Michael D’Ascenzo is a nice bloke and a great tax lawyer but is he really the right man for the job of Commissioner of Taxation? After watching D’Ascenzo and his senior lieutenants trip their way through Senate Estimates hearings yesterday, where the Hansard will show there were too many “I haven’t got the figures in front of me”, “I’m not sure Senator but I think…” and “I’ll take that question on notice”, I’m not so sure.

D’Ascenzo’s year has been punctuated by a series of gaffes and criticism of his Office: 

  • The clanger he made in his maiden speech in January where he naively boasted “who cares” when talking about complexity in tax laws.
  • His declaration that he’d won the battle against mass-marketed tax avoidance schemes was compared to George Bush’s “mission accomplished” claim over Iraq.
  • His boast that we will see high profile Australians involved in Operation Wickenby front court before Christmas is looking very shaky. Indeed all we have seen is a couple of unknown Gold Coast businessmen charged.
  • He has not turned around the regime of secret tax settlements. The recently released annual report and compliance plan showed there were no big company prosecutions despite the large business segment contributing $3 Billion dollars of the $4B raised from audits across the board.
  • Naively suggesting that a booklet he produced for large business would eradicate claims for bribery. This was confirmed in Estimates last night where he said only one case was under investigation. D’Ascenzo was asked how much is involved in the case and he declined to answer as that might identify the taxpayer. Hmm, wonder who it is?
  • Not properly investigating serous leaks of prominent Australian’s personal tax affairs. His “investigation” turned out to be a routine analysis.
  • Seeking legal opinions on David Vos’s information gathering powers and his office coming under severe criticism in the Inspector-General’s annual report regarding obstruction. This is despite D’Ascenzo saying he wants the ATO to be more transparent. Then why try and muzzle the ATO watchdog? This week D’Ascenzo appointed Professor Robin Creyke as an independent Integrity Adviser to the Tax Office. She has a tough job in front of her. Talk about mission impossible!

D’Ascenzo has been in the ATO nearly 30 years. He has spent nearly all his adult life there. As happens in any organisation if you stay in the one place too long you tend to become blinkered in your decision making and defensive when criticised. So perhaps the founding member of the ATO’s “Guinness Guzzlers Club” should be replaced by David Vos AM, the current Inspector-General of Taxation.

David Vos possesses tremendous qualifications for the Commissioner’s job. His career has spanned both the private and public sectors. He’s worked in the Australian Taxation Office (for almost 13 years) and for more than 25 years has been in private practice. For some 19 years, he was a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers or its antecedent firms.

He has a practical appreciation of both business and government processes. Mr Vos was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in June 2000 for services to the development of indirect tax policy.

Why don’t the government get them to swap roles for two years? We would see the ATO reforms move much quicker and the organisation become more taxpayer friendly under Vos while D’Ascenzo would gain valuable experience in becoming a taxpayer advocate as the Inspector-General of Taxation.

Peter Fray

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