The tax office has drawn the ire of crossbench senators after it refused to hand over new details about which companies received JobKeeper.
In the latest speed bump for efforts to expose JobKeeper secrets, ATO commissioner Chris Jordan has refused an order to hand over a list of more than 10,000 companies and how much JobKeeper they received.
The Senate had earlier passed a motion ordering the ATO to reveal the data, but Mr Jordan said it would undermine confidence in the tax system.
Mr Jordan said he won’t comply on grounds of public-interest immunity.
“We are mindful of the gravity of an order of the Senate,” Mr Jordan wrote in a letter tabled in Parliament on Friday morning.
“However, we are concerned to ensure that the Senate is fully cognisant of the potential and serious implications for taxpayer confidentiality and confidence in providing information to the commissioner [ATO].”
ATO’s sealed files
The ATO has argued that because JobKeeper companies provided their financial data confidentially, trust in Australia’s tax system will be harmed if this information is now made public.
“Requiring disclosure of protected taxpayer information to the Parliament will harm the public interest by undermining the public confidence in the Commissioner’s ability to keep taxation information confidential,” Mr Jordan wrote.
Mr Jordan said the data will reveal potentially sensitive financial information about companies, including identifying those with less than $10 million in turnover because they wouldn’t be listed.
Crucially, the ATO didn’t argue the Senate has no power to compel it, which sets the stage for Senators to reject the public interest defence.
As The New Daily reported in January, the ATO kept extensive records on companies that took JobKeeper, including monthly turnover data and projections each company made to gain access to the scheme last year.
But it has closely guarded this data from the public, despite calls for transparency amid revelations many took JobKeeper without needing it.
Other countries such as New Zealand have public registers allowing the public to look up which companies took wage subsidies last year.
The data requested by the Senate would allow the public to construct a register of all companies with more than $10 million in annual turnover that took JobKeeper, including worker numbers and the money taken.
It could be cross-referenced with other public financial data to determine which firms took JobKeeper despite earning higher profits and sales.
A recent Parliamentary Budget Office report has found more than $12 billion was paid to companies that didn’t experience a sales fall in 2020.
Meanwhile, as TND reported, more than $1 billion went to large publicly listed companies that saw profits rise or paid dividends to investors.
The trend, called ‘DividendKeeper’ saw retailers like Harvey Norman and gambling giants like Crown refuse to repay millions to taxpayers.
The latest calls for transparency come after it emerged the government is chasing more than 11,000 income-support recipients for JobKeeper overpayments, despite refusing to force profitable companies to repay.
Senators reject ATO excuses
Independent Senator Rex Patrick, who moved the Senate motion calling for the ATO to produce the JobKeeper records, has rejected the ATO’s argument and will ask the Senate to reject Mr Jordan’s excuses.
“The information the Senate is asking for is not related to an employers’ business or taxation information,” Mr Patrick said in a statement.
“It is related to the amount of public money they were provided. In that respect it is no different to grant money or the total amount of money received under a government contract, which is already published information.”
Those calls were supported by the Greens on Friday, with leader Adam Bandt saying Parliament must hold the Morrison government to account.
“The Greens legislative push to force JobKeeper payback will continue and we’ll support moves to contest the ATO’s public immunity claim,” he said in a statement on Friday.
“The Treasurer has misspent more public money than any elected official in history on big corporations and billionaires whose wealth and profits grew during the pandemic.
“The highest spending program in history has to have full transparency.”
Labor MP Andrew Leigh, who has been in a standoff with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg over secret JobKeeper data for more than six months, said the government must “come clean” about JobKeeper profiteering.
“In Britain, New Zealand and the United States the government took it for granted that a wage-subsidy scheme should involve public reporting,” Dr Leigh said on Friday.
“Conservative and progressive governments alike shared the information with the taxpayers who paid the wage-subsidy bills.
“Yet in Australia the Morrison government has thrown a shroud of secrecy over JobKeeper.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said he can’t compel the ATO to cough up.
“The Treasurer cannot legally intervene in the Commissioner’s independent administration of the tax laws (including the tax secrecy provisions),” Mr Frydenberg said in a statement on Friday.
“A Treasury review of JobKeeper also found it met its objectives, supporting businesses and job survival, preserving the employment relationship and providing much needed income support.”
Mr Frydenberg said Labor is “obsessed” with trying to find a fault in the “highly effective JobKeeper program”.
“And now we know they want the confidential financial and taxation information of 10,000 Australian businesses and sole-traders to be made public,” he said.
“The Government will stand on the side of the one million entities and more than 3.5 million employees for whom JobKeeper was an economic lifeline.”