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.
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.
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.
"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.”