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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Tory Shepherd

Whistleblower Richard Boyle feared ATO tactics would cause ‘suicide in community’, court hears

Richard Boyle in street outside courtroom
Richard Boyle told South Australia’s district court that ATO employees were pressured to bypass normal negotiations with taxpayers. Photograph: Kelly Barnes/AAP

The whistleblower Richard Boyle has told a court of his fears that the actions of the Australian Taxation Office would lead to “suicide and death in the community”.

Taking the stand in a hearing seen as a critical first test of whistleblower laws, Boyle alleged ATO employees were put under pressure to bypass normal negotiations with taxpayers who owed money and move quickly towards more aggressive tactics.

That included issuing garnishee notices that forced banks and other third parties to hand over debtors’ money, he alleged.

Boyle went public with his claims about the ATO in 2018 after attempting to raise them in-house.

He argues his actions were necessary to document the wrongdoing and hopes the public revelations will be protected under the Public Interest Disclosure Act. The hearing in South Australia’s district court will determine whether he is immune from prosecution or not.

If not, he will face trial on 24 charges, including of recording private phone calls and taking photographs of taxpayer details.

A clearly emotional Boyle told the court he had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and alleged he had been psychologically abused within the organisation after he first tried to use internal processes to bring other alleged actions to light.

He detailed what he called “maladministration” within the ATO, including debt collection officers shuffling complicated cases to the back of the queue, leaving taxpayers distraught for months.

Putting difficult cases back in the digital “inbox” instead of dealing with them allowed officers to look as though they were working through more cases when in fact people were left to languish, Boyle alleged.

Debt collection officers like him and his colleagues had a certain level of discretion when dealing with people with debts. Personal circumstances, such as illness, trauma, fire, floods, being subjected to domestic violence, or caring for a sick child could lead to an officer being lenient about the debts and any interest incurred.

But Boyle alleged there was pressure to be heavy handed, rather than generous.

In one case, he told the court, a woman was fleeing domestic violence and hoping to pay a tax debt after selling her house. But the ATO continued to pursue her, he alleged.

“It was absolutely staggering to me that the vindictiveness, what I believe was vindictiveness and abusive management style could flow through to a detrimental effect,” he said.

He said he felt he was constantly criticised for trying to resolve taxpayers’ issues, and talked about the distressing nature of those forced to ask for hardship help.

Both taxpayers seeking help and employees facing those taxpayers suffered mental anguish, he told the court.

Boyle said for a number of years he had confided in friends and close colleagues about what was happening, and had been vocal about advocating for some sort of disclosure.

“I probably used the term blowing the whistle because I was a bit amateur and don’t understand the legal process,” he said.

He believed he was already dealing with reprisals for being outspoken about administrative processes at the ATO when a meeting about garnishees occurred.

A directive was given at that meeting, he alleged, to give standing garnishee notices – which allow money to be taken from debtors in an ongoing manner – rather than “point in time” garnishee notices, which are just one withdrawal.

“There was the instruction and the directive was clear and categorical that I did not have discretion. But I had no intention to obey this directive because it would cause suicide and death in the community on a massive scale,” he told the court.

The hearing is due to resume on Friday morning.

Mental health support in Australia is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 and MensLine on 1300 789 978.

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