Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Chris Jordan avoids Senate contempt finding

At all times throughout this unprecedented matter, I have acted in good faith with careful regard to both my statutory responsibilities and to the privileges and processes of the Senate,” Jordan said. 

Chris Jordan looking smug

Chris Jordan has been cleared by a parliamentary committee. (AAP Image/Andrew Taylor)

Myriam Robin

Chris Jordan avoids Senate contempt finding

Myriam RobinColumnist

Recriminations over the government’s gargantuan and hastily put together JobKeeper program haven’t entirely concluded. But Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan at least has been spared from the line of fire. For now.

For months, most of the Senate has been backing crossbencher Rex Patrick’s attempts to retrospectively impose some sort of transparency on the scheme, similar to New Zealand’s subsidy program through which all recipients are disclosed on a public database.

Commissioner of Taxation Chris Jordan’s public interest immunity claim was rejected by the Senate.  Alex Ellinghausen 

Standing in Patrick’s way was the ATO head, who claimed public interest immunity against complying with a Senate order to table the names and details of all entities with over $10 million in revenue who availed themselves of the taxpayer largesse. Coughing up the details, he said, would be a breach of the private information of some 10,000 taxpayers, putting them at potential commercial disadvantage.

That argument was explicitly rejected by a majority in the Senate (who can’t have been convinced the release of information publicly available overseas could be so damaging in the Australian context). In response, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg through Senate leader Simon Birmingham filed a second public interest immunity claim over the information, on the same grounds previously spurned. Meanwhile, Patrick had the matter referred to the Senate’s privileges committee.

On Tuesday, said committee unanimously decided against recommending Jordan be found in contempt of the Senate, sparing him the threat of jail time or a $5000 fine. This came about partly because the Tax Commissioner, in his submission to its inquiry, said it might be possible for him to find some way of satisfying Senators’ request for more information while still maintaining the protections offered to taxpayers. This offer, vague as it is, was in the committee’s view very much worth engaging with. Though it was also willing to reconsider the matter should these negotiations come to naught.

As for the ministerial intervention, the committee (including its Liberal members Eric AbetzConcetta Fierravanti-WellsAndrew McLachlan and Dean Smith) said it had only delayed the matter’s resolution by hampering the Senate reaching a speedy compromise with Jordan. Though that, we’d guess, was precisely the intention.