The Senate committee of privileges’ report, released late last week, cleared Chris Jordan of any contempt arising from his engagement with a Senate order to provide the information about businesses.
The Senate order, if followed through, would have required the ATO to publish a list of businesses with a turnover of more than $10 million who were recipients of the JobKeeper wage subsidy.
The Senate order, moved by independent senator Rex Patrick, would have also compelled the commissioner to reveal how much these businesses received and how much they had moved to repay.
Mr Jordan, who was against the motion from the get-go, argued that revealing such details would undermine public confidence in the ATO’s ability to keep tax information confidential.
Upon the privileges’ report being released last week, Mr Jordan commented: “At all times throughout this unprecedented matter, I have acted in good faith with careful regard to both my statutory responsibilities and to the privileges and processes of the Senate.
“One of my fundamental roles as Commissioner of Taxation is to ensure the integrity of the tax and super systems. Taxpayer secrecy is an essential component of these systems.
“In its report, the Privileges Committee noted that I had proposed an alternative and ‘potentially acceptable’ approach to providing the information the Senate requires while maintaining the privacy of taxpayer information.”
Going forward, Mr Jordan said he remains committed to “working constructively” with the Senate, noting he views his responsibilities in relation to the Senate order with the “utmost seriousness”.
“I note the Privileges Committee found it was ‘confident’ I will meet my obligations,” he concluded.
In September, federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg offered his take on the disclosure obligations, appearing to back Mr Jordan and the ATO’s position.
Mr Frydenberg said businesses and taxpayers provide the government with private tax details on the basis that the government won’t publicise it. He said businesses would expect his government to take the necessary steps to keep it confidential.
“Crucially, the confidential information that is the subject of this order has been collected by the Australian government under strict tax secrecy laws which restrict both the use and sharing of that confidential information,” Mr Frydenberg said.
“Upholding these laws is therefore vital to the continued confidence of Australians in government and the assurances it provides about the protection of their confidential information.
“Almost every aspect of government would be significantly and adversely impacted were Australians to lose confidence in the protection of the confidential information they provide to the Australian government.”
Mr Frydenberg also claimed that disclosing details related to those who received JobKeeper payments could also do damage to the commercial interests of the entities that received it.
On the opposite end, the aforementioned Mr Patrick argued that there was “no scope for a minister to counter a Senate order”.
“The final order of the Senate is a lawful order directed at an independent statutory officer, and the Commissioner must comply,” Mr Patrick wrote in a submission at the time. “There is no scope for a minister to counter a Senate order.
“Accordingly, I request that you give precedence to a notice of motion to refer this matter to the Committee of Privileges.
“I would of course be happy to provide the Committee of Privileges with any supporting information the committee requires.”