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Australian Tax Office struggling with its own superannuation rules

Taxpayers and accountants struggling with Australia's notoriously complex superannuation tax laws should brace for disturbing news; many of the ATO's "specialists" are confused too.

Deep cuts to the ATO's public service workforce in recent years have culled many of the vital "boffins" in the superannuation business unit, leaving survivors complaining internally of a "lack of subject matter expertise".

The confusion did not end there, a recent internal staff survey found, with workers in the business unit struggling to keep up with constantly changing procedures and processes.

Private sector superannuation experts and unions are worried.

The Coalition's controversial reforms, to an already bewildering area of taxation law, are due to take effect within weeks, with one superannuation specialist saying the lack of detailed subject knowledge within the ATO was already well-known within the sector.

In 2013, the Tax Office had 1,131 officials in its Superannuation business unit, an analysis of annual reports reveals, but three years later there were just 700 public servants left working there.

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The 40 per cent attrition rate far outstrips the downsizing of the Tax Office more broadly, which has cut about 20 per cent of its public servants in the same period.

When the ATO's Deputy Commissioner in charge of superannuation James O'Halloran recently ordered a survey of workplace issues among his staff, he got back some worrying results.

Among the "issues" and "challenges" reported, was "the level and availability of subject matter expertise across Super following workforce reductions in the last few years."

Workers also said they were having problems "finding and understanding the direction of current work procedures."

There was confusion around "change and understanding why procedural and process changes are made."

But it was not all bad news, according to the Deputy Commissioner's message to his troops; more than 65 per cent of survey participants spoke highly of the support they got from the colleagues and the "cohesion" of the workplace.

But one superannuation expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the survey results were "not surprising, that it could be hard to get reliable information from ATO Superannuation with answers sometimes vague or contradictory". 

The sharp downsizing and staff turnover in the ATO's superannuation business unit put pressure on the experienced hands in the workplace, the "boffins" with the vital technical skills.

"These boffins are used heavily as 'brains trusts' by new staff, but are also often targeted first when downsizing occurs, further reducing the knowledge transfer to less experienced operators," the private sector specialist said.

"New managers tend to forget this point when selecting staff for retrenchment."

One workplace union, the Australian Services Union, said the results of the staff survey laid bare the results of years of savage job cuts in the Tax Office and more cuts were on the way.

"To me, it sounds like it's complete chaos," union official Jeff Lapidos said.

"Artificial caps on staffing levels, inexperienced contractors undertaking compliance work, repeated redundancy programs and substantial cuts to ATO funding over the next four years have destabilised the effectiveness of our work."

But Mr O'Halloran said he was taking action with working groups to be set up to try to make processes and procedures easier, build technical expertise and to improve "change management".

There would alo be improved training for managers in the superannuation business line, the Deputy Commissioner said.

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