The duty of any government to keep its citizens safe is apparently taken very seriously in this nation of ours. It justifies the existence of the largest department over which this government presides and gives Peter Dutton, the Minister for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, unprecedented powers with a seemingly unlimited budget. But with the latest revelations of the ways in which the Government’s principal revenue collection agency, the Australian Taxation Office, is said to be hounding some very small companies and far-from-rich individuals, while failing to bring into line some very large companies apparently paying little or no tax, we are entitled to ask how meaningful this safety really is. Are these social justice issues more even than economic ones? And what do they say about contemporary Australia?
Only last year we had stories shared through the media of how people on a variety of Centrelink benefits were pursued for relatively trivial sums via a flawed system of “robo-debt” notices. I am naming these sums as trivial. But this is true only when compared to, as a single example, the travel or living-away allowances enjoyed by all members of Parliament. When people are making choices between eating or heating, when they must go to the Smith Family to get shoes money for their kids before the start of the school year, when they can’t afford bus fares to visit family in hospital or are devastated by the cost of a funeral, then no sum is trivial.
Do some welfare recipients take advantage of an under-resourced and bulging system? The answer would surely have to be yes. But it’s the singling out of “welfare cheats” and the vehemence of their demonising and shaming that should raise alarm bells. Last year’s robo-debt drama was presided over by Centrelink and the government’s Department of Human Services. In September of last year, Human Services Minister Alan Tudge admitted that 19,980 debt notices had been incorrectly issued. These were reduced or rescinded. Not, though, without significant cost for the people targeted. Linda Burney is the ALP spokesperson for human services, and she described the debacle as “absolutely shocking”.
Should we then be shocked all over again that the ATO is apparently pursuing some vulnerable individuals with more zeal than the tax-allergic, lawyers-a-plenty big end of town? Should we care that this is happening even while the Turnbull government pushes to have company tax rates significantly reduced, claiming this will benefit workers rather than shareholders?
Reading these stories, watching the Four Corners exposé on ABC TV, and especially thinking about the reported cash grabs to bump up tax revenue before the end of the 2017 financial year, I find that I am shocked. And truly dismayed. That the ATO is apparently able to assume guilt until an individual or micro-business taxpayer proves their innocence is bad enough. More worrying still are their powers to order a bank to hand over money from a citizen’s account, exposing them to difficulties in surviving daily life. Perhaps what’s most chilling in the cases that have been brought to our attention, individuals simply cannot afford the expert help they clearly need – especially once they are struggling to survive.
We know that there is little or no fairness of access to legal advice in Australia. To come up against a government department, with its salaried lawyers and its fairly brutal assumption of a right to “win”, would be a nightmare few could endure.
In both these instances – the robo-debt drama and these latest ATO revelations – we see public servants moving against vulnerable individuals in ways that appear to be cowardly, crushing and unproductive. If the ATO’s stated goal is to support small business people, then radically different procedures and protections must be put in place. An intelligent accountant with more than 30 years experience told me, when I called her for this article, that in her dealings with ATO employees she has generally found them “approachable and reasonable”. “Are there some rogue or over-zealous managers?” she asked rhetorically. “Well, yes. But in my experience, they’re rare.”
Rare, and let’s hope so, these stories of poorly resourced individuals facing the might of a government department must nonetheless shake us into meaningful vigilance. I have been working as a self-employed free-lancer for more than 30 years, mainly as a writer. It’s allowed me invaluable choices. But it has also, especially in the years of raising my children, required an almost constant availability to work. When I say I live in my office rather than that my office is in my house (which is the case), I am only somewhat joking. Free-lance work is often poorly paid and in the arts and spiritual ministry is frequently not paid at all. For those who are by choice or necessity self-employed, there are no holiday, sick pay, travel or away-from home benefits. No regular sum deposited in your bank account. You are paid only for work already done and are unlikely to think warmly of retirement.
If you are fortunate – and you need to be – you have an accountant to ensure you are reporting accurately. But the sums involved are laughable. Yet it seems to be the rapidly increasing number of people working with an ABN or as a very small “small company” that in these publicised instances the ATO has apparently targeted.
To support fairness and bring some kind of justice and hope into the picture, we need to understand more about why this is. We also need to ask what this tells us about how the “deserving” and “undeserving” are viewed in contemporary Australia – and by the Government and the Opposition. The public will or should demand that far more transparent protections for “little people” are put into place. But can we also look at the more profound questions still: who is the Government most willing to protect? And how can public servants – servants of the public – work harder to keep us, the very ordinary public, safe?