Tax Chief Michael D’Ascenzo has agreed to testify twice a year in a public hearing just like the Reserve Bank Governor does. This was agreed upon after Mr D’Ascenzo appeared before the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit yesterday in Canberra. The Committee are conducting a major inquiry into the tax office called “Inquiry reviewing ‘Certain Taxation Matters’ within Australia.”

This is a great step forward for an organization that hates anyone looking over their shoulder and comes on top of news last week that the ATO sought legal advice into the information gathering powers of David Vos, the Inspector-General of Taxation, who is effectively the ATO watchdog.

Indeed so serious were the allegations that last week in another parliamentary committee Senator Nick Sherry accused senior Treasury mandarins of trying to “nobble” Vos. There is genuine concern at both government and opposition levels of the public perception of the unaccountability of the ATO.

Despite the official line from D’Ascenzo’s spin doctors that they are agreeable to more accountability the reverse applies in reality. Vos said in his annual report last week:

The Tax Office has also become extremely adept at managing issues in the media and protecting its public image, ostensibly as part of maintaining community and Government confidence in its administration. This approach is not always consistent with being transparent; and there are signs that a habitual use of ‘spin’ is an obstacle to honest reflection, and to learning from mistakes and constructive criticism.”

My work in 2005-06 leads me to conclude that there are real challenges for the Tax Office to advance beyond the culture of pre-judgment and sugar-coated public communication that currently characterises parts of its administration, towards the value–driven administration that the new Commissioner envisages.