The tax commissioner is facing an investigation by the Senate privileges committee, with Labor, the Greens and the crossbench banding together in a bid to force him to reveal details about the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme.
- JobKeeper went to some companies that turned a profit during the pandemic
- ATO commissioner Chris Jordan has resisted requests to reveal which large companies received the payments for privacy reasons
- Senator Rex Patrick says the investigation will put pressure on Mr Jordan to comply with a lawful order
The Senate had ordered ATO boss Chris Jordan to reveal the names of businesses with a turnover of $10 million that received taxpayer funds, but he had refused, citing privacy provisions.
While it has been widely accepted the $89 billion JobKeeper scheme kept many businesses afloat during the worst of the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, the federal government has faced criticism over revelations some beneficiaries actually increased their turnover during the pandemic.
South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick has been one of the most vocal in demanding greater transparency in the scheme, citing the approach of the New Zealand government in publishing a list of employers who received support under a similar program.
His motion to refer the commissioner for investigation succeeded, 25 votes to 21.
“It’s a lawful order and just as he might be given an order to carry out something in accordance with a police direction or a court direction, the same applies for the Senate,” he said.
“The privileges committee will look at the order and will make sure that the order is, in some way, complied with and can ultimately make a recommendation back to the Senate to either fine or jail the tax commissioner.”
Senator Patrick conceded those consequences, while serious, were unlikely.
“This just increases the pressure for the tax commissioner to comply with this the lawful direction of the Senate,” he said.
“I don’t think he has any choice — this is now a standoff between one of the most powerful committees of the Senate and the tax commissioner, and I don’t think the Senate will allow itself to lose that battle.”
To access funding through JobKeeper, businesses had to forecast a downturn as a result of the pandemic.
Businesses with a yearly turnover of less than $1 billion needed to predict a fall of more than 30 per cent, while businesses with a yearly turnover in excess of $1 billion had to predict a 50 per cent decline.
The ABC asked the ATO whether the commissioner would cooperate with the inquiry, and whether he had changed his stance on producing the information.
“I acknowledge and respect the powers of the Senate and the critical function it undertakes,” Mr Jordan said in a statement.
“The Senate Standing Committee of Privileges will now further consider the Senate’s order for information about businesses which received JobKeeper.
“One of my fundamental roles as Commissioner of Taxation is to safeguard the integrity of the tax and super systems by ensuring the community’s confidence in taxpayer secrecy is maintained.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has repeatedly defended the JobKeeper program, arguing it was designed to quickly get money into the economy and many companies “desperately needed” the funding.
But some businesses actually recorded profits.
Senator Patrick said Mr Jordan may change his mind on releasing the names.
“If a business goes to a bank and receives money that is private business of the bank,” he said.
“If a business goes to the taxpayer and asks for money, that is the business of the taxpayer — just as we disclose contract values that are given to companies, and we disclose grants that are given to companies.”