2.1 As discussed in the previous chapter, tax practitioners play an important role in the tripartite relationship with the ATO and taxpayers as they provide unique insight into improving the tax system as well as facilitating taxpayers’ compliance.38 It is, therefore, not surprising that the OECD strongly advocates the maintenance of a positive relationship between revenue authorities and tax practitioners.39
2.2 Submissions to this review have raised significant concerns about the ATO-tax practitioner relationship citing that the ATO does not:
- appropriately engage tax practitioners or understand their circumstances when designing its practices and processes resulting in a transfer of workloads and administrative costs from the ATO to tax practitioners;
- adequately respond to difficulties tax practitioners face with ATO services, such as the ATO Portals, website and telephone service, causing unnecessary delays and irrecoverable costs for them; and
- sufficiently recognise tax practitioners’ role to facilitate taxpayer compliance or their different business models particularly in requiring 85 per cent of all tax practitioners’ clients tax returns to be lodged on time (85% Lodgment Rule) with potentially adverse consequences if such a target was not met.
2.3 The concerns with the ATO’s engagement with tax practitioners, services provided to them and the Lodgment Program (which grants tax practitioners extended or staged lodgment deadlines) are discussed in detail in the later chapters. This Chapter explores the underlying theme of these concerns, namely the ATO-tax practitioner relationship, the history of the relationship and the ATO’s compliance approach to tax practitioners.
2.4 Since 2003, the ATO has gauged the level of tax practitioner satisfaction by engaging an independent contractor to conduct surveys every two years. The results of these surveys are set out in the table below.
|1 (Very satisfied)||5||12||28||16||14|
|3 (Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied)||17||14||12||19||24|
|5 (Very dissatisfied)||12||2||3||3||7|
Source: ATO, 2011 Tax Agent Services Survey, p 25.
2.5 The table above shows that the level of satisfaction with overall ATO service was the lowest in 2003, with only 28 per cent of tax agents surveyed being satisfied or very satisfied. While there were improvements from 2005 (60 per cent) to 2007 (72 per cent), satisfaction levels started to decrease again from 2010 (64 per cent) to 2011 (51 per cent). These fluctuating levels of tax practitioner satisfaction correspond to certain events.
Overall, the current relationship between the ATO and tax agents and the tax and accounting professional bodies, can generally be described as strained and tense. This is over and above the ‘normal’ tensions that arise from the fundamental differences in roles of the parties: the ATO as ‘revenue raiser’ and ‘compliance monitor’, the tax practitioner as an intermediary operating for the benefit of the taxpayer client.40
…The ANAO’s discussions with both the ATO and representatives of stakeholders showed that the parties perceive a considerable measure of dissatisfaction with the relationship between the ATO and tax practitioners, especially tax agents.41
2.7 At that time, the dissatisfaction was seen to be deepening rather than lessening.42 As a result of the dissatisfaction, a number of tax and accounting professional bodies began to publicly raise awareness of their members’ concerns and frustrations. For example, on 13 August 2002, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia (ICAA)43 commenced a public campaign to highlight members’ concerns and frustrations with the complexities of the tax administrative system, the extent of ATO services and support for tax practitioners and the ATO’s compliance demands of practitioners.44
2.8 The above concerns and frustrations with the ATO’s administration were highlighted to include:
- hours wasted ‘on hold’, hoping for a response from the ATO Helpline;
- inconsistent and incorrect advice from ATO staff;
- lack of training for ATO staff make it impossible for them to tackle the technical queries prompted by the complex ATO process;
- an avalanche of unnecessary paperwork; and
- costly duplication due to lack of integration of ATO systems.45
2.9 The ICAA threatened to abandon electronic lodgment of tax returns as of 28 October 2002 unless the quality of the ATO’s services and support improved.46
2.10 In response, the ATO began a project which helped them to identify the level of services and support tax practitioners required. This project resulted in numerous initiatives which were intended to improve the ATO-tax practitioner relationship by making it easier for tax agents to fulfil their role. These initiatives included:
- the Tax Agent Portal, which was launched on 3 October 2002; 47 and
- the Relationship Manager Program which was launched in July 2003.48
2.11 As shown in Table 9 above, the result is reflected in tax practitioners’ satisfaction levels improving over the four years that followed. The improvement may also be partly attributable to the establishment of the ATO’s dedicated tax practitioner business line (the Tax Practitioner and Lodgment Strategy (TPALS) business line) on 1 July 2006 to assume corporate responsibility for managing the relationship with tax practitioners.49 The TPALS business line was later renamed the Tax Practitioner, Lodgment Strategy and Compliance Support (TPLSCS) business line.
