Feb 5, 2013

The tax office, ‘hired assassins’ and how to gag dissent

The nation's tax office has been accused of hiring psychiatrists to diagnose and even coerce complainants during legal disputes. Crikey's freedom of information requests and interviews reveal a worrying culture.

Chris Seage — Tax consultant and former ATO audit manager

Chris Seage

Tax consultant and former ATO audit manager

The Australian Taxation Office has been accused of sending employees to "hired assassin" psychiatrists to silence dissent, discredit whistleblowers and terminate their employment. Taxation professionals say the ATO has not only ignored calls for tighter regulation of these powers but appears to have intensified its use of psychiatry to label taxpayers they are in legal dispute with as "high conflict people". Crikey has obtained information under freedom of information about psychiatric seminars rolled out last month to ATO legal and HR managers by psychiatrist Dr Kipling Walker from the National Health Group. An email exchange between Dom Sheil -- a senior principal lawyer in the ATO, who oversees compensation for taxpayers -- and Dr Walker reveals the arrangement. Sheil writes:

Here is a link to the website I mentioned on dealing with personality disorders in legal disputes -- the High Conflict Institute http://www.highconflictinstitute.com I have five of their books on high conflict people (HCPs for those of us in the know). I reckon the best is It's All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything. I think you would like the first part of the book that identifies the 4 personality disorders at issue:
  • Borderline
  • Narcissistic
  • Histrionic
  • Anti Social
Somewhere in the material they also talk about the corpus callosum, amygdala and motor neurons of HCP's. That's very cerebral stuff (pardon the pun) might be of interest to you as a brain specialist!
Tony Greco, the senior tax advisor for the Institute of Public Accountants, tells Crikey it's wrong to label taxpayers who challenge ATO decisions. "Under the self-assessment system the ATO have rights to challenge an assessment but so do taxpayers. The tax office doesn't like losing but they should not label taxpayers who are merely exercising their rights under the law," he said. Steve Davies, the founder of OZloop who is active in the open government sphere, says the actions of the ATO lawyer mirror the adversarial nature of the legal profession. "[It] provides a mechanism to label employees who object to the bullying as 'high conflict people' with personality disorders," he told Crikey. "The perspective being advocated medicalises conflict and in doing so provides a mechanism for ATO lawyers and HR staff to mandate psychiatric intervention where they lack the medical qualifications to make such judgments. This gives rise to a direct conflict of interest." In November 2012 the House Standing Committee on Education and Employment tabled a report into bullying, finding the reports of public sector cases "particularly concerning". The committee accepted submissions from aggrieved public servants that the fitness for duty test or the mental health referral powers that enable the Commonwealth and its agencies to compel/direct employees to attend a medical examination with a psychiatrist is being used "against workers who are allegedly not performing their duties" and to "intimidate or further bully workers who made complaints about workplace bullying or other working conditions". The Committee was not persuaded by the claims of Annwyn Godwin, the Public Service Commission's merit protection commissioner, that the review powers available to public servants provide "sufficient safeguards" and that the referral powers have been "exercised responsibly" or "in good faith". And the committee was not convinced by the justifications of Stephen Sedgwick, the Australian Public Service commissioner, that the "referral powers provide agencies with a flexible tool that allows them to manage genuine cases of illness, including mental illness". Law and public policy expert JA James from APSbullying.com was the first to publicly articulate the Commonwealth's use of compulsory psychiatric referrals against employees in 2011. She examined the literature behind "pathologising" determined litigants in the paper The Commonwealth's Cry of 'Vexatious Litigant'. "There is a trend in the Commonwealth in misusing labels such as 'vexatious' or 'querulous paranoia' against genuine litigants and complainants to devalue and dismiss their claims with the intent of preventing the legitimate exercise of their legal and policy rights," she told Crikey. "In some cases, such pathologising by Commonwealth lawyers is based on discredited literature from the late 1800s." Stephen Strelecky is a former Jewish ATO officer who won a very public compensation case last year against the ATO over anti-Semitic remarks made by a colleague in the ATO's Box Hill branch. He complained to management about the abuse and requested a transfer out but managers refused. One day Strelecky told his manager the abuse was continuing and he was feeling stressed because they would not transfer him or the offender out of the area. The ATO responded by referring Strelecky to eight psychiatric assessments over a two-year period. Strelecky's case also draws parallels with the Serene Teffaha case, the whistleblower that blew the lid off the ATO's "tick and flick" culture of determining taxpayer objections. Teffaha, a senior lawyer engaged as a tax technical specialist, was also not granted a transfer out of her work area where she was being bullied. ATO officers referred her to a psychiatrist -- as revealed by documents obtained by Crikey -- within two weeks of lodging her complaint, without her knowledge. Both Strelecky and Teffaha complained to Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury, who has parliamentary responsibility for ATO administrative matters. Bradbury has never responded to them. Strelecky would not respond to Crikey questions due to a confidentiality clause in his settlement agreement with the ATO. But a source who witnessed the ATO abuse of Strelecky told Crikey: "He was referred to five different psychiatrists who were nothing more than hired assassins. "The system could work properly if the referral is done in good faith and a plan to get the employee back to work is negotiated successfully. But it doesn't work like this and in reality there is collusion between the psychiatrist and the ATO. One of his original psychiatric assessments recommended he return to work. It was subsequently altered to suit the ATO view that he not return to work. This could only have been done after verbal communication between the parties."Last year Strelecky finally received an apology from Shane Reardon, first assistant ATO commissioner. The letter obtained by Crikey states:

