John Cuthbertson: Why the taxman is our unsung Covid hero


OPINION

The country’s health system has rightly received accolades for saving lives and reducing suffering.

However, we should also spare a thought for our tax collection and cash dispensing system which has quietly and efficiently helped support the economy and assisted thousands of businesses.

Like the health system, the demands on the tax system, and Inland Revenue, have been unprecedented.

For the latter, a rule-bound system basically designed to collect revenue as painlessly as possible had to, almost overnight, be refocused to also pump money back into businesses as quickly as possible and free up cash by relaxing its beloved rules.

For example, 95,000 small business taxpayers have been removed from the provisional tax net, $5.2 billion is sitting in the Small Business Cashflow Loan Scheme to help tide businesses over and $2.8 billion has been set aside for building depreciation tax deductions and other tax measures.

To give you an idea of the scale involved, in less than a month Inland Revenue had received more than 77,000 loan applications and approved loans worth approximately $1.2 billion.

Inland Revenue also helped the Ministry of Social Development deliver $15 billion in wage subsidies. By early June, 12 weeks after wage subsidy applications opened, Inland Revenue had answered more than 353,000 tax-related calls.

At the same time, it had to maintain its vast and complex business-as-usual activities – ensuring tax money rolls in to pay for government services and its tax policy (the rules) work – kept ticking over. And while they were at it, continuing the massive upgrade of IR’s computer system.

Tax returns of all types were still able to be filed and processed with refunds provided directly to bank accounts with hardly a blip on more normal times.

And like the majority of other businesses during the Level 4 lockdown, IR faced the disruption of many of its 4000 staff having to work from home.

A good way to understand this success is to compare how our tax system stacked up against those of other countries.

The efficiencies of our digitised tax system have meant New Zealand has been able to respond to Covid-19 very differently to other countries while not dropping the ball on business as usual.

The United States has experienced significant operational impacts which have resulted in delays in processing tax returns and sending Covid assistance cheques due to staff being unable to work in IRS offices.

Ireland, which is possibly more comparable to New Zealand, opted to delay interest on late-paid PAYE and VAT for SMEs and made it possible to postpone tax liabilities for 12 months.

In contrast, New Zealand allowed taxpayers to pay their Covid affected tax obligations by way of an instalment arrangement when they were able to do so, with interest able to be written off by the Commissioner

The New Zealand system has inbuilt flexibility to enable such changes, allowing it to switch direction in ways not possible in many other countries.

John Cuthbertson. Photo / Supplied
John Cuthbertson. Photo / Supplied

Existing tax machinery has been repurposed in ways not originally intended. For example, Inland Revenue’s MyIR portal was able to be reshaped to administer the small business loan scheme while minimising the compliance burden for applicants.

New Zealand was both fortunate and lucky to have invested in our tax infrastructure and systems upgrade when we did.

If this pandemic had occurred even 12–18 months earlier, it is likely that our tax system would not have been well placed to deal with it.

While IR’s $1.8 billion business transformation project to automate and digitise the country’s tax system has not been without issue on implementation, its versatility has served NZ Inc well.

Our members who regularly interact with IR found parts of the transformation polarising.

In last year’s survey of satisfaction with IR, six out of every 10 respondents rated the latest iteration of the transformation as good, very good, or excellent, while four out of 10 rated it fair or poor.

During Covid, complaints have centred on the difficulty in contacting IR and have mainly related to seeking clarification on policy changes.

But reverting back to the big picture, as a country we have much to be grateful for when it comes to our tax system. Over the past six months IR’s agility, the investment in digitalisation, and perhaps some fortunate timing, have enabled the country’s tax system to excel in its response to the pandemic.

• John Cuthbertson is the New Zealand tax leader with Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand.



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