It’s hard to believe this email started a war.
Sent: Saturday, 20 May 2017 2:31 PM
Subject: RE: Overtime for Saturday 20th May
Hi everyone, The last ‘hour of power’ is upon us … That means you still have time to issue another 5 garnishees …. Right? K
Have a great weekend!
[redacted], Early Intervention, Debt, Service Delivery”
Richard Boyle worked for the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) for 14 years, until he was sacked. His last job was as a debt collector in the ATO’s Adelaide office, issuing garnishee notices to people with a tax liability. Garnishee notices are one of the most effective tax recovery tools the ATO has. Through a garnishee notice, a bank, for instance, can be directed to transfer funds of a tax liable person to the ATO.
Tax specialists have noted the upsurge in recent years of the ATO issuing these notices to taxpayers on the very same day that it issued tax assessments. When issued, garnishee notices can cause volcanic spews of rage, as depicted in the title and tone of a recent ABC Four Corners program on the ATO, Mongrel Bunch of Bastards: The High Cost of taking on the Tax Office.
In June 2017 ATO management directed staff to upscale the usage of garnishee notices. Richard Boyle saw that as a revenue-raising device that could harm members of the public. He made what he thought was a public interest disclosure, alleging that the directive breached the Australian Public Service code of conduct. His disclosure was peremptorily rejected by the ATO four months later.
Like all whistelblowers, Boyle found himself in an asymmetrical power relationship. He came to the gunfight with the ATO bearing a plastic fork. ATO management quickly dismissed his allegations. To do otherwise would have the ATO make disastrous admissions about its own predacious practices. He was escorted out of the ATO Adelaide offices in September 2017, suspended with pay. A confidential payout of a “substantial sum of money” was offered to him in February 2018. Boyle says he knocked that back as there was more to gain by being a freed-up whistleblower.
This freed up whistleblower is now facing un-free jail time. The ATO heard he was talking to the media. Whistleblowers who venture outside the tent, particularly to the media, get the same reaction if one had poked a sleeping bear. Organisations will play the sleeping bear role for as long as they wish if the disclosures keep churning around their internal system. But when the disclosure goes outside the bear wakes up, usually leaving the whistleblower scratched and bloodied.
The “bear” cut Boyle’s salary off. With his public interest disclosure crunched up in a wastepaper bin, an internal investigation was launched on him which eventuated in charges being laid for the disclosure of confidential information under the Taxation Administration Act 1953 (Cth) and the misuse of a listening device in breach of South Australian laws. An extraordinary perversion of justice.
Boyle’s life was flipped upside down. In dramatic circumstances, his house was raided by the Australian Federal Police on 7 April 2018. Loose headlines everywhere at the time said that Boyle faced 161 years in prison. The respected journalist Adele Ferguson wrote:
“There’s something radically wrong with a society that allows mass murderer James Gargasoulas to be eligible for parole in 46 years, locks up serial killer Ivan Milat for 181 years and then has an Australian Taxation Office employee facing 161 years in prison for blowing the whistle on a poor culture inside one of our most powerful agencies.”
Richard Boyle’s case hit a nerve with the public and the media. The story fashioned itself easily because Boyle was being targeted by the most hated agency in the Australian Public Service, the ATO. The esteemed financial journalist, Robert Gottliebsen, called him a “hero” fighting for tax reform. “There is no question that [Boyle] exposed unethical conduct, in that he was exposing an egregious use of a power, which was granted to the Tax Commissioner,” Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick made clear. Patrick, by the way, has been Boyle’s knight in shining armour throughout his troubles.
The airing of a ‘Mongrel Bunch of Bastards’ in April 2018 triggered an enormous negative response from mainstream and social media. It felt like everyone and anyone who ever had a beef with the tax office was lining up at the stocks to throw rotten cabbages at the Tax Commissioner, Chris Jordan.
The Inspector-General of Taxation and Tax Ombudsman provided the first response. An investigation into the Four Corners allegations commenced almost immediately after the program went to air. The inquiry focussed on the two explosive claims that Richard Boyle made on the program; that management gave directions to staff to issue enduring garnishee notices in every case as a ‘cash grab’ towards the end of the 2016–17 financial year and that targets were set for staff and their performance assessed based on the level of debt collected.
The Tax Ombudsman confirmed Boyle’s story.
The next volley in the skirmish between Boyle and the Tax Office was fired by the Commissioner himself, Chris Jordan. Here he is fired up at a Senate Committee hearing in October 2019:
“This week began with a public campaign across all major media outlets that included the claim, ‘The Tax Office can take money directly out of people’s accounts. But you’re not allowed to know.’ Wow. Imagine if that was true! I mean go for your life on a ‘right to know’ campaign but please, if you are seeking the truth, please try using it yourself at least in so far as it relates to the ATO.”
He was visibly angry as he explained that the Tax Office has a debt book of almost $45 billion and around 8 million debt interactions a year, following up people to pay that debt. He said the ATO uses garnishees and other firmer actions only after, on average, 19 attempts to engage the taxpayer have failed.
Jordan told the Senate Committee that there was no connection between Boyle going on the Four Corners program and the charges he now faces. These charges, Jordan said, providing personal taxpayer information to a third party and allegedly recording people’s conversations without their approval, were not a result of any content reported in the Four Corners program, or any other reporting.
On Tuesday night, 22 March, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, Sarah McNaughton, told Senate estimates that the CDPP was considering whether or not it should drop the charges against Boyle. In one way that is a shame because his was to be the first major test of protections available under the Public Interest Disclosure Act (2013).
Boyle has been left swinging like a wind chime by the CDPP for several years. It is hoped his days of uncertainty and anxiety are coming to an end.