of reference for this review issued on
26 May 2014, which are reproduced in Appendix 1.
2 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Study into the Role of Tax Intermediaries (OECD Publishing, 2008) p 40; OECD, Increasing Taxpayers' Use of Self-Service Channels (OECD Publishing, 2014) p 35.
3 OECD, ‘Self-service channels', above n 2, p 35.
4 OECD, ‘Tax intermediaries', above n 2, p 14.
5 OECD, ‘Self-service channels', above n 2, p 35.
6 OECD, Together for Better Outcomes: Engaging and Involving SME Taxpayers and Stakeholders (OECD Publishing, 2013) pp 16-18.
7 Michael D'Ascenzo, ‘Relationships between Tax Administrations and Tax Agents/Taxpayers', (Speech delivered at the Asia-Oceania Consultants Association General Meeting, Manilla, 11 November 2005).
8 Explanatory Memorandum, House of Representatives, Tax Agent Services Bill 2008, p 123.
9 Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), The Australian Taxation Office's Management of its Relationship with Tax Practitioners (2002) p 12.
10 Explanatory Memorandum, House of Representatives, Tax Agent Services Bill 2008, p 124.
12 OECD, Tax Administration in OECD and Selected Non-OECD Countries: Comparative Information Series (2010) (2011) p 188. A complete table of available data is contained in the report at pp 188–189.
13 Tax Agent Services Act 2009, s 20-20.
14 Tax Laws Amendment (2013 Measures No. 3) Act 2013, Schedule 1, Part 3.
15 Tax Practitioners Board (TPB), Annual Report 2013-14 (2014) p 35.
16 ATO, ‘TPALS Tax Practitioner Risk Landscape Report (July 2013 to June 2014)' (Internal ATO Document) p 2.
17 ATO, ‘TPALS Tax Practitioner Risk Landscape Report (July 2013 to June 2014)' (Internal ATO Document) p 3.
18 OECD, ‘Tax intermediaries', above n 2, p 14.
19 Tax Agent Services Act 2009, Part 2 and s 50-5.
20 Tax Agent Services Act 2009, s 60-15.
21 Tax Agent Services Act 2009, Part 3.
22 Tax Agent Services Act 2009, s 30-10.
23 Tax Agent Services Act 2009, Part 4.
24 Tax Agent Services Act 2009, s 30-10.
25 ATO, Your personal tax obligations (27 February 2015)
26 Accounting Professional and Ethical Standards Board, Accounting Professional and Ethical Standard 220 Taxation Services, Revised March 2011, p 6.
28 The Tax Institute, Constitution of the Tax Institute CAN 008 392 372 – By-laws 1 – 17 (14 October 2014).
29 ATO, Systemic drivers of change - a foresight report into the next decade for taxation (15 July 2014).
31 IBISWorld, Accounting Services in Australia Industry (March 2014); IBISWorld, Global Accounting Services (February 2014).
32 Above n 29.
34 OECD, ‘Self-service channels', above n 2, p 52.
35 Above n 29.
36 ATO, ‘Strategic Intelligence Scan: The ATO and the Intermediary Environment' (Internal ATO Document, 11 June 2014) p 13.
37 Above n 29.