Australian Taxation Office slashes 4700 staff, brings in $250,000-a-year spin doctor

Australian Taxation Office slashes 4700 staff, brings in $250,000-a-year spin doctor

The Australian Taxation Office is hiring a $250,000-a-year media wrangler to sell the idea that revenue collection will not fall, but its own data shows that each of the 4700 staff walking out the door collect an average of $23 million in taxes.

Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan's newest senior executive will respond to "high profile, high risk" media inquiries and craft the most important message the organisation needs to send to the public: that staff cuts will not have any "material impact" on revenue collection.

The ATO's assistant commissioner of public affairs will help Mr Jordan brief acting Assistant Treasurer Mathias Cormann on tax collection, which must be maintained even though 3000 staff had left by October and another 1700 were scheduled to go.

An ATO spokeswoman said the media executive was an existing position currently occupied under acting arrangements due to a permanent transfer out of the role.

Selling the idea that tax revenue will not be hurt as staff numbers are slashed could be a hire-wire act. ATO data used in a report tabled in the House of Representatives on Monday show that each Tax Office employee represents $23.58 million of tax collected – many millions of dollars more than agents in three comparable first-world nations.


ATO employees collect on average $10 million more revenue than counterparts in Britain ($14.7 million), New Zealand ($14 million) and Ireland ($13 million).

Australia's "gross revenue collected per staff member" figure was also almost on par with Norway ($25.9 million) and Denmark ($25.2 million).

The ATO provided the data to the committee to show how Australia's cost of tax collection had improved in recent years.

But top Tax Office bureaucrats do not want the figures used to argue revenue collection will drop when staff numbers are slashed.

The report by parliament's standing committee on tax and revenue quoted the ATO's second commissioner Neil Olesen who was confident tax collection - so vital when the Abbott government was trying to find savings everywhere - would not be hurt.

Mr Olesen said it was a "simplistic view that you just divide the revenue base by the number of officers in the organisation and that equates to revenue per head of the person working in the organisation".

"That is just not how it works," he said.

"The variety of functions that people do, the variety of risks they might address, the kind of work they do varies enormously.

"You certainly cannot apply a simplistic average to every person and say that for everyone who works in the organisation they bring in this amount of money."

The latest available figures which could be compared showed that in 2011 Australia collected $361.3 billion with 18,196 full time equivalent staff.

Staff numbers and revenue collection have increased since then.

The number of ATO staff was now about 20,000 and collected $419 billion in gross tax last financial year.

This puts the gross revenue collected per staff member at a lower $21 million but it would not yet be known how other nations have fluctuated in that time.

Transnational tax minimisation has become an issue in recent years which many countries have been grappling with.

Other indicators also showed the ATO's performance had improved markedly in the past decade.

The cost of collection relative to gross revenue had decreased from 84 cents in every $100 collected in 2005 to 71c per $100 collected in 2013.

In 2013, 0.18 per cent of GDP was spent on collecting taxes compared to 0.23 per cent in 2005.

Phillip Thomson is a Public Service Reporter at The Canberra Times.

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