Australia’s tax commissioner, Chris Jordan, faces an inquiry into whether he “disobeyed a lawful order of the Senate” by declining to release information about jobkeeper payments.
The Senate voted on Tuesday to refer the issue to the powerful privileges committee, the latest development in a long-running battle between non-government senators and the Coalition over the key pandemic economic stimulus measure.
It stems from a Senate decision on 4 August to require Jordan to provide a list of all employers with an annual turnover greater than $10m that received jobkeeper, the number of employees paid, the total amount paid and any amount returned.
The South Australian senator, Rex Patrick, won support on Tuesday for his motion to initiate an inquiry into “whether the commissioner of taxation has, without reasonable excuse, disobeyed a lawful order of the Senate”.
According to the motion, which passed 25 votes in favour to 21 against, the inquiry will consider whether Jordan “failed to produce documents in accordance with an order of the Senate, or improperly interfered with the power of the Senate to obtain information necessary to support its accountability functions”.
If that is found to be the case, the motion says, the Senate Standing Committee of Privileges should consider “whether any contempt was committed in that regard”.
No deadline has been set for the inquiry and report. The privileges committee – one of parliament’s most powerful bodies – is currently chaired by the Labor senator Deborah O’Neill. It has the power to “send for persons and documents”.
In the most serious cases, either house of parliament has the power to impose a term of imprisonment and fines for contempts of parliament.
When contacted for comment about the referral, Jordan said: “I acknowledge and respect the powers of the Senate and the critical function it undertakes.”
Jordan said the committee would now “further consider the Senate’s order for information about businesses which received jobkeeper”.
“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,” he said on Tuesday.
Jordan has previously claimed a public interest immunity and has argued that requiring the disclosure of “protected taxpayer information to the parliament will harm the public interest”.
The assistant treasurer, Michael Sukkar, issued a statement on Tuesday evening blasting Labor for backing the referral to the privileges committee.
Sukkar said the government had “stood by small businesses throughout the crisis and will continue to do so as Labor goes after their private and confidential tax information”.
“Just as small businesses are looking to get back on their feet, Labor wants to harass the engine room of our economy and shame them for receiving help from the government during a once-in-a-century pandemic,” Sukkar said.
“This is wrong and will hurt the recovery and put jobs at risk, not to mention undermine confidence in our entire tax system and set a precedent that makes every taxpayer question whether their private information will be disclosed.”
Patrick dismissed Sukkar’s arguments as “deceptive”.
“None of what he describes happened in New Zealand where this exact same information has been disclosed,” Patrick said.
“A lot of taxpayers’ money has been handed to companies that ultimately didn’t need it. To keep that money in some sense is to abuse the goodwill of the taxpayer and the Senate rightly is examining this issue on behalf of Australian taxpayers.”
Patrick said the vote on Tuesday showed “the will of the Senate to enforce its own powers”. He predicted that “the document will ultimately be handed to the Senate”.
Labor’s finance spokesperson, Katy Gallagher, said: “We’re not arguing for the ATO to publish the names of small business or individuals who received jobkeeper, or indeed any other of their tax information or their personal details, but we do believe there is a responsible way forward, and that is to be transparent and shine a bit of light on who received jobkeeper.”
Earlier this month, it emerged that Treasury considered imposing a clawback mechanism for jobkeeper three months into the wage subsidy scheme, but chose not to change the rules because that would have “reduced the overall level of activity and muted the recovery”.
A report from Treasury – which analysed the first six months of jobkeeper – acknowledged that $11.4bn and $15.6bn in the June and September quarters of 2020, respectively, was paid to businesses whose turnover did not decline by the required 30% or 50% compared with a year earlier.