TaxVibe Professional development

Karen Payne: “if you want a career in tax, it's always going to be changing”


“I think of tax as a statutory fiction, but as a statutory fiction, it gets to intersect and interact with a whole bunch of things that are real, like commerce and property and retirement and superannuation. It's those interactions and intersections that are very interesting, but also create a whole lot of diversity for anybody who's thinking about a career in tax to say, ‘Well, actually, it's this part of the system that I'm most interested in.’."

– Karen Payne, Inspector-General of Taxation and Taxation Ombudsman

During her long and illustrious tax career, Karen Payne, LLB MComm BComm CTA FCA Solicitor, has moved in many circles, held a number of high-profile positions and learnt a lot about what it takes to succeed in the space. In May 2019, she was appointed Inspector-General of Taxation and Taxation Ombudsman a position she still holds today.

Karen recently caught up with our Senior Advocate, Robyn Jacobson, CTA, to shed light on her role as the Inspector-general of taxation and taxation ombudsman, give us a sneak peek at some upcoming reports and share some of her own career journey.

Listen to TaxVibe Episode 7 for the full story.

The Inspector-General of Taxation was set up in 2003 by Prime Minister John Howard, with endorsement from the Board of Taxation. It’s an independent agency, distinct from the ATO.

In 2015, the role of Taxation Ombudsman was inherited by the Inspector-General of Taxation agency, introducing what was essentially a taxation complaint service, combined with ministerial advisory.

“Fundamentally, what we do is investigate. We either investigate because somebody brings their concerns or their complaint about tax administration to us and then we go and conduct an independent investigation and provide them with a report, or because we see a trend in complaints or through our engagement with stakeholders, they bring issues to us,” Karen explained.

“I do genuinely extend an invitation to anyone who has any concerns around the tax administration system, we're here to serve the community. Please use us. Please contact us if you feel like you're in need of help.”

Contact the Inspector-General of Taxation and Taxation Ombudsman.

From tax returns to Inspector-General

When it comes to how Karen reached this point in her career, she repeated what seems to be a common refrain for some of the best tax professionals: “I basically started my career without any idea that I had any interest in working in tax.”

“I knew I wanted to be an accountant and that was only because my dad suggested it to me because he said, ‘Hey, Karen, you're good at maths, maybe you should do accounting.’ Now here I am as a tax ombudsman,” she recounted.

In her early career at Ernst & Whinney, Karen worked on small business accounting, completing tax returns and audits.

“Then I found progressively that I enjoyed the challenge of tax and the problem-solving aspect of tax, and also the fact that if you want a career in tax, it's always going to be changing,” she said.

As she gradually specialised more and more, Karen embarked on higher education, completing a Commerce degree part-time, a Master in Tax and ultimately, a law degree.

“I have to say, when I reflect back on my career, it's always been expanding my area of focus, is how I reflect on it. Initially it was really about compliance with the law and actually preparing tax returns. I spent many years preparing tax returns. In fact, that's how I paid for my way through law school,” she said.

“Then I gradually moved into having an interest around the tax policy. Partly, that's also driven because I think what I'm most interested in is the commerce.”

True to form, when it comes to up-and-coming tax professionals, Karen’s advice was, “…always keep your options open. There's lots of experiences out there to be gained so don't lock yourself in.”

Having come a long way from filing tax returns as a high school graduate, this April, Karen presented at the Leading from Trials to Triumph event in Canberra on the 14th of April and will be presenting again in Sydney alongside Kirsten Fish, CTA, Chief Tax Counsel, ATO, on the 29th of April, sharing insights into leadership in a tax career.

“I'm actually going to talk about my observations around leadership specifically because I'm now sitting in a public service model and some of the observations that I have around leadership in the public service model and drawing some comparisons to what I might've observed in private practice,” she said.