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‘Could be jailed’: ATO boss cornered into naming JobKeeper companies

Image of ATO Chris Jordan, Senator Rex Patrick, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg
The ATO Commissioner is being forced to hand over the names of companies with turnover of more than $10 million that received JobKeeper. (Source: Getty, AAP)

The head of Australia’s tax office has landed himself in hot water after refusing to reveal the names of certain companies that received JobKeeper payments.

Australian Taxation Office (ATO) Commissioner Chris Jordan will now need to hand over information about companies with turnover of more than $10 million that received the wage subsidy or risk potentially facing fines or even jail time.

Jordan had initially refused a senate order for the information, citing that the information was not in the public interest.

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The controversial JobKeeper scheme, has been credited with keeping thousands of businesses afloat during the pandemic but has also faced fierce criticism amid revelations billions of dollars went to companies that were still profitable.

But a push by independent South Australian Senator Rex Patrick to refer the Commissioner to the Senate Privileges Committee succeeded 25 votes to 21.

Labor, the Greens and the crossbench joined forces in support of greater transparency around which companies benefited from the $89 billion scheme, with Coalition senators voting against Patrick’s motion.

Patrick said the Senate’s motion represented a “legally enforceable court order”, and that the ATO Commissioner was now legally compelled to hand over the names of the companies.

“It’s no different to an order by court for a subpoena or no different to an order by a police officer to follow directions,” Patrick told Yahoo Finance.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 30: Senate crossbench member Rex Patrick speaks to media in the Press Gallery at Parliament House on November 30, 2020 in Canberra, Australia. A Morrison government plan to change Australia’s environment laws to allow development approval powers to be handed to the states has hit a roadblock, with three key crossbench senators saying in a report they will not support them.  (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Senate crossbench member Rex Patrick has been very vocal around greater transparency around the JobKeeper scheme. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images) (Sam Mooy via Getty Images)

Now, the Senate Privileges Committee will examine whether Jordan has committed any “potential contempt”, try to seek a remedy, and also make recommendations to the Senate about what to do, Patrick said.

“If, for example, the Commissioner was simply to ignore the privileges committee, he can be fined and could be put in jail by the Senate,” he added.

ATO Commissioner responds

In a statement, Jordan said he acknowledged the Senate's powers.

"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," Jordan told Yahoo Finance.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 16:  ATO Commissioner of Taxation Chris Jordan speaks to the media during a press conference with Treasurer Joe Hockey at Parliament House on September 16, 2015 in Canberra, Australia. Malcolm Turnbull was sworn in as Prime Minister of Australia on Tuesday, replacing Tony Abbott following a leadership ballot on Monday night.  (Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images)
ATO Commissioner of Taxation Chris Jordan. (Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images) (Stefan Postles via Getty Images)

"Following yesterday’s vote, the Senate Standing Committee of Privileges will now further consider the Senate’s order for information about businesses which received JobKeeper.

"This is now a matter for the Senate's Privileges Committee, so I won't be providing further comment beyond what is already publicly available."

JobKeeper 'largest ever' misuse of taxpayer money: Patrick

The inquiry will give the Commissioner an opportunity to comply with the senate order, Patrick said, adding that Jordan was unlikely to face jail time.

The inquiry will report back to the Senate, make recommendations, and then the full Senate will determine the next course of action, he said.

“The [Federal] Government are responsible for the largest ever public controversy in terms of misuse of taxpayer money,” Patrick said.

Patrick said that by not including a “clawback method” in the scheme, the Treasurer had made a “massive prudential failure”.

“$13 billion of taxpayer money went from the taxpayers’ wallet to the wallets of investors and executives,” Patrick said. “And in some cases, overseas investors and overseas executives.

“And that is unconscionable in my view.”

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