What Monty Python can teach us about the Australian Tax Office

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He doesn’t actually mind paying tax.

OPINION: I’m a child of the 70s and hence I grew up at the tail end of Monty Python’s popularity. Monty Python is, of course, the epitome of silly but hilarious British humour.

To this day I can’t help but respond to the complaints of my sons about some perceived difficulty they have in life with the single word retort: “luxury”.

The Four Yorkshireman skit, now 50 years old, is an absolute classic. The memorable Python skits are legion, and it’s sad to think that an entire generation hasn’t had the pleasure of enjoying them.

Anyway, a recurring theme in Monty Python skits is the glee with which those who have a modicum of power, wield that power by way of complex and convoluted bureaucracies.

* Te Pāti Māori: Out with GST on food
* The rich should reject proposed tax cuts
* Fuel tax cut won’t be rescinded early despite sharp drop in oil prices

These bureaucracies would seem to be designed to ensure that no one actually achieves anything. Ever. Just watching one of these skits one feels one’s blood pressure rise as the frustrations of interminable layers of process make one feel like they’re standing, and sinking, in quicksand.

I had my own Python-esque experience recently, as I engaged with the process-bound staff of the Australian Tax Office (ATO).

Canterbury-based entrepreneur Ben Kepes.


Canterbury-based entrepreneur Ben Kepes.

These days, with international business being as it is, tax departments all around the world are scrambling to ensure that free-flowing consumer trade doesn’t reduce their ability to levy taxes.

What that means is that businesses that sell into overseas markets need to charge (and account to the local tax office) for the various consumer taxes that exist. In the case of my example, it was Australia, and the need to charge Australian customers GST and account for that money to the ATO.

At Cactus we sell products into Australia and, wanting to be good corporate citizens, we complied. And so, a couple of years ago, our then-general manager set up an account with the ATO. That is where our first mildy Python-esque experience occurred.

You see, the bureaucrats in their wisdom decided that every director of the company needed to personally be on the records of the ATO.

This required a fair degree of paper shuffling and even meant that all the board members had to get identity documents copied and signed by a Justice of the Peace. They didn’t ask for blood samples and DNA records, and we didn’t have to sign over our first-born, but it was close.

Apparently in an effort to reduce international money laundering or something similar, somebody in Canberra desperately needed a copy of my passport. Ah well, at least it would mean – I assumed – that in the future, identifying myself would be an easier process.

Fast-forward to recent months and our finance team has been getting regular letters from the ATO inquiring about various payments. It is worth noting that, like dutiful corporate citizens, we have been filling in our regular Australian GST returns.

Unlike New Zealand’s highly-efficient Inland Revenue Department, where everything can be transacted electronically, our Australian tax returns get done on a manual paper-based form and put in an envelope and sent to Australia – silly me, I thought they had the internet over there already.

But I digress, when these letters started arriving from the ATO, our finance manager dutifully called them up (since email is seemingly not a thing they’ve heard of, as yet) to enquire what the story was.

To set up an account with Australian Tax Office, it required a fair degree of paper shuffling, says Ben Kepes.

Scott Graham/Unsplash

To set up an account with Australian Tax Office, it required a fair degree of paper shuffling, says Ben Kepes.

She was told that, since she wasn’t an authorised person, that they would not be able to divulge any information to her. That’s kind of fair enough, the ATO doesn’t know her from a bar of soap, and so I wouldn’t expect them to give over company information.

Naturally she asked me to give them a call and get her included in the authorised persons list. I did so, and proceeded to spend a couple of hours sitting on hold while a quite friendly young chap kept checking in with his supervisor.

Apparently, despite jumping through a million hoops with my fellow directors only a year or two ago to get us set up with the ATO, they didn’t recognise us as authorised parties.

He wouldn’t tell me who was actually authorised, and since only myself and our finance manager have dealt with the ATO, we were in one of those utterly frustrating Catch-22 situations – they could only talk to an authorised person, but no one could actually get authorised.

I ended up asking the chap if the ATO would rather we simply ignored its letters or if there was actually some way we could get a resolution, to which he simply reiterated the line that he could only speak to an authorised person and no one was authorised.

If the British SAS or US Special Forces are looking for a new test to determine applicants’ suitability to join their elite units and whether they have the potential to be broken by psychological torture, they’d do well setting those applicants the task of trying to converse with the Australian Tax Office – an organisation that can bring the staunchest men and women to their knees.

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