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14 thoughts on “The tax office, ‘hired assassins’ and how to gag dissent

  1. Dogs breakfast

    “In a bizarre twist, the worker that abused Strelecky was provided with a generous taxpayer-funded redundancy package to exit his employment.”

    I would be surprised if this wasn’t also pushed through as a ‘bona fide’ redundancy which also then attracts highly advantageous tax breaks. The problem is that this would not be a bona fide redundancy under the, gulp, tax office legislation.

    But what the hey, employers are doing this all over the place. The easiest way to get rid of someone is often to pay them a redundancy, and call it a ‘bona fide’ redundancy regardless of circumstances.

    The most laughable thing is the idea of HR practitioners and lawyers making judgements about others mental fitness, and subsequent need for psychiatric attention. As a former HR practitioner of 32 years, I could hardly think of 2 professions more likely to be filled by narcissistic and borderline personalities.

    But I’m just a trouble maker.

  2. ianjohnno

    How very Stalinist.
    This is the way modern management is going and I think the ATO is only one of many.

  3. Andrew McMillen

    Excellent story, Chris.

  4. bluepoppy

    This is common in many departments. The golden handshake payout to get rid of ‘controversial’ senior managers. I once asked what KPIs were met for one departing manager to receive his performance bonus (under FOI) and no information was forthcoming. Didn’t even ask how much just what the KPIs were. The SES network looks after it’s own similar to the largesse and pig swilling at the corporate trough.

  5. Dr Dagg

    It sounds like the ATO has a shocking case of projective identification. It is engaging in the behaviour that it is accusing its employees.

    It’s not the referral powers that are at issue. Every systems is only as good as the people inside of it. You could change the powers and they would only find another way. The people need to be changed.

    There is the irony that as someone who works for an organisation similar in culture to the ATO, if you decide to become a whistleblower, you probably are a bit crazy.

  6. duncan stephens

    Excellent – but depressing article. The same toxic behaviour of large corporates well and truly present in our public service. I hope Mr Bradbury takes time out from boring us on Qanda to read this !

  7. sparky

    I’m always interested at the motivation of health professionals to become involved in the Stalinist( thank you ianjohnno) machinations of powerful organisations. There have been countless books/ movies/ cultural artifacts on the subject. Is it a sociopathy of the weak who want to be aligned with the powerful or just to be liked, or just greed?

  8. Moira Smith

    I believe the use of ‘hired asassin’ psychiatrists is also common with employers seeking to win Comcare cases (or is it Comcare that has them all lined up).

  9. Madonna

    Definition of Irony – ATO management sending staff to get their head read!

  10. iPinque

    No surprises, unfortunately – the ATO is a poorly-run outfit, with management practices mired in the worst excesses of 80s Harvard-style corporatism, and a forest of deadwood in middle-management.

    Technologically crippled by incompetent ICT leadership (they still use Windows XP fer chrissakes, with no chance of moving wholly to Win 7 [never mind 8!] until 2014) they are floundering. Don’t expect a Mac-friendly version of eTax any time soon, either.

    “Blame-the-victim” has always been a preferred tactic, rather than shouldering the responsibility for decisions. Calling your critics crazy is just another aspect of that – Yossarian would feel right at home there.

    New Commissioner Chris Jordan has a big job ahead of him, cleaning up the mess Mike D’Ascenzo left behind.

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