Tax Office turns 100

Commonwealth Land Tax Office 1910 Branch of the Treasury

The ATO’s beginning

November 11, 1910 was a special day in Australia’s history because it heralded a new era of national unity.

On this day the Land Tax Office was established as a branch of Treasury, in a time of political tensions and power struggle. Its purpose was to provide a central collection office to fund old age and invalid pensions.

Although federation was almost a decade old, there were still political, social and economic rivalries among States because each considered itself a separate entity.

Andrew Fishers Labor government needed an instrument to collect funds for its social policies and it campaigned for a Land Tax to target landowners who avoided paying tax on unimproved land.

Despite rigorous opposition from English investors and wealthy private landowners, the first Land Tax Act was successfully introduced in 1910.

Our first leaders

Typical ATO management

From a field of sixty applicants, Mr George A McKay was selected by Federal Cabinet in 1910 as the first Commonwealth Land Tax Commissioner to lead the Commonwealth Land Tax Branch of the Treasury.

Commissioner McKay’s major challenge involved managing the introduction of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1915.

He worked strenuously on administering the new Act, his attentiveness to his duties often forcing him to work well into the night.

In the winter of 1916, Commissioner McKay caught