28 October 2011

Moonee Ponds Office 20th Birthday, Speech to Australian Tax Office


Good morning everybody.

It's good to be here. My office is two streets away, my family home about 800 meters from here, the community I represent all around us.

So I love that the ATO is here in Moonee Ponds and that a Labor Government before us twenty years ago had the foresight to put this building here, create thousands of jobs and contribute to the local economy.

I tried finding a quote today from Dame Edna Everage, that great MooneePonds expat, on the subject of taxes.

Despite the seven oceans of wit and wisdom from our Dame, my tax quote search was unfulfilled.

But another renowned intellectual, Oliver Wendell Holmes, famously said:

I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.

Not a sentiment I would imagine many of you hear very much, as you deal with the day-to-day concerns of Australian taxpayers.

But it is true, their taxes - perhaps I should say our taxes - help pay for our civilisation.

And if it is taxes that buy civilisation, then surely those who collect taxes -all you here in this room - are civilisation's gardeners, helping bring forth those things we all rely on yet never think about - the roads, hospitals, schools and ports.

So it's good to be here, and to know you and work with you as the proclaimed 'Minister for Tax'.

You are the fuel and the nourishment of what we as a Government can do.

You are the veins and the arteries of the constitution and the body politic and the continuing miracle which is Australian society.

Without you there would be no Medicare, no ABC, no SBS, no air-sea rescue service, no fire brigades, no country schools, no ambulances, no suburban railways.

It is your diligence and patience, your talent for detail and loop hole, that keeps the show on the road.

Without you and your capacity for scrutiny it would be like Dickensian London out there, a bit of a grimy nightmare, the problems of Greece or the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

You are the game foot-soldiers of a war on chaos that each year and each decade is fought anew.

You are the careful assistant strategists of a war on want, a war on cruelty, on the thousand hidden tyrannies that hobble the soul, and the hope, of growing children, arriving migrants, the disabled victims of accident, and natural disaster, and what BenChifley called those shafts of fate that leave us helpless and without hope.

You are the spreading tendrils of our decency and the vertebrae of our strength and our power to improve ourselves, to build a way of thought, and of life, that leaves our kids in adulthood better schooled, and better placed, and healthier and safer than we are.

I don't want to overpraise you, but good on you - especially in this 20th year of our Melbourne 'Tax HQ'.

It's good to know you, and an honour to work beside you.

Because we each know Australians want good public services, adequate social safety nets and reliable infrastructure.

Australia's tax system has come a long way since the end of the nineteenth century when six separate colonies had distinct tax systems, almost entirely reliant on customs and excise duties.

The first taxes in Australia were raised to help pay for the completion of Sydney's first gaol and provide for the orphans of the colony.

Later, duties on major export products such as timber, wool and seal products were introduced to fund new transfer payments, such as the widows' pension and unemployment relief.

Then in 1910 Andrew Fisher's government responded to the need for funds to pay for old age pensions and what then were called invalid pensions.

The Income Tax Assessment Act 1915 - a relatively simple document of 22 pages on its debut - saw the introduction of a federal income tax that would help pay for the rising calamitous costs of World War One. And later of course taxation revenue enabled Australia to pay the incredible costs of the Second World War.

Since the 1970s, successive governments have focussed more on improving the equity, efficiency and simplicity of the tax system.

And of course, perhaps most importantly, in 1991, the Moonee Ponds office of the ATO opened and is today home to over thirteen hundred staff.

I could go on to talk about the introduction of the GST and the reforms to the tax system the Gillard Government is making, but I'd rather turn now to the contribution this office has made to Australia's civilisation over the past twenty years.

You are very much part of the community and what better example of "community spirit" than in the wake of those devastating bushfires of February 2009 the Commissioner referred to just a few minutes ago.

Nothing brings out better the spirit of the Australian community than in responding to the needs of fellow Aussies in such terrible circumstances.

You responded compassionately and generously and I know it resulted in some very special recognition for the staff of this office, with the leadership team and two staff members receiving the Commissioner's Awards for Excellence in living the values for making outstanding contributions to the bushfire disaster response.

Of course, like many people they gave of their time and effort in organising fundraisers and distributing much needed non-perishable items to families who had lost their homes.

But perhaps more importantly it was tax office staff who used their particular skills to support tax practitioners and their clients in the aftermath to help reconstruct personal and business records.

But I am not surprised, because as Assistant Treasurer and as the local Member I hear about how the people of this site support the local community and people in need.

There are many ways that compassion for others can be demonstrated, and all of you are known for identifying causes and dedicating your time and skills to helping others.

With tax and superannuation reform currently high on the public agenda I see exciting times ahead for the sector.

Inquiries such as the Henry review, and the recent Tax Forum are providing us all with the opportunity to look at our current tax system in detail, and have an open and honest conversation about the changes we will need to make in the future.

As officers of the ATO, it is likely that your skills will be tested in the coming years to implement changes resulting from tax reforms.

And from all that I have seen in my role as Assistant Treasurer I know that I can have full confidence in your abilities to meet these challenges.

On that note, I would simply like to wish you and the Moonee Ponds office a very happy 20th birthday.

This is a great building of great light, and the ATO is an institution that illuminates the democracy and society of Australia like few others.

Congratulations on a very successful two decades in this building - but today is of course about much more than a workplace, it's about people and service.

And congratulations for so consistently passing what I call the "but for" test -- that is but for what you do each day, many things would not get done that enrich our community and country.

So may the next two decades, and beyond, of the ATO here in Moonee Ponds be just as good for Australia as the last twenty years.

Thank you.