Nassim Khadem Reporter

Nassim covers the accounting and tax rounds for BRW, as well as general business news. She previously worked for The Age newspaper covering general news, state politics and economics.

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ATO loses its most senior woman

Published 18 October 2012 04:34, Updated 21 November 2012 08:02

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Hopes that a woman would lead the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) into a new era of more consultative tax administration were dashed when Jennie Granger last month announced she was off to take a new job with UK Revenue and Customs.

Granger had gone where few women have gone before – the country girl from the town of Harden-Murrumburrah in the south-west slopes region of NSW, started working at the ATO in 1982, fresh out of university with an arts-law degree.

She climbed her way up, almost to the top, becoming only the second woman in Australian history to become a deputy commissioner – she was made second commissioner of compliance in 2002 after holding a number of high-profile roles across the organisation.

Many of her colleagues note how she was a great role model for women working under a male-dominated bureaucracy. Today about one-third of the senior executives are female.

Granger had most of the elements needed to be tax commissioner: she’s well-respected among her peers and has experience in leading both sides of the Tax Office’s two main areas – compliance and law.

Yet, despite her reputation as an effective tax administrator, in July the news came that Granger was leaving the ATO, just months before the top job was about to open.

Instead, Granger is now director-general of compliance and enforcement at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), based in London. This role, the equivalent of Australia’s second commissioner, is a big win for Granger.

Certainly the PR spin was all about what a coveted role this UK job is – which it is – and that no foreigner in fact has ever been appointed to such a role – also true.

But there’s a glaring omission: why hadn’t Granger, who had her runs on the board and whom many in the tax world believed was hoping she’d one day get the top job as Australian tax commissioner, not been tapped on the shoulder for the position?

When BRW puts the question to Granger, just days before her departure to the UK, she is reluctant to discuss this particular issue: “Those jobs are a matter for government; you don’t put yourself in the running.”

Rumours about why Granger didn’t get the top job are rife. Some claim it was because she didn’t get along with Commissioner Michael D’Ascenzo. His seven-year term ends in January and most people believe he will be reappointed.

But suggestions of a personality clash between the two is a highly subjective assessment and one no one will publicly verify.

Others claim it was because during her six-month secondment to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in June 2009, when she was brought in to help roll out the government’s nation building package, she didn’t score enough political kudos.

Whatever the rumours, Granger won’t engage on why she didn’t get the tax commissioner role and is frustrated about the focus on this question. The fact is, she never had a choice, she says, and in any case she’s thrilled about her new job. After all, it may mean she lands the top role at another authority some time in the future.

“I am interested in leadership roles, and should one become available, yes of course [I will take it],” she says.

But for now, there’s “this really interesting opportunity that’s come up” and Granger says her ambition is to “get to know the community and business there and do that job very well”.

She has much experience to draw from. At the ATO she has led major initiatives, including setting up the compliance program under former tax commissioner Michael Carmody. This was a world first, whereby a tax authority would publicly set out which areas it would audit – in other words, reveal its hit list for the year ahead.

It was a significant shift in ATO thinking and a big win for Carmody and Granger, who were both part of a move towards striving for a more open culture at the ATO.

Although the culture of secrecy is hard to change, there are calls for the ATO to give out even more information about groups it’s targeting and why.

Aside from moves to be more transparent, Granger is well known for helping the ATO develop strong relationships with international tax administrators. Australia and other countries now regularly share tips on how to track down tax evaders and prevent them from hiding away in places such as Bermuda.

Granger also has much experience dealing with groups outside the usual tax space. Over the years, she has sat on a number of advisory panels that help frame policy on areas such as climate change and tax reform.

She’s worked closely with international authorities, including the International Monetary Fund and is now in a perfect position to tap into more international networks and make her mark in a country with a much bigger tax office.

The UK authority has 65,000 staff, compared with the ATO’s 24,000. In 2010-11 the UK authority collected about £468 billion (about $728 billion) from taxpayers, whereas the ATO’s net tax collections in 2010-11 were $273 billion. Granger says the area she’s in charge of has 25,000 employees alone.

“It’s about more than expertise in tax; you’ve got to be able to lead,” she says.

The revenue challenge is also huge. The UK government wants to try to recoup about £9 billion extra in revenue by 2015. But aside from revenue-raising, Granger says the task she’s been brought in for is “modernising the organisation”.

She says it’s been less than a decade since HMRC was formed by the 2005 merger of the Inland Revenue and Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. The merger involved huge public service cuts, meaning efficiency is still critical. Granger says “knitting that together is still a challenge”.

If there’s a main criticism of Granger, it’s usually that early in her role she had a somewhat rocky relationship with big business. Like most of her peers, she had never worked in professional business roles outside the ATO.

Granger quickly points out how she worked in her parents’ grocery store in her youth: “I come from a small business background. It’s very easy to stereotype tax officers about not having any business experience.”

She says that while more officers are going on secondments outside the ATO, only about one-third of executives come from outside. Of course, this isn’t a problem unique to the ATO – most government agencies face the problem of not being able to pay as lucrative a pay packet as in the corporate world.

“Pay is a problem,” Granger says. “I certainly could work for much more pay.”

Granger won’t be drawn on debates such as what the UK can learn from Australia, or who was easier to work for – Carmody or D’Ascenzo? Instead she notes that “they both have a very good sense of humour”.

But she does hope two things continue to happen at the ATO in her absence.

Firstly, the fulfilment of recent public pledges to have disputes resolved quickly and more cases resolved outside of court. And secondly, to help guide a new generation of leaders that can help tax administration evolve.

Granger hopes that she won’t just be remembered as an effective tax administrator but for more personal touches, such as setting up the Wollongong tax office, as well as her role in helping develop future leaders.

“A 100-year-old organisation like this will only survive if it continues to adapt,” she says.

The fact that Granger has been the most senior woman in the ATO recently is testament to that.

“I have a number of causes that I’ve championed for women . . . and there’s a lot more women out there demonstrating that they can do the business side,” she says. However, Granger concedes something that most women in business usually admit, “We still have a long way to go.”

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