2.12 The TPLSCS is an important ATO business line whose responsibilities include:
- managing the ATO's formal engagement, communication and consultation with tax practitioners;
- developing the ATO's understanding of tax practitioners and the influence they have on participation in the tax and superannuation system;
- developing and managing the tax agent Lodgment Program; and
- providing a range of services to tax practitioners and taking compliance action such as managing the non-compliance of the requirements under the Lodgment Program.50
2.13 Other ATO business lines also conduct distinct and separate activities with tax practitioners. Appendix 3 provides an overview of existing approaches and activities of ATO business lines impacting tax practitioners. For example, the Enterprise Solutions and Technology (EST) business line is responsible for the delivery of online services and products to tax practitioners, such as the ATO Portals. The Service Delivery and Customer Service and Solutions business lines have the responsibility for managing inbound telephony, which includes the ATO’s registered tax agent telephone service.
2.14 Over the next four years, however, the level of tax practitioner satisfaction dropped from 72 per cent in 2007 to 51 per cent in 2011. An increasing number of concerns with the ATO’s services and support were raised by tax practitioners with the ATO and the IGT’s office during this time.51
2.15 These concerns peaked during the ATO’s implementation of new core processing systems (the Change Program) which generated wide-ranging and substantial numbers of complaints from the tax practitioner community early in 2010. Much of the dissatisfaction related to significant delays in processing income tax returns and refunds. Shortly thereafter, the IGT commenced a review of the ATO’s Change Program at the direction of the Minister and identified a number of areas for improvement, including more timely and transparent communication of potential risks and impacts of systems changes, as well as the processes for compensating tax practitioners where the ATO does not provide such communication.52
2.16 Many tax professionals also raised further concerns during the IGT’s 2012 Self-Assessment review.53 These concerns particularly related to the ATO’s approach to assessing tax advisers’ risk of non-compliance, the so-called Risk Differentiation Framework (RDF). The IGT observed that whilst the RDF was intended to encourage a mutually constructive and collaborative relationship, its execution may have significant impacts and contribute to a further lack of trust between the ATO and the tax profession. As a result, the IGT recommended continued consultations to identify strategies to achieve a more constructive relationship, including the appropriateness and execution of the RDF.54
2.17 During that IGT review, the ATO announced a ‘Tax Practitioner Action Plan’ which sought to indicate the work needed to improve the ATO’s engagement with tax practitioners:
[The Tax Practitioner Action Plan] provides the foundations for how we will work with you, and acknowledges past difficulties, while focussing on a positive future.
… The Action Plan sets the direction the detail, the what, the how and the when we would like to work out in collaboration with tax practitioners and your professional bodies.
… There are three elements to our Plan:
- identify areas where we can improve the support we give you and work with you to design and implement the improvements,
- increase the effectiveness of our consultation with the profession - to make sure we are listening to you and acting on your feedback or where we don't, explaining why we can't or why we think it's not a good idea, and
- increase engagement with the profession around our compliance program.55
2.18 In 2012, the ATO’s Integrated Service Delivery Steering Committee, which had previously evolved to encompass the breadth of integrated service delivery, was refocussed to manage the ATO’s enterprise wide strategies to improve services to taxpayers and tax practitioners in line with the whole-of-government strategic direction. This committee was renamed the Service Improvement Steering Committee (SISC)56 and accords with an OECD report that suggests establishing an overarching ‘Strategic Services Committee,’ responsible for setting the strategic direction for service delivery.57
2.19 The ATO’s SISC membership comprises senior executives from the ATO’s Compliance, Law Design and Practice and People, Systems and Services Groups (PSSG).58
2.20 In May 2013, a market research firm was engaged to evaluate the effectiveness of the ATO’s tax practitioner engagement strategies by surveying the views of approximately 5,000 tax practitioners.59 This research showed that 77 per cent of tax practitioners were satisfied with the ATO’s overall service, which was a significant improvement from 2011.60 This may be due to the fact that many of the problems resulting from the Change Program had been addressed by this stage.
