LAW STUDENTS should be prepared to have an influence on the norms of society by embracing professional responsibility, the head of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has said.
In a speech given at the Australian Law Students’ Association’s annual conference at Parliament House, ATO commissioner Michael D’Ascenzo educated students on the importance of ethical responsibility.
“Professionals such as lawyers are seen as role models for what is acceptable in our community,” D’Ascenzo said. “And so I ask you to remember, your behaviour and attitudes will influence the norms of our society.”
Implicit in D’Ascenzo’s speech was a reference to allegations of tax evasion committed by a number of members of the NSW Bar Association, a topic he visited in a speech to the Victorian Tax Bar Association in March.
“Professional codes of conduct prescribe the pursuit of high standards of both professional conduct and ethical conduct without drawing a distinction between the two,” he said, quoting Sir Anthony Mason. “For example, lawyers should not deliberately avoid their legal and financial obligations. The reason for this is that the touchstone of professionalism is responsibility.”
The commissioner told the students that a lawyer’s primary duty is to the public interest.
“A lawyer should not of course assist in a breach of the law,” he said. “Civilisation rests on social order, and social order rests on the maintenance of the law.”
D’Ascenzo told the budding law graduates that lawyers and tax officers have a lot in common, though one of these commonalities is a history of almost universal loathing. “The historical reputation of tax collectors could do with improvement … lawyers have fared only a little better,” he said.
The commissioner said that although tax officers still have their critics, so too do lawyers. “In 1739, Lord Bolingbroke described the legal profession as ‘in its nature the noblest and most beneficial to mankind, in its abuse and debasement the most pernicious.’ So if you go on to practice law, what sort of a lawyer will you be?” he asked his audience.
D’Ascenzo advised that in his opinion, a good lawyer was one who would not deliberately circumvent the law, which extends to the payment of tax.
“The Ramsay principle in the United Kingdom, and the general anti-avoidance provisions in Australia’s tax legislation, now make ineffective tax avoidance schemes that are blatant, artificial and contrived. They have put boundaries around legitimate tax planning and what goes beyond the pale,” he said.
D’Ascenzo promoted the ATO as an attractive potential employer for law students, who wish to share its values of being fair and professional; applying the rule of law; supporting taxpayers who want to do the right thing, while being fair but firm with those who don’t; being consultative, collaborative, and willing to co-design; being open and accountable; and being responsive to challenges and opportunities.