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Reflections on an incompetent ATO—ABNs & Gig stuff

Friday, June 28, 2019

Earlier this week we discussed the history of Uber in its global legal battles to have its drivers accepted as independent contractors. The Uber battle is at the forefront of the gig ‘question’.

Today we focus on the Australian Taxation Office and its incompetence (from our experience) in assessing employee vs independent contractor status. The ATO should learn from a significant Uber legal decision in Australia. It probably won’t though

The issue is important because the ATO has the unrestrained power to destroy the business of self-employed individuals simply by denying individuals their Australian Business Number. It can do this by declaring an independent contractor to be an employee.

This is because under the ABN legislation a person is entitled to an ABN if they are ‘carrying on an enterprise,’ a business being a ‘Profession, trade, employment, vocation or calling.’ But a business does not include an occupation as an ‘employee’.

Under this definition, self-employed people should easily qualify for an ABN because the definitions are so broad, intentionally so we believe. However, the ATO can legitimately deny a person an ABN if the person is an employee at common law.

We have sighted ATO assessments of ‘employment’ when the ATO has denied or withdrawn people’s ABNs. The ATO did this to some 17 individuals in late 2017. The story of the case is here. The ATO was eventually pressured into returning the ABNs to these people.

We have sighted the ‘employment’ assessment done by the ATO in this case. On our assessment the ATO’s process was amateurish and incompetent at best and at worst was manipulated by the ATO to achieve its predetermined view that the independent contractors were/are employees. By these actions the ATO strips itself of its legitimacy.

One of the ATO’s current obsessions is the gig economy and an apparent determination to deny that gig platforms legitimately use self-employed independent contractors. If the ATO is to have legitimacy in this area, it must demonstrate that it follows proper common law processes in undertaking its assessments.

Fortunately, there are some authoritative recent Australian examples that the ATO should replicate if it is to have legitimacy in this area. We present and analyse the major Uber case here.

Will the ATO fix its incompetency? On past experience, probably not.

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