2.21 However, only 66 per cent of tax practitioners felt that ‘the ATO does a good job’ and only 52 per cent considered that ‘the ATO does a good job of engaging with tax practitioners’.61 The majority of tax and BAS agents (65 per cent and 56 per cent, respectively) did not believe that the ATO had a good idea of the issues confronting tax practitioners.62 In fact, 34 per cent of tax agents and 21 per cent of BAS agents reported that their business was negatively impacted as a result of ATO operational or administrative actions.63 Furthermore, a third of tax practitioners felt the relationship was ‘an area of high and immediate concern’.64 Such research indicates that there is room for improvement.65
2.22 Since the above 2013 research, a number of ATO initiatives have been launched, including:
- changes to the ATO-tax practitioner external consultative arrangements, including the discontinuance of the Lodgment Working Group (LWG) and the Regional Tax Practitioner Working Groups (RTPWG), which is discussed further in Chapter 3; and
- the introduction of the 85% Lodgment Rule which is discussed further in Chapter 5.
2.23 However, during this IGT review, stakeholders raised concerns, echoing similar issues that led to the ICAA’s public campaign in 2002. In particular, some tax practitioners believed the importance of their role was undermined by the ATO:
- removing personalised support with the closure of the ATO’s Relationship Manager Program;
- focusing attention and assistance on high risk practitioners instead of those who are compliant;
- not providing consistent or correct advice on the registered tax agent phone line;
- not maintaining or improving the functionalities of critical services such as the ATO Portals; and
- introducing the 85% Lodgment Rule with the threat of removing access to the Lodgment Program, a fundamental tool of their business, and referral to the TPB.
2.24 Relevantly, during this IGT review, the ATO has developed the Reinventing the ATO blueprint for organisational change to reflect community needs.66 In relation to tax practitioners, the ATO intends to:
- acknowledge tax practitioners’ role in improving compliance and develop ‘excellent’ working relationships;
- adapt to tax practitioners’ changing business practices and needs;
- provide tax practitioners with a single and secure entry point for online ATO and other government services and information;
- work with tax practitioners to encourage their clients to use systems which are compatible with ATO and government systems; and
- tailor communication and services based on a better understanding of tax practitioner circumstances.67
2.25 Generally, tax practitioners do not have any direct legal, professional and ethical responsibility to the ATO. However, the ATO applies a risk differentiation process to tax practitioners to address any compliance risk:
Over a number of years, we have developed risk-differentiation processes in our compliance approach to income tax and goods and services tax relating to large businesses and small-to-medium enterprises. We have applied similar processes when looking at intermediary populations.68
2.26 The ATO’s risk differentiation process has been considered in a number of reviews by the IGT. In the IGT’s 2012 Self-Assessment review, the IGT had expressed some reservations about the broad application of an RDF to tax practitioners and recommended that:
The ATO should continue consultation with the tax profession to identify strategies to achieve a more constructive relationship. Such consultation should include discussions on whether the use of a risk differentiation system is appropriate and if so how it should be implemented.69
2.27 In response, the ATO indicated that it would not consult on whether the use of the RDF is appropriate in respect of the tax profession but would instead consult with the tax profession on how to implement it as part of the implementation of the Tax Practitioner Action Plan.
2.28 Subsequently, in the IGT’s 2014 Risk review, the IGT recommended that:
…in consultation with tax practitioners, the ATO develop and publish a complete guide on the operation of RDF for tax practitioners. Matters to be covered by the guide include:
(a) the risk hypothesis being tested;
(b) the inputs used;
(c) tax practitioners opportunity for review of initial risk rating (consistent with the principles of natural justice);
(d) communications between the ATO and practitioners;
(e) confidentiality of the risk rating as between the ATO and the practitioner;
(f) referral to the ATO’s Aggressive Tax Planning Unit where the promoter penalty regime may apply; and
(g) referral to the Tax Practitioners Board where the Code of Professional Conduct contained in the Tax Agent Services Act 2009 may have been breached.70
2.29 The ATO agreed to this recommendation and as a result, published a risk-assessment processes guide (the Guide) for intermediaries (which includes tax practitioners) after consultation with tax practitioners and their representatives.
