How Labor wants to win over Coalition business voters
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How Labor wants to win over Coalition business voters

Small business owners are being framed as the must-win swing voters in the looming federal election, as Labor looks to capitalise on Coalition chaos by establishing a powerful new commissioner to solve tax disputes.

The Coalition is meanwhile flirting with accelerating up to $1.8 billion worth of tax cuts for small businesses before the next federal poll, while Labor has doubled-down on its opposition, telling the business lobby it will not back tax cuts that have not already been legislated.

Instead, Labor will look to woo business voters who feel they have been ripped off by the Tax Office by installing a second commissioner dedicated to appeals if it wins the election next year.

A joint Fairfax-Four Corners investigation in April revealed the Australian Tax Office had made mistakes in one in 20 tax office cases, where Australian Business Numbers had been wiped and debts scooped from bank accounts, leaving business owners destitute.

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen.

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen.

Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

In comments that are likely to set up a fractious relationship between shadow treasurer Chris Bowen and a department he could be in charge of in less than a year, Mr Bowen will tell the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia on Friday that the second additional commissioner will be separate within the Tax Office from the original decision makers.

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"Let’s not pretend that everything is always perfect or that the power relationship between the ATO and small businesses is anything approaching equal," he said.

"We know what is necessary both to improve the fairness and the perception of fairness of the system. It’s a pretty fundamental principle: those considering appeals should not be the same people or from the same business unit as those who have made the original decision."

Industry body Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand, consultants PwC, the House of Representatives standing committee on tax and the Inspector-General of Taxation have all noted or signalled their in-principle support of the position, putting pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison's new government to match Labor's pledge.

The Internal Revenue Service in the US has already adopted a similar structure.

Mr Bowen said the announcement would not magically solve all problems any small business ever has with the Tax Office.

"But it will improve the lot of genuine small businesses who have acted genuinely and honestly and yet found themselves in intractable disputes with the ATO and who feel that the balance of power between them and the ATO means they are not getting a fair go," he said.

Labor has also looked to blunt the Coalition's anti-business attacks by promoting its investment guarantee - an upfront 20 per cent tax deduction that effectively encourages businesses to invest in new assets with an immediate tax benefit.

Unlike a tax cut, the guarantee provides does not provide unilateral benefit for all businesses who have not invested themselves.

Mr Bowen said while the budget was still in deficit this would deliver tax relief for businesses in the most targeted way "without the giveaway that comes with benefiting investments that have already occurred".

The shadow treasurer lashed energy policy stasis, a bungled NBN roll-out and leadership instability for having a paralysing effect on business.

"None of the proposed government policies has survived contact with the enemy, by which I mean Liberal and National backbenchers who don’t believe in climate change and are determined to kill sensible policy," he said.

Mr Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have named reducing power prices, small business enterprise and drought relief as their top priorities in the post-Malcolm Turnbull Coalition government.

Eryk Bagshaw is an economics reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Parliament House