Photo: Louie Douvis
The Taxation Office looks set to walk away from its presence in regional Australia, flagging the closure of offices in country NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland.
Leases on the 10 regional offices, part of a network established in the overhaul of the tax system in 2000, are on the chopping block with about 80 workers likely to face a choice between relocation or redundancy.
The Canberra Times revealed last month that the ATO has nearly 4700 empty desks in its workplaces across Australia - one empty work space for every five employees - and the cash-strapped department has made no secret of its desire to cut costs.
The 10 offices now under the microscope have 177 desks but only 80 staff and all the leases will expire this year.
The ATO's Bundaberg office closed its doors this month, with three employees taking redundancy, and the axe fell in December on Tax Office buildings in Hurstville in Sydney's south and Southport on Queensland's Gold Coast.
An internal ATO document, the Draft Regional Service Delivery Project, indicates the department's bosses see little value in keeping the regional network.
"There is not a close or logical alignment between current site presence and areas of perceived high risk or non-compliance," the document reads.
According to the report, modern technology means that services can be delivered to the regions more cheaply and efficiently than having offices open in big country towns.
"Technological advancements have led to a situation where the provision of education and assistance to people can increasingly be delivered effectively via telephone, mobile devices and internet-based solutions," it says.
"Many elements of active compliance can also be carried out remotely and a large proportion of active compliance activity is now desk based.''
The Tax Office says that no final decisions have been made on the future of the offices in Port Macquarie, Sale, Mackay, Bendigo, Rockhampton, Launceston, Cairns, Orange, Toowoomba and Grafton and that more consultation will be held in February.
But unions are unhappy with the process with the Australian Services Union saying the livelihoods of ATO workers are being left in limbo by their bosses' slow decision-making process.
"So the ATO has again left an issue which affects the livelihood and careers of 80 staff to the last moment," ASU official Jeff Lapidos said. "Perhaps the rationale in denying a decision has been made is to reduce the likelihood of organised resistance.
"It is difficult to understand."
Mr Lapidos said the Taxation Office, as a national organisation, had a duty to maintain a presence in regional Australia.
"The ATO has offices in each capital city because it is a national organisation with national responsibilities," he said.
"The real question is whether the commissioner is prepared to invest in the ATO's regional responsibilities.
"The answer would appear to be no."