2.30 In commenting on the Guide, ATO Tax Practitioner Advisory Group (ATPAG) members noted that the Guide did not provide practical information on risk triggers:
…the document is written at a high level and covers more policy and philosophy than a complete and practical guide to the triggers and tolerances that would flag ‘practitioner risk’ to the ATO, or outline behaviours that would not raise a risk flag with the ATO.71
2.31 The ATO acknowledged that a high level description was deliberate as risks emerge and change:
Triggers, behavioural flags and tolerances are usually driven by the risks the ATO will focus on and as analysed in the compliance postures and behaviours of the client base. These are rarely static. For example, the compliance risks that the ATO is concerned about are outlined in our ‘Compliance in Focus’ document. This is a ‘living document’ and is updated frequently as risks emerge, are identified and treated. Our view of a particular risk or combination of risks from the view of tax practitioners will change quite frequently. It is difficult to be prescriptive and have a static view of practitioner risk, hence the link back to other risk profiling measures and analytics.72
2.32 In terms of how the ATO conducts its compliance action, the Guide mentions that the ATO seeks to differentiate its engagement with intermediaries and their clients depending on the likelihood and consequence of non-compliance.73
2.33 The Guide also mentions that the ATO takes a ‘linear’ approach to risk assessing tax practitioners’ non-compliance. This approach involves comparing tax practitioners with their peers to identify outliers. The 85% Lodgment Rule is one such risk assessment tool74 which has been the subject of considerable stakeholder concern in this IGT review. As a result, it is considered separately in Chapter 5.
2.34 In recent years the ATO has also engaged with tax practitioners to manage a range of client risks, including on-time lodgment of returns, correct reporting of income for regulatory and income tax matters (including for self-managed superannuation funds), tax debts and promotion of tax schemes.75
2.35 Where ATO compliance activities indicate that a tax practitioner may be breaching the TAS Act 2009, such as non-compliance with their own personal taxation obligations, the matter may be referred to the TPB for action. In 2013–14, the TPB reported that of the 1,357 complaints and referrals it received regarding tax practitioners’ potential breaches of the TAS Act 2009, only 129 were from the ATO (10 per cent).76 The types of cases that the ATO had referred to the TPB included 8 tax practitioners who had lodged large numbers of income tax returns for taxpayers whose identities had been stolen, 89 tax practitioners who had failed to lodge their personal income tax returns or BASs and 69 tax practitioners who had outstanding debts with the ATO.77
2.36 Where ATO compliance activities indicate that there is a tax crime, the ATO may refer the matter for criminal prosecution. In 2012–13, eight tax practitioners were prosecuted for offences including those relating to money laundering, false lodgment and identity fraud.78
2.37 As all parties have acknowledged, tax practitioners play a key role in facilitating taxpayer compliance and providing insights into developing tax policy and administrative practices. As noted earlier, the OECD has stated that preserving a positive ATO-tax practitioner relationship is critical.79 Others have also come to this same conclusion. For example, a 2013 ATO report highlighted that ‘tax practitioners who are negatively disposed to the ATO in general would probably be influencing clients in a less positive fashion’.80
2.38 Tax practitioners, taxpayers and the ATO have dependence on each other in playing their various roles within the tax system to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. However, natural tensions may arise due to competing interests between the tax practitioners’ first and foremost responsibility to their clients81 and the ATO’s role of ‘revenue raiser’ and ‘compliance monitor.’82 These tensions provide potential for the relationship to be complex and, at times, tense and adversarial where each party’s role is not sufficiently understood and appropriately considered by the other.
2.39 To assist tax practitioners, the ATO provides support through a range of services, concessions and consultative forums. These ATO services have existed for a number of years and many tax practitioners have developed a heavy reliance on them to perform their work.
2.40 From time to time, however, the ATO’s services fail, or are perceived to have failed, to meet tax practitioners’ expectations. For example, when inaccurate or outdated information is held in relation to tax practitioners and their clients, it may result in unnecessary ATO correspondence and action, damaged client relationships and significant unbillable work in remedying these inaccuracies. Problems with the ATO’s services and support also result in work, responsibility and cost being shifted onto tax practitioners, causing frustration and tension with the ATO which may ultimately impact the level and quality of compliance in the tax system.
