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''I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center.''
Former tax commissioner Michael D’Ascenzo used his final missive to accountants to champion his achievements and talk up the Australian Taxation Office as a world leader.
Treasurer Wayne Swan announced in November that Mr D’Ascenzo, a 35-year veteran of the Tax Office, would be replaced by former KPMG partner Chris Jordan, amid speculation that the move was calculated to appease business and give the ATO a much-lobbied-for injection of private sector expertise.
Mr D’Ascenzo has declined to speak with media since, citing a tight schedule involving a nationwide tour of ATO offices to farewell staff.
“I leave the ATO with its vision, values and capabilities holding it in good stead for the future . . . [it] is the envy of many other countries."
Mr D’Ascenzo’s seven-year term ended on December 31; he was the first commissioner to leave after one term in almost 50 years.
This year he joins the Foreign Investment Review Board as a part-time member. He will also sit on the government’s taskforce on multinational tax avoidance.
At his farewell on November 29, Mr D’Ascenzo said he had been on an “emotional rollercoaster in saying thank you and goodbye to as many people at the ATO and elsewhere as I can". A speech on the night by his second-in-charge, Bruce Quigley, brought him to tears. For all the gushing in the room, there was one notable absence: the man who pulled the trigger – publicly, at least – to end Mr D’Ascenzo’s term.
The Treasurer was hosting end-of year-drinks with Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the Lodge. Instead, Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury spoke.
Many in the tax industry believe Mr D’Ascenzo was pushed. Business groups had lobbied for a change in leader for more than a year, complaining of an overly aggressive stance and a defensive attitude.
Opposition treasury spokesman Joe Hockey applauded the appointment of Mr Jordan, already referring to Mr D’Ascenzo as a commissioner past. “I endeavoured to speak to the previous tax commissioner about it," he said, referring to slow audits and possible “vexatious litigation" from the ATO. “But he would only speak to me on the basis that Wayne Swan had an officer present from his office. This was a tax commissioner that was meant to report to the Parliament. Anyway, he’s moved on. So I really hope there’s more balance."
But there are many who applaud Mr D’Ascenzo’s work – including his technical prowess and his willingness to deal with issues.
Still, seven years is a relatively long time, considering other key regulators – the securities watchdog, prudential supervisor and competition regulator – have five year terms.
The last three ASIC chairmen have had terms of no more than four years.
“How many CEOs remain CEOs for more than 5 or 6 years," asked one tax insider.
“The old way of doing business of tenure in the job doesn’t happen anymore."
In his tax agent magazine address, Mr D’Ascenzo said that he had “proudly sought to put taxpayers and their agents at the centre of the ATO’s thinking and actions".
“Tax agents and others have said that I have made a difference."
He carried a similar theme through his farewell speech.
“I leave on a high because we have earned the respect and confidence of the vast majority of Australians. I leave on a high because the ATO is regarded as perhaps the best tax administration in the world, with significant influence on tax practice and policy globally," Mr D’Ascenzo said.
His 35 years at the ATO were the time of his life, he said.
“The ATO was my first job offer after I finished university. “I’ll be here until I find a better job," I thought to myself. I never have.”
Katie Walsh is the editor of Legal Affairs. She is based in our Sydney newsroom. Connect with Katie on Twitter.