Speaking on Accountants Daily Insider, ATO assistant commissioner Sylvia Gallagher acknowledged that the ATO and the tax profession might not have had the best of relationships at times but assured practitioners that it was working hard to improve the experience for them.
“We’re absolutely not out to get tax agents; I believe we have quite a strong relationship with a lot of tax agents,” said Ms Gallagher.
“I do know that a few years ago, there was a lot of friction [between the ATO and the profession], but hopefully practitioners have been able to see a change.
“We really are trying to engage more; we really are trying to listen. We really value the work that practitioners bring and we couldn’t do what we do without tax professionals.”
Ms Gallagher’s comments come after a rocky period that saw Commissioner of Taxation Chris Jordan criticise agents for failing to be “guardians of the system”, while releasing new tax gap reports that claimed that agent-prepared returns required more adjustments than self-prepared returns.
Many practitioners felt that they were tarred with the same brush and the deteriorating relationship saw Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar and his predecessor Stuart Robert forced to intervene, assuring tax professionals that they would be accorded the respect and recognition they rightly deserved from the ATO.
More recently, the ATO’s 2021-22 corporate plan attracted criticism for failing to recognise the key role that the profession plays in administering the tax system and what the Tax Office was doing to support them.
Ms Gallagher, who leads a team of ATO officers dedicated to supporting tax professionals, said, however, that there was no doubt that the Tax Office had moved forward in improving its relationship with the profession.
“I certainly don’t want the ATO and practitioner relationship to be us versus them,” said Ms Gallagher. “That’s not the intent at all.
“We really have to work in a partnership to navigate current and future situations, and I think that’s really important. We really do work hard to build and maintain the relationship.
“Obviously, there are always going to be players in the system who don’t engage, or who deliberately try and do the wrong thing and we’re going to come down hard on them.
“I think the community expects that. I don’t think that us turning a blind eye or saying, ‘well, they’re tax professionals, so they’re trusted’, is something that the community would tolerate, or the tax profession would tolerate.
“We need to make sure that there is a level playing field, and we need to make sure that we’re treating everybody equally while respecting and valuing that relationship with the profession.”
The toll of COVID-19
The ATO-practitioner relationship has come under the spotlight again after a torrid 18 months for the profession, who have had to deal with JobKeeper, the cash-flow boost and other support programs last year, and contend with a raft of state and territory support grants this year.
Some practitioners believe the ATO has failed to recognise their increased workloads, with support less than forthcoming, or inadequate for their circumstances.
Ms Gallagher said that while bulk lodgement deferrals were certainly considered, consultation with the wider profession revealed that a tailored approach for each practitioner would be a better solution.
“We’ve heard that some professionals are really struggling. We are also aware, though, that some parts of the profession are doing really well and some practitioners are telling us that they’re more up to date than they’ve ever been,” said Ms Gallagher.
“Our number one thing that we want to do is make sure that practitioners and their clients are engaged.
“We really want to make sure that we tailor our approach based on needs, so not everybody needs a deferral. And some professionals actually asked us not to apply deferrals because it means their clients will stop coming to see them until they need to.”
Ms Gallagher also acknowledged that the intent to support professionals may sometimes be lost within a big organisation like the ATO that employs over 20,000 people, but assured practitioners that ATO officers were committed to learning and improving their service.
“We’re not always going to get it right,” said Ms Gallagher. “[But] we are trying to do all that we can.
“If a tax agent thinks that maybe a phone call didn’t go the way that they wanted, let us know. We’ll listen to it. We’ll provide training to our staff.
“We have really passionate people on our phone lines who genuinely want to do the right thing, who are proud to work for an organisation that serves the community, and who are willing to improve and to learn on the job.”
Conscious of growing expectations from the profession, Ms Gallagher has promised that her team will continue to work towards finding the right level of support for every practitioner who asks for help.
“Please make sure that you get in touch, please make sure that you’re engaging with us. We will work with you, we will tailor our solutions, we will try and understand your situation as best we can so that we can offer you the right service for you,” she said.
“Whether that’s deferral of lodgement, whether that’s deferral of payment, whether that’s a supported lodgement program where we really work through what you can do in a certain timeframe, whether that’s just the phone call that you need for that one deferral for your client, whatever it is that you need, we can find a solution to help you.”
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