2.41 In response to its 2013 research, the ATO has recently sought to address a number of irritants to improve the ATO-tax practitioner relationship. For example, the ATO has reduced the period of time the ATO Portals are under maintenance and has undertaken initiatives to improve the ability for call centre staff to resolve queries at the first contact.83
2.42 The IGT welcomes these recent initiatives and believes that there is room for further improvement to address specific concerns with the ATO’s current level of services and support which are further discussed in the chapters that follow.
2.43 The IGT is also of the view that different ATO business lines may be unaware that their actions generate increases or disruptions in tax practitioner workloads.84 For example, ATO Portal related issues, which are maintained by the EST business line, may result in an increase to inbound calls from tax practitioners, for which the Service Delivery and Customer Service and Solutions business lines are responsible.
2.44 The ATO’s own internal inquiries have raised concerns with its fragmented approach to dealing with tax practitioners:
There is no clear, enterprise strategy for how we interact with the intermediary market. This has engendered a fragmented approach (excluding operational/strategic project driven processes) where accountabilities and ownership of function/role is blurred.
It is recognised that:
- Current support, engagement and compliance offers for intermediaries are fragmented amongst Compliance and Service Delivery groups, with roles and functions scattered throughout [business services lines].
- There is a potential duplication of investments across [business services lines] providing enabling/support and delivery functions/roles.
- Co-ordination of effort occurs on the fringes of activity/process, or within specific program focus areas, but is generally lacking. There is a lack of comprehensive reporting of interactions and outcomes where contacts occur outside of normal business processes. This contributes to a growth in knowledge gap, and duplication of effort.85
2.45 The IGT is also of the view that better co-ordination of efforts across different business lines is required to enable the ATO to understand the impacts of its actions and quickly respond to resulting issues faced by tax practitioners. To this end, an overarching unit with overall responsibility for the co-ordination of tax practitioner services and interactions is required. Such a unit would provide the necessary governance and accountability as well as informing the Compliance Group Executive on tax practitioner issues. The IGT believes that the proposed unit would also assist the ATO achieve the objectives of its Reinvention strategy.86
2.46 The ATO-tax practitioner relationship can also be affected by the manner in which the ATO assesses the risk posed by a tax practitioner. Many of the issues associated with the use of the RDF have been explored in previous IGT reviews, including the Self-Assessment and Risk reviews.
2.47 In the Risk review, the IGT noted that transparency of the risk assessment process is needed to engender confidence that decisions to take compliance action are not arbitrary and are based on objectively verifiable inputs.87 In relation to applying RDF to tax practitioners, the IGT observed that:
Whilst the risk inputs, being the risk profile of the clients of the tax practitioners, may be a useful method of initial identification of higher risk practitioners, the IGT believes that care needs to be taken to ensure risk modelling is appropriately augmented by follow-up and qualitative analysis. This is because the risk assessment of clients themselves may have a degree of inaccuracy…88
… It is important that the ATO does not approach the tax practitioners on the assumption that they are doing something wrong with respect to their clients who are perceived to be higher risk taxpayers. For example, there are various reasons why a practitioner may appear to have a large proportion of clients who are outside the small business benchmarks.89
2.48 In response to a recommendation in the above IGT review, the ATO has developed and published the Guide explaining the operation of the risk assessment processes for intermediaries. However, as mentioned above, tax practitioners consider that this guide does not provide sufficient information.
2.49 In order to better inform tax practitioners and further gain their confidence in the ATO’s risk assessment tools, the IGT is of the view that the ATO could provide further information and clarification particularly with respect to the inputs used. However, it should be noted that not all aspects of the ATO’s risk assessment process can be disclosed without putting Government revenue at risk.
The IGT recommends that the ATO:
- sets up an overarching unit with overall responsibility for the co-ordination of tax practitioner services and interactions; and
- provides further information and clarification regarding the application of its risk assessment processes as applied to tax practitioners particularly with respect to the inputs used.
In relation to 2.1 (a) – Agree
The “Working with our Partners in the Tax and Super Systems” program under the Reinvention of the ATO is directed by a Program Board that has overall responsibility for the work to support tax practitioners. This Board will ensure a coordinated approach.
