Centrelink might just be the answer for our forgetful pollies

THIS column is dedicated to all politicians out there who are hardworking, overburdened and exhausted to the point of forgetting really important things, like how many investment properties they own.

We, the Australian people, are with you. Who hasn’t forgotten a Gold Coast unit bought on a wild weekend away from the kids, or the property bought next door? It happens to the best of us. So no more saying sorry, really, because when it gets down to it, sorry doesn’t change a bloody thing.

It’s just annoying, and then irritating, for the rest of us, until one day we’re standing in a polling booth with pencil in hand sorely tempted to scrawl a rude word rather than cast a valid vote.

(Note to any major party politician still scratching his or her head about why some people vote for One Nation or the Aliens Are Real party – that’s how it happens.)    

Sorry doesn’t change a bloody thing. It’s just annoying, and then irritating, for the rest of us, until one day we’re standing in a polling booth with pencil in hand sorely tempted to scrawl a rude word rather than cast a valid vote.

Anyway, I’d like to talk about the day, not so long ago, that a nice pest inspector stood in front of me with pen and invoice book in hand, after routine inspections of two houses I own – the one I live in, and the one I rent to people.

“Do you want me to put the bill down to the other house?” he asked.

I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about at first. After a slightly awkward couple of questions and answers it became clear he was asking if I wanted him to give me one invoiced bill for the cost of inspecting both houses, which could be used to claim as a deduction against the rental property. In other words, did I want the Australian Government – ie taxpayers – to subsidise the annual pest inspection of my home?

I said no, and looked at him. There was an awkward pause before he told me “that’s how some people like to do it”.

I responded that I wasn’t other people, thanks. Two bills, and he’d have the money in his account by that afternoon.

I think about that conversation whenever politicians talk about tax, negative gearing, capital gains and Australia’s welfare “burden”, or any time a Federal Government minister tries to defend the disgraceful Centrelink “robo-debt” debacle, or a politician who’s forgotten, misplaced or overlooked something minor like owning a $2.3 million house.

There’s rules for the “haves” that rely, in large part, on an honour system with a bit of oversight – politicians are supposed to disclose what they and their spouses own, people who own investment properties are supposed to honestly disclose all financial details relating to them and can be subject to Australian Tax Office audits – but in reality there’s more shades of grey than black and white.

The Tax Office can’t check on every single deduction claimed against every investment property owned across Australia, and there are now nearly 2 million Australians with investment properties.

Ask yourself how many question and answer sessions occur every day like my question and answer session with the pest inspector? In my case the bill was $160 for each house. And that’s just one routine inspection. It’s not hard to imagine much bigger maintenance bills for principal properties being written up as declarations on investment properties. It’s also not hard to imagine things like that slugging the economy hundreds of millions of dollars or more each year.

But you won’t hear a politician calling that a “burden” to the economy, or “investor bludging”. You don’t hear them talking about it at all because it’s off radar, between individual investors, their accountants, financial advisors and the Tax Office. Even if you’re pinged it’s unlikely anyone will ever know.

And it’s so much easier for politicians to play on popular stereotypes, and hunt down “dole bludgers” with a Centrelink system that even the Tax Office has distanced itself from.

At a Senate committee hearing this week ATO deputy commissioner Greg Williams said his agency had “no direct conversations” with the Department of Human Services before controversies about the process known as “robo-debt” – the computer program that compares government data with data people have reported to Centrelink.

In the past a Centrelink officer would do a basic investigation before sending out a letter if discrepancies were found between, say, what an employer reported, and what a Centrelink recipient disclosed.

Under the new system a computer “decides”, and a letter is sent.

For the past few months we’ve heard increasingly distressing stories of people receiving debt letters for thousands of dollars that eventually were found to be incorrect; of a myGov computer system failing to live up to its promise of being “a simple and secure way to access government services online”, and a department unwilling to acknowledge the extent of problems.

Mr Williams told the Senate committee this week that the ATO contacted Human Services in December after strong public criticism of the program, but was told there was no need for assistance.

Human Services secretary Kathryn Campbell acknowledged that “there will be people distressed” under the new arrangements.

On the same day a Fairfax Media report showed the current Federal disclosure rules for politicians are opaque, information is difficult for the public to find and some politicians openly refuse to comply with the rules – like politicians who refuse to disclose their partner’s property interests.

So here’s a thought. We have a Centrelink system the Government insists is fair, reasonable and makes people responsible for their lives – myGov – and we’ve got some pollies who seem to need help working out what their disclosure responsibilities are.

Tweak it a little and put the two together. 

This story Taxing the system first appeared on Newcastle Herald.