ATO faces paper war

Accountant bodies have given the Australian Taxation Office a 10-week ultimatum to dramatically improve its poor online services or drown in a flood of paper in the form of manually-lodged tax returns.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia (ICAA) and CPA Australia issued an ultimatum to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) to fix a number of tax administration issues relating to its services, in protest at a perceived lack of efficiency and support under the new tax system.

To add a bit of heat to the protest, ICAA's members, some 37,000 tax practitioners, have threatened to abandon electronic lodgement from October 28 and swamp the tax office with paperwork on behalf of its frustrated tax practitioner members.

ICAA said the action -- labelled the 'electronic go slow' protest - will mean the tax office will be left with the burden of inputting the data from the paperwork. ICAA said the point of the protest is to illustrate what the ATO currently does to tax practitioners: "insist that any queries be put in writing".

ICAA has listed demands it has made to the tax office, which include staffing its call centre with "the right people" to reduce waiting times on the help line to less than five minutes. ICAA also demanded that the ATO disperse "intelligent and knowledgeable advice on new tax rulings" and implement a clear plan to "redesign the compliance program for next year".

Chief executive of ICAA, Stephen Harrison, said one of the most common complaints from members centres on the ATO helplines.

"We know extra staff have been recruited but you can walk around accountants' offices and hear the hum of music and that's not pipe music coming through the ceiling. That's telephones that are on speaker phone waiting for someone to answer their call and they can wait for tens of minutes, if not over an hour to be able to get their questions resolved. In many cases, they get answers that conflict. In many cases, they don't get a person who can provide them with an answer."

CPA Australia has added its voice, stating there are a number of problems with the system now and many practitioners are struggling with the administration burden and compliance costs resulting from significant tax reform in recent years.

In a statement, the ATO said it has been "working with tax professional bodies to improve services for tax practitioner over many years".

Acting Tax Commissioner, Michael D'Ascenzo, said recent hiring of 200 staff to its call centres has already seen the waiting time for 90 per cent of calls to the tax office business line for tax practitioners cut to under two minutes with the average speed of answer being 45 seconds.

D'Ascenzo also said the tax office has provided its members with secure Web site to access client details, eliminating the need to phone for information.

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