The ATO last week issued words of warning to publishers who will soon have access to a trove of documents related to the administration of JobKeeper under freedom of information laws, which the department said may not provide sufficient context.
“The documents released under freedom of information only provide point-in-time data and insights which may not provide appropriate context or may be superseded by events or updates not available within the documents,” the ATO said in a statement.
“As such, journalists reporting on the FOIs should be cautious in drawing conclusions from these documents.”
The warning emerged just one day after the Australian Financial Review published a report detailing how the ATO was aware that it lacked a dedicated “oversight committee”, five months into the program. However, some said the report was “overblown”.
The ATO said that journalists reporting on documents like these need to be “highly conscious” of the differences between the ATO identifying a potential issue for further exploration, how many businesses were selected for a review on that potential issue, and ultimately how many of those businesses were actually in breach of that issue.
“The documents illustrate how the ATO ensured payments were able to flow quickly to eligible businesses, while also ensuring the integrity of the scheme was maintained at all times,” the ATO said.
“As would be expected, the ATO kept Treasury and the Treasurer’s office regularly informed as to the status of the program, including the ATO’s comprehensive compliance program.
“Our aim was to make JobKeeper payments easy to access for eligible businesses, and extremely difficult to access for ineligible businesses. This aim was achieved.”
The ATO doubled down on its design of the scheme’s compliance architecture, which it said was subject to “comprehensive reviews” of cases that forecasted a decline in turnover, finding that the “vast majority” of taxpayers undertook the projected decline in turnover test in good faith.
“From our review of more than 1,600 entities across all markets, we found more than 95 per cent were eligible,” the ATO said.
“These entities were not chosen at random, but on the basis of perceived risk. In short, contrary to the perception that may be obtained from some recent reporting, false or bad-faith estimates of turnover declines or manipulation of past BAS’ were the rare exception.
“In these cases, the businesses were required to pay back any amounts they received.
“It is critical to distinguish between the number of entities chosen for review (high, as part of a comprehensive review program for this issue) and the number of entities which were identified as breaching eligibility rules and bore the appropriate consequences (low, less than 5 per cent).”
The messaging comes after an admission that followed the same tune in mid-September, when Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan told a Senate inquiry that the Tax Office had so far conducted audits of 1,600 businesses that received the $90 billion federal wage subsidy, of which 95 per cent met eligibility requirements.
But “clearly, there were some that [did] not, and we’ve already recovered $194 million”, Mr Jordan said.
“We’re pursuing another $89 million. There’s $6 million in dispute, and we’ve decided not to pursue $180 million, because it went to small businesses who made a genuine attempt, maybe a mistake, but had paid it on to their employees.
“That was a fundamental requirement.”
The ATO’s decision to let scores of businesses off the hook prompted crossbench senator Rex Patrick to question the move, which he said emerges in stark contrast to the government’s approach to 11,000 welfare recipients, who in August received debt letters for overpaid JobKeeper.
John Buckley is a journalist at Accountants Daily.
Before joining the team in 2021, John worked at The Sydney Morning Herald. His reporting has featured in a range of outlets including The Washington Post, The Age, and The Saturday Paper.