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Drilling down with Chris Jordan

Drilling down with Chris Jordan

To understand Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan’s ambition for the Australian Taxation Office, you need to understand dentistry.

  • admin
  • October 09, 2013
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No, really. As Jordan points out, dentistry has changed enormously in the past 30 years. As recently as the 1980s, it was the butt of jokes and the subject of horror movies: remember Laurence Olivier’s terrifying Marathon Man dental torturer, or Steve Martin’s Little Shop of Horrors dentist with “a talent for causing pain”? Yet now, notes Jordan, most people neither fear nor loathe a visit to the dentist.

Better medications, quieter equipment and flat-screen TVs on the ceiling have all helped. But the biggest change, according to Melbourne dentist Stephen Vouliotis, is that dentists have become less authoritarian.

“They had to learn to relate to people,” he notes.

That’s the change Chris Jordan wants in the Tax Office

Attitude transformation

Since biblical days, tax officials have provoked emotions stretching from disdain to detestation. Jordan desires a Tax Office that’s like most dentistry today: painless and professional and, heck, almost pleasant…apart from the bill. And to do so, he needs the ATO to change in the way that dentistry changed. He needs the staff of the ATO to relate to people.

If everyone at the Tax Office were like him, that plan would be easily implemented. You enter his low-key office and he stands up – way up, because he’s around 198 centimetres tall – and smiles a big, unpretentious smile. Then he strides over, sits down and spins a yarn, expansive and well informed.

He puts things in simple terms that people can understand, even if you’re talking with him about a sub-clause of the Tax Act. “People like to make things sound complex,” he says, “but at the end of the day, most things are relatively straightforward.” He engages, soaks up ideas and doesn’t try to awe. Instructively, he credits his wife with inventing the dentist analogy.

Business champion

The business community greeted Jordan’s late-2012 appointment with a particularly loud cheer. He was well known, particularly in Sydney business circles. A private-sector tax expert with more than two decades at KPMG, including 11 years as its NSW chairman, he was also familiar with the Tax Office, having chaired the Board of Taxation for 18 months. Indeed, he’s precisely the commercially oriented outsider many business people dreamt of.

Here, many business figures hoped, was a man who would shake up the ATO.

That still seems likely to happen. The organisation needs “some significant cultural shifts”, says Jordan. ATO staff need to have “a greater sense of urgency and purpose” and worry less about eliminating all risk or getting the last dollar out of taxpayers.

[breakoutbox][breakoutbox_title]Four keys to Chris Jordan[/breakoutbox_title][breakoutbox_excerpt][/breakoutbox_excerpt][breakoutbox_content]1. He's super connected (but non political)

While still at law school in 1976, Jordan helped found the Redfern Legal Centre, with its emphasis on social justice and human rights. He authored a set of legal guidelines for community organisations, and Wayne Swan made him ATO head. But he’s no left-wing radical. In the mid-1980s, he worked for then Opposition Leader John Howard on tax policy, and two decades later he worked with Joe Hockey heading the KPMG team to implement the Howard Government’s health and social services access card. He recruited current Business Council CEO Jennifer Westacott into KPMG, and big business leaders laud him. And through his personal friendship with John Howard, he has come to know Howard’s greatest political admirer, Tony Abbott.

2. He wasn't always wealthy

Jordan’s father and two uncles were all policemen, and the Depression instilled a sense of thrift in both his parents – useful when it came to bringing up seven children. Young Chris was number six.

Dad “always worked two jobs until he became a senior police officer, so he’d do his police shift and then go to Mascot making pallets”. Mum “always had a thin budget to make do, so being number six, I always had hand-me-down clothes and bikes and all that sort of thing. She always cut our hair – I didn’t have my hair cut [outside the home] until I was 16, and I always thought bought food was a huge treat when we went on picnics or anywhere.” Jordan joined the police force himself, then went to law school.

3. He has a long history of public service work

Jordan’s early work for social groups in Sydney reflects a broader belief in public service. Even at school he was vice-president of the Interact Club, the junior arm of Rotary. His school-age fundraising for a La Perouse orphanage (“I still remember distinctly going out there and all the kids hugging your legs and just wanting a bit of attention”) eventually led his family into fostering children. He is a board member of the Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation, as well as the Bell Shakespeare Company, and before his appointment last year, briefly chaired the Committee for Sydney. He sees his ATO role, too, as “giving back” – an opportunity to make a difference.

4. He's sympathetic to small business

Since starting at the ATO, Jordan has wanted to make sure he was very much focused on small business. “Carrying on a small business is damn hard ... it’s not just tax that makes it hard, by the way, it’s all the other obligations you have to deal with – OH&S, workers’ compensation, local government requirements…My son runs a small business in hospitality, a bar, and there’s just ... this incredible, bewildering array of government-imposed obligations.”[/breakoutbox_content][/breakoutbox]

Taking his time

Jordan’s not in a rush, though. Tax commissioners serve seven-year terms. And, by nature, Jordan listens and mulls things over before acting; tax academic Professor Neil Warren calls his style ‘considered’. So, Jordan’s moving slowly, getting to know the organisation – and, probably, building internal support. Three months in, he finally asked his leadership group to identify the low-hanging reform fruit, a question some new CEOs ask in their first week.

He is also, at least in public and probably in private, an admirer of the current ATO senior leadership group – the second commissioners, national program managers, deputy commissioners and first assistant commissioners who run the Tax Office. “There’s an incredible – I keep saying ‘surprising’ – willingness and desire to make change,” states Jordan. “I think I can actually make an impact in here because the leadership in the Tax Office is wanting to make a change.”

The visible impact of his first six months is limited but encouraging. There’s a new tax design team to work with Treasury, an obvious outgrowth of his career grappling with tax design issues. More important to some ATO critics is the new independent appeals section. And in a move that not all his business supporters anticipated, he is cracking down on advisers who push aggressive cross-border tax schemes.

Service orientation

His years at KPMG exposed Jordan to a bunch of customer service ideas that he wants to implement. Many will use interactive digital technology. He talks with feeling about the piles of “well-meaning information” he got when he started his own consultancy: “I thought to myself, ‘Why didn’t I just get an email that said this is what you have to pay, and click here if you want some more information?’”

Jordan wants staff who understand social media. He pulls out his iPhone and pulls up the ATO’s latest app. He enthuses about the ATO’s redesigned website where “you can set up yourself what is of interest to you”.

He longs for the ATO to use technology the way cutting-edge businesses do.

Perhaps most illustrative of the impact he hopes to have is a new small business after-hours callback facility – “so if you want to ring and speak to someone at nine at night, you can”.

There’s a long way to go, of course. At the moment, he says, “if you’re a small business operator, you’ve shut up the shop, your kids are in bed, you sit down at 8.30 in front of your computer, you cannot commence an interaction with the Tax Office unless the Perth call centre is still open.”

IT ambitions are one thing, delivery another. The day Public Accountant spoke with Jordan, it came to light that the ATO’s long-awaited E-tax for Mac had launched with a flaw that temporarily blocked it on recent Mac OSX versions. But if Jordan can deliver on his plans, small business should be a big winner.

“I don’t think the Tax Office particularly services small business in the way in which they want to be serviced right now,” he says.

It’s a big vision. And he has barely a critic to be seen – yet.

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