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Hi I'm the Tax Commissioner and I'm here to help!

Published: Friday, July 29, 2016

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Words by Peter Switzer

Meet ATO boss, Chris Jordan.

“Hi, I’m the Tax Commissioner and I’m here to help.” I’ve always wanted to write such a line but I was never totally committed to the sentiment, despite the fact that I quite liked the previous head honchos of the Australian Tax Office.

When Chris Jordan took the top tax collector’s job from outside the ATO, his appointment broke a tradition of 105 years. And it would seem a lot of other rigidities have been tossed too. It’s his non-public service experience and the kind of thinking that goes with being a former New South Wales chairman of top accounting firm KPMG that explains why Jordan’s appointment has taken Edward DeBono’s “thinking outside the square” to an entirely different level.

Chris not only thinks outside the tax box, he exudes difference, not only to the previous tax bosses over the past, but to most of humanity.

He towers over me and I’m six foot four. And he would’ve disappointed his Under/19 Randwick Colts coach when he tossed in rugby. (That said, the coach still had future Wallabies Russell Fairfax and Gary Pearse left running around in the famous green jumpers.)

“Oh, it was for university and drugs, sex and rock and roll!” he joked. Did I tell you that he was different?

And that wasn’t the only thing he tossed in along the way to being our top tax cop. The son of a policeman, who fathered five Jordans in South Sydney’s Kingsford, must have thought his son a chip off the old block when he joined the force. However, by age 19 and one year’s service in the real world of policing the beat, the University of New South Wales looked a little more inviting.

In a story penned by the SMH’s Peter Hartcher late last year, Chris revealed the realities of policing away from the tax space, when he and his sergeant walked into a plush waterfront home in Sydney’s Castlecrag, where a woman had been bashed over the head by her husband.

"I was awestruck by the opulence of the house”, he told Hartcher. "And I'm like, 'Why are you doing this? Look at everything you've got.'"

After getting to know the Tax Commissioner, Peter quite rightly gave Chris the tag “the Avenger.”

He’s gained a reputation of not taking too many tax prisoners and while he basically wants justice for all good tax citizens, he’s not interested in mucking around with the near-do-wells.

He talks about his staff being told to cut some respect for taxpayers with issues, who come with “a green light”. However, for those who want to argue the toss, as an unjustified indignant customer or as a “red light” complainant, there will be no kid gloves worn.

Back to the Commissioner tax take approach later. Let’s get to know a little more about his pre-ATO life.

Giving you an idea of the many varied roles Chris has fitted into his 61 years, he was on the board of the World Masters Games in Sydney in 2009. He was  asked to chair the Committee for Sydney, which was basically formed to work out what the city on the harbor could do to match the prowess of the windy city, Melbourne, when it came to attracting and pulling off great events.

“In Melbourne, businesses all got together and collectively achieved so much, while in the past the Committee for Sydney was more of a lunch club,” he recalled.

That was before he started as chair.

Chris is a great believer in the power of more than one and explained what he sees as achievable when many business minds all pull together. I talked to Chris on stage when I facilitated a well-attended two-day summit in the Bega Valley district this week. This innovative summit was introduced three years ago to help improve the economy of the vast area covered by the Council intent on driving this part of Australia forward. Chris looked at the large group of people who showed up to hear him speak and congratulated them for putting their hands up to be doers rather than lunchers.

He took the Commissioner’s job when he was pretty close to retirement age at KPMG and confessed he really wasn’t looking for a full-time job when the head of Treasury, Martin Parkinson approached him about his interest in the job.

Accepting the offer, he then set out to redefine our relationship with his ‘business’.

“My business is set up to take money from you,” he admitted. “And often people don’t like that.”

His wife Hayley, who is a marketing major, gave him an insight into the ATO. “Dealing with the tax office is like going to the dentist — you never really want to do it but sometimes you have to,” she argued. “You need to make people feel that interactions are infrequent, quick and painless.”

This is how he’s now making the ‘forever feared’ Tax Office operate. The attendees at the Summit had travelled to Bega to focus on innovation and were getting to hear about it from a government official and an organisation not renowned for it. I did say Chris was no stranger to being different.

He calls it “re-inventing the ATO” and while he says there were many positive aspects about what he inherited, “it had become isolated, detached and had wound itself up in red tape and process.”

The goal was to bring flexibility, respect for customers and a decluttering of process. The organisation had become checklist-dependent and everything was designed to eliminate risk, he pointed out. The Commissioner says you can’t kill risk but you need to manage it. And that’s what he’s doing.

Happily Chris says his “just stop doing it” attitude to processes that produced a 3000-page document that no one read, was largely supported by his senior management team. And that’s because he thinks most of them kind of agreed but no one in the past had “put a stake in the ground, which said we are going to change this.”

Chris’ changes have included contact centre staff going off robotic scripts and common-sense conversations with customers are now encouraged. Now that’s a difference many of us have been praying for and it has arrived.

Not surprisingly, the complaints about the ATO are on the decline and it might be because Chris doesn’t treat us all as tax cheats.

And he thinks our legislators have made tax too complex by trying to get every dollar collected.

“I talk about designing for the majority,” he revealed. “Over 95% of the money we collect comes in from the system and 5% comes in from active compliance measures. In Italy, it’s more like 35% comes in from active compliance measures!”

We have a pretty compliant population and the Commissioner wants to recognise that.

He ponders why we have designed our tax compliance for the worst person? He says 95% of taxpayers simply want to pay their tax and get it over and done with, so why should the 5% of cheats and fraudsters make it hard for the rest of us?

When he said this, the audience in Bega broke into wild clapping. I never expected that I’d see a group of small business owners give a Tax Commissioner a stirring applause!

Yep, you have to admit, this is a very different thinking Tax Commissioner. And yes, he has been given a few Sir Humphrey Applebee of Yes, Minister fame looks from high-ranking public servants. Fortunately for us, he’s beating his key performance indicators rather than his customers.

Now that’s a nice difference.

Chris on the Weekend

Read: Every day the AFR and the ATO media clips – all media sources. I look at variety of media over weekends. Last book read was Whatever The Cost by J. T. Brannan – part of a light spy thriller series. 

Eat: Slow cooked lamb shoulder made by me on weekends.

Sport: Long bush walks with the dog and sometimes a gym workout.

Getaway: Challenging, adventurous treks.

Indulgence: Finding my wife’s hidden quality chocolate, and aged red wine, and finding the time to cook the food to match the wine.

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