In relation to 2.1 (b) – Disagree
The ATO has already published on our website a comprehensive document from a whole of ATO perspective on how risk is applied with regard to tax practitioners in response to a previous recommendation of the IGT. We acknowledge the IGT recommendation but we believe the website content provides the appropriate level of detail and practical information.
38 OECD, ‘Self-service channels’, above n 2, p 35.
39 OECD, ‘Tax intermediaries’, above n 2, pp 14 and 44.
40 Above n 9, p 83.
41 Ibid, p 47.
42 Ibid, p 85.
43 The Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia (ICAA) is now known as Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CAANZ).
44 Such as the Taxation Institute and the National Tax and Accountants Association.
45 ICAA, ‘Deadline for ATO re-design urged by ICAA members’ (Media Release, 13 August 2002).
47 ANAO, Tax Agent and Business Portals (2006) p 11.
48 ANAO, The ATO’s Management of its Relationship with Tax Practitioners: Follow Up Audit (2007) p 29.
49 Ibid, p 14.
50 ATO, ‘Tax Practitioner Lodgment Strategy and Compliance Support Line plan 2014-2015’ (Internal ATO Document).
51 For example, at a number of meetings with the IGT, Tasmanian tax agents raised concerns with the ATO’s systems, telephone service and correspondence with tax practitioners. As a result, the ATO provided its views on the 32 separate concerns raised, together with an outline of relevant changes it had implemented, or proposed to do so, to address the issues. Tax practitioner feedback noted some welcome changes, however, they also highlighted the ATO's changes had not addressed some issues: IGT, List of concerns arising from roundtable discussions with Tasmanian tax agents (8 April 2008).
52 IGT, Review into the ATO’s Change Program (2011) pp 97-110.
53 IGT, Review into improving the self assessment system (2013).
54 Ibid, p 80.
55 Michael D’Ascenzo, ‘Tax practitioner action plan’, (Speech delivered at CPA Professional Accountants Group annual dinner, Sydney, 2 February 2012).
56 ATO, ‘Service Improvement Steering Committee Charter’ (Internal ATO Document) p 2.
57 OECD, Managing Service Demand, A practical guide to help revenue bodies better meet taxpayers’ service expectations (2013) p 20.
58 Including the Second Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner Service Delivery Support, Deputy Commissioner Customer Service Solutions, Chief Information Officer EST, First Assistant Commissioner, Enterprise Applications, Deputy Commissioner, Small Business/Individual Taxpayers and Assistant Commissioner, Integrated Tax Design; Above n 56.
59 Newspoll, ATO 2013 Tax Practitioner Research Report (July 2013) p 1.
60 Above n 59, p 41.
61 Ibid, p 11.
62 Ibid, p 28.
63 Ibid, p 55.
64 Ibid, p 5.
65 Ibid, p 28; ATO, BAS Agent Advisory Group minutes, June 2012 (18 January 2013) ; Above n 36, p 3.
66 ATO, ‘Program blueprint’ (Internal ATO Document, March 2015) p 2.
67 Ibid, p 17.
69 Above n 53, Recommendation 3.6.
70 IGT, Review into aspects of the Australian Taxation Office’s use of compliance risk assessment tools (2014) p 140.
71 ATO, ATPAG minutes, May 2014 (17 July 2014) .
72 Above n 71.
73 Above n 68.
76 Above n 15, p 45.
77 Ibid, p 50.
78 Above n 17, p 2.
79 OECD, ‘Tax intermediaries’, above n 2, pp 14 and 44.
80 Above n 59, p 26.
81 OECD, ‘Tax intermediaries’, above n 2, p 14.
82 Above n 9, p 83.
83 ATO, ‘Second Commissioner Brief – October 2014, ATO Portal Performance’ (Internal ATO Document); ATO, ‘CS&S & TPALS July 2013 – June 2014 service delivery insights’ (Internal ATO Document, undated) p 3.
84 Above n 57, p 19.
85 ATO, ‘Intermediaries approach – Blueprint outlining our approach to management of intermediary engagement, compliance and support’ (Internal ATO Document) p 4.
86 Above n 66.
87 Above n 70, p 147.
88 Above n 70, para [7.39].
89 Ibid, para [7.45].