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03 Dec 10 The ramblings of a lost soul

MEMBER 356 writes:

"Looking at Member Feedback in last week's TAXVINE, I am reflecting on the current relationship I (and the industry) have with the ATO. I was a tax officer for a dozen years employed in both Income Tax and Sales Tax Audit and Administration (Internal Audit etc) and now a member in public practice for over 20 years. When I first began in practice the relationship between the ATO and agents was not great and that was from the viewpoint as a tax investigator in dealing with the various schemes that were prolific in the late 70s/early 80s; in the late 90s, the relationship improved and as a public practitioner we completed jobs, looked after our clients' interests and kept onside with the ATO and the ATO was more approachable. Even when GST began and the many dramas with its implementation everybody just accepted it as part of the introduction of GST and effectively we got on with everything - that is, GST was imposed by the Government and both sides of the fence got on with its implementation. However, the current situation with the Software and Systems the ATO uses is nothing short of dismal.

Members last week talked about "new" clients, that when they lodged a return for the current year they are suddenly faced with demands for many other years for which no lodgment was ever required (just look at Tax Pack requirements). It is my view that it was and is the client's responsibility before they came to see me that they ensure that those details were recorded with the ATO. However the ATO now demands those early years from the recently appointed agent and if it's not done, penalises the client $550 for every year. I have clients in the same position - this is an unbelievable attitude by the ATO.

We, the tax agents, have some very very irate clients due to the situations created by the ATO. The ATO should write directly to the client for those years where we were not the appointed agent or to the agent closest to the year not lodged (based on appointment date). That is, if we lodge just the one tax return e.g. 2010, I ask the client whether the previous year is lodged and hopefully sight the assessment notice and/or tax return. Earlier returns required by the ATO are a situation between the ATO and the client, without the participation of the tax agent. We have had no instructions from the client. When the client gets the letter and then consults us and provides instructions we can take it on. Taking it further we should be the appointed agents for a particular year and all those earlier years or information relating to earlier years that ATO requires should be referred to the previous tax agent and/or client not the current tax agent. Naturally with the tax portal (if it could be made to work that way) if the client advises us, we can appoint ourselves for each year they require. The current system is too simple for the ATO to shift their workload onto us.

That is, we, the current tax agent are stuck with dealing with client matters that should have been the provision of the previous tax agents or the client. Just because the ATO systems can now demand 2007 and 2006 and earlier tax returns, why should the agent appointed in 2010 deal with it at all. In some case the current client has visited two or three agents before they got to us. The ATO systems should have been better in those prior years. We should not be penalised for it now in having to utilise time and resources with matters the ATO should have acted on years and years ago.

About a week ago I was visited by my relationship officer (ATO, that is), and during the conversation, I said I haven't seen anybody since 2004, and he replied that it was because "you don't ring us very often", "you don't write us very often" and "there doesn't seem to be any problems". Therefore, it would appear that "problem agents" are being targeted to visits during shorter periods. I do appreciate not being visited on a regular basis by the ATO, I consider the visit was of no value to me as it seemed to be a PR exercise and the ATO probably ensuring that certain KPIs are met.

I would rather have this person being applied to the coalface and getting problems sorted out rather than a "touchy-feely" meeting with me.

My major concern is that I can see no future resolution to the problems generated by the ATO and inflicted on us. I (and staff) seem to be continually hit with issues that chew up time and provide absolutely no benefit to my clients or to my practice. We are chasing refunds for our clients that should be issued by the ATO AUTOMATICALLY. We are having to placate and assure our clients when they receive letters direct from the ATO and not through us that there are no problems. The aTO with its dogged attitude is digging us all into a "we versus them" attitude.

If the ATO does not get down to addressing the real issues and getting out of its spin chamber then many people will exit the industry which will make an already complicated and convoluted system even more unmanageable. Perhaps this is the agenda!!
Keep the Member Feedback going and a suggestion to the Institute that the feedback be put on a database then we can search for those areas where the gripes are strongest and will also provide excellent feedback to the ATO. May I also suggest that the Institute or the Institute and some of the accounting bodies get together and have professionally prepared a questionnaire to determine tax agent attitudes rather than those "fluff" questionnaires from the ATO which seem more to support their position rather than highlight the real problems that exist.

A further matter relates to letters sent directly to the client where we are the agent on record. Benchmarking letters are sent to us and the client, interest "mismatch" letters are only sent to us - so what's going on. When the client gets the benchmarking letter they go into meltdown because most people are still "scared" of the ATO. We then have clients on the phone who we have to pacify and again we lose many, many hours dealing with matters that have been originated by the ATO for which we receive no compensation.

I have previously gone down the "compensation track" and succeeded but the amount of time on these smaller matters is just not cost effective.

I wish to look after my clients' interests and make sure that they comply with the provisions of the Tax Legislation. I want to be able to do what I am trained for and to meet my client's needs and meet the ATO requirements. It appears that we are not able to this as we are continually frustrated by a system that works against itself to best serve the community's interests.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year - I hope everyone gets a break from an extremely frustrating year."

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