The sight of the raw institutional dysfunction in the US government at the moment provides a useful reminder to Australians that we should both treasure and encourage the respect that Australians have for our federal government institutions.
By “government institutions”, I’m pointing not to Tony Abbott or Bill Shorten or to just the executive or Parliament, but to the whole federal structure, taking in the courts, the Reserve Bank, government departments and instrumentalities. While almost no self-respecting Aussie puts it this way, it seems to me that there is a basic belief across middle Australia that these institutions do OK, that they can be trusted to do at least a halfway competent job. Though we don’t want to actually say so …
That belief is vital to any attempts to use government to make Australia a better place.
And if you are interested in having people trust government, there are few more important institutions than the Australian Tax Office. It pays for the government while relieving many of us of a largish lump of money. People are bound to care about that.
Which is one reason why I was interested to spend a bit of time back in July with Chris Jordan, the ex-KPMG tax lawyer who Wayne Swan late last year appointed to head the ATO. I interviewed him for Public Accountant magazine, the magazine of the Institute of Public Accountants, which I edit. The interview is now up online at the Public Accountant website. It was one of my more enjoyable journalistic assignments of the past decade, because Jordan tells interesting stories while radiating an amiable charm.
Jordan’s background includes helping to found the Redfern Legal Centre in 1976.He also worked for a while for John Howard in Opposition in the mid-1980s, and later on working on the Howard Government’s abortive health and social services access card project. Through Howard, he knows Tony Abbott. In fact, he knows a hell of a lot of people – he’s a consumate networker. He is, for instance, very well regarded within the Business Council. In the broader world, very few people have a bad thing to say about him. He’s smart and he seems to be a good manager with a reformist streak.
That’s significant because it is likely to reduce any temptation within the new federal government to “take on” the Tax Office. Joe Hockey gave a few speeches in Opposition suggesting the ATO failed to understand how business worked – but though taking potshots at the taxman is easy work, he didn’t give in to the temptation to trash the ATO as an institution. Hockey was the minister with carriage of the health and social services access card push, so his relationship with Jordan is almost certainly excellent. And of course as treasurer, Hockey now needs the ATO to raise the revenue he needs to close the budget deficit.. My suspicion is that within a few months Hockey will declare himself very pleased with the way Jordan is improving the ATO, and leave it at that.
All that’s in sharp contrast to Hockey’s counterparts in the US Republican Party, who have long waged a campaign against the US Internal Revenue Service.
When I asked Jordan about the US debate, he reacted with extreme care, noting the differences between the Australian and US institutional arrangement – the Tax Commissioner formally reports to Parliament, not the government. But he understands the stakes.
Jordan has some interesting aspirations to improve the service provided by the ATO, which the Public Accountant article explores. If Wayne Swan had in mind to protect an important Australian institution, it seems to me – in these early days – that Chris Jordan was a good pick.