The ATO’s 2021–22 corporate plan, released early last week, has attracted criticism for its focus on measures that have historically added double-handling to the workloads of Australian tax agents, and its broader failure to recognise the role they play in administering the tax system.
John Jeffreys, tax counsel at Tax & Super Australia (TSA), was displeased to find the plan made little to no mention of the profession, when they play such a critical role in administering the Australian tax system — even more so since the pandemic took hold.
He said it’s both perplexing and discouraging for the profession.
“In the section of the corporate plan titled ‘Cooperation’, we would expect some detail about how the ATO will work with tax agents for the benefit of its administration — and also for the benefit of the individuals and businesses that rely on these professionals,” Mr Jeffreys said.
“Yet it only includes a glancing reference to tax agents through the term ‘intermediaries’. This lack of detail could be seen as confirmation of a systemic problem within the ATO about how it views tax agents.”
Beyond its scant mention of the tax profession, the corporate plan outlines a firmer commitment to “better experiences”, and making self-service channels the preferred option for most clients and their advisers, all of which it contends are “simple, helpful and respectful”.
Mr Jeffreys said the ATO’s self-service focus, however, highlights how out of step the Tax Office is with the profession.
“While the ATO’s intent with self-service channels is to streamline administration, feedback from TSA members is that this, unfortunately, does not always occur,” Mr Jeffreys said.
“This is largely because the tax system is so complex and the ATO website is difficult to navigate unless you are an experienced tax professional or you know what you are looking for. Even then, there are significant pain points.”
Mr Jeffreys said a recent survey of TSA members found they felt the pressures they face have become increasingly misunderstood by the ATO.
It’s a feeling, he said, that has seen many tax agents become frustrated by, as they’re expected to meet strict lodgement deadlines, only for their queries to go unanswered for months.
“Indeed, senior ATO officials praised the efforts of tax professionals during the pandemic,” Mr Jeffreys said. “Yet these sentiments are at odds with its corporate plan’s lack of reference to tax professionals.
“Tax & Super Australia calls upon the ATO to develop a plan for how the relationship between tax agents and the ATO can be enhanced.
“This would improve the administration of the tax system immeasurably. The ATO should view a fully efficient tax agent community as fundamental to the Australian tax system.”
ATO assistant commissioner Sylvia Gallagher said in June that the Tax Office is conscious of the stress faced by the profession, and that her office is looking at reviewing the 85 per cent lodgement benchmark in a bid to reduce stress.
Elinor Kasapidis, senior manager of tax policy at CPA Australia, recognised the ATO’s efforts to alleviate some of the strain felt across the profession, but urged it to exercise caution in establishing new measures or changes that could further stress advisers.
“We applaud the ATO for its achievements over the past year and for its future focus on delivering simpler, faster and more accessible services,” said Ms Kasapidis.
“At the same time, we urge the regulator to balance its forward work program against the capacity of taxpayers and tax practitioners to withstand additional changes. The impacts of COVID-19 are still very much with us and will be for some time.
“In some cases, the better course of action may be to delay changes rather than place additional burdens on an already fragile economy.
“Australia has a co-operative taxation system and tax practitioners are instrumental to its successful administration. We’re very proud of the contribution CPA Australia members have made to the achievement of the ATO’s corporate plan.”
John Buckley is a journalist at Accountants Daily.
Before joining the team in 2021, John worked at The Sydney Morning Herald. His reporting has featured in a range of outlets including The Washington Post, The Age, and The Saturday Paper.