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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
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Il Globo, the Tax Office and me

There was an interesting interview with Michael D’Ascenzo, the Commissioner of Taxation in Australia, in Il Globo recently.

Here is part of the interview with Michael.

 A former assistant commissioner, John Passant, recently described the office as dominated by people who were too old and hostage to a “detail fetish” where they should be thinking big. “Why do you think John’s a former assistant commissioner?”, D’Ascenzo asks abruptly. So, there’s no gap in the ATO’s ability to plan for the challenges of tomorrow? “No.” Simple as that.

As for the accusation that employees of the ATO are overworked, D’Ascenzo is more cautious. “Some people work long hours; some people work normal hours ; some people could work harder,” D’Ascenzo says. “I don’t think it’s a problem with the work ethic. It’s great that people can put in some extra effort to go the extra mile – I do want people to do that. But I don’t think the workloads are unmanageable”.

Ouch!  That’s one problem with the Australian Tax Office. People who raise legitimate concerns (see for example my tax articles archived here) get criticised and ignored. 

The idea that the ATO is prepared to deal with the challenges of the future might be news to many of the people working there. 

Ironically the Great Recession might help the ATO recruit some young blood who will bring new ideas to the organisation, if the ATO system doesn’t grind them down before they reach middle management levels.

But of course the Great Recession is destroying the mirage that the ATO can plan for the future. 


The Treasurer estimates that revenue will fall $115 billion over four years.  The ATO leadership is responding – one wonders how adequately – after the event. 

As far as I can tell the ATO leadership is acting in the time honoured way of all bourgeois leaders and thinkers in times of economic crisis – screwing their workers even more. 

Make them do more with less. 

Sack some. Move others to contract or part time. Cut labour costs. 

Extend the working day through talking about ‘expectations’ of staff. Reward those who do work long hours.

And before anyone criticises me for not recognising the Great Recession, let me just say I gave a talk (in September 2007 I think) to my Canberra staff and others about the area I ran and mentioned Kondratiev Waves. Very very crudely this is the idea that major Depressions hit capitalism every 40 years or so.

1850, 1890, 1930, 1970, 2010 (give or take a few years.)  In September 2007 I said maybe we, the ATO, should be planning for a major economic shakeout in 2010.

The theory is much more complex than that, and that complexity may in fact destroy my argument. Nevertheless I thought it was worthy of at least mentioning and thinking about. 

My suggestions were dismissed. Yes I got the timing a little wrong, but I gave myself wriggle room by saying about 40 years. 

The long wave idea has been taken up and adapted by both neo-liberals like Schumpeter and Marxists like Mandel.

Back to Il Globo. Michael’s attitude shows another part of the problem – all top down and no bottom up flows of information.

Michael should talk to his staff more and not just to the flattering courtiers who warp his views of ATO world (or Voldemort Valley, as a friend and I call it.)

The Rudd’ Government’s  ‘efficiency’ dividend (which cut the ATO’s budget last year by 3.25 percent), plus the major overspending on the long drawn out Change Program disaster, contribute to and exacerbate the real problems the ATO faces. 

Michael would win real respect from public servants and taxpayers across Australia if he led the ATO in rebellion against the stupidity of the ‘efficiency’ dividend. That at least might help him defend his staff, not sack or short time them.

I have a radical suggestion for the ATO leadership – involve all staff in the decision making process and establish a flow of information from those who do the work to those who supervise the work.

Democratise the ATO, Commissioner. Lead a rebellion against the ‘efficiency’ dividend.

Defend your staff, Michael, not attack them.



Comment from Jason
Time March 19, 2009 at 9:05 pm

If it’s not too invasive, can you explain the significance of Michael’s comment” “Why do you think John’s a former assistant commissioner?”.
I assumed you one of the 54/11 bunch.

Comment from John
Time March 19, 2009 at 11:02 pm

I think it’s because I left 5 months before I turned 55.

The SES has a thing called Incentive to Retire. It’s essentially a redundancy package.

Since I didn’t fit the stereotype of ATO SES (and for other reasons I won’t go into) it was a mutually agreeable arrangement.The bosses disliked me and I disliked them. Despite five years of success in international tax reform I just didn’t fit in.

There was little scope for someone with different ideas to work in that environment and after years of battling for even basic things like enough staff to adequately address say international tax reform I got jack of it and ended up battling the demons within.

I don’t do that anymore because I am doing something I love without interference from essentially a group of people who have the same world view and are caught in group think.

A lot of the SES are decent human beings, but the whole ‘process is king, how many rulings did you do today?’ approach, where staff are forced to work harder and harder, can see us lose sight of our own and others humanity. I found the narrow thinking, process driven approach soul destroying.

I am now regaining my soul, and my new job where I will be working on environmental law issues should be great fun, intellectually challenging and socially useful. I am really looking forward to it.

I think there are real issues for the ATO to address but I don’t know the Commissioner understands the feelings of all staff in any real sense. I am not saying I do either but not every thing is rosy on the good ship ATO.

Certainly the Operations debacle looks to me like a case of ‘get rid of staff to save money’, a logic which applies I would have thought to all areas of the Office.

I don’t get any sense from MDA in his Il Globo interview of him understanding the staff challenges in any depth. And of course Il Globo misquoted me. I didn’t say that ATO staff were too old. I said the 54/11 issue (or now the 55/1 issue) presented challenges – like a loss of expertise and so on, inadequate training etc etc.

My main bugbear (perhaps I am too close to it) is International. At precisely the time the 25 years of Australia’s integration into the global economy bears fruit in terms of international tax changes, and therefore thinking in the ATO, the ATO attacks its international area mercilessly.

And it reverts to putting people in International (broadly viewed) whose sole view of the world is revenue, revenue, revenue.

This TCN takeover of parts of the Office worries me since their whole background and thinking is narrow. I’d abolish TCN.

The long term dangers in downplaying international – despite the rhetoric to the contrary that seems to me to be a fact – are evident to my mind in the slowness to recognise and deal with Wickenby – a fluke in terms of tax information. The fact that the LPT Lichtenstein bank info was also a fluke doesn’t give me great comfort.

The low morale across the Office is a real worry yet there seems to be a sense of denial among the leadership about that.

The Great Recession is going to challenge the ATO. A drover’s dog can collect revenue in a boom. Let’s see how the ATO goes during this Depression. I know they’ll say revenue has dropped because of the recession, but the question is whether this is solely because of the economy or because, to use Buffet’s phrase, when the tide goes out we can see who is naked.

Comment from Jason
Time March 20, 2009 at 8:27 am

thanks for that – I can imagine it must have been quite a challenge to be fit int with the economic rationalist, neoliberal, Taylorist’ management mentality of the ATO.

Comment from John
Time March 20, 2009 at 4:25 pm


Taylorism is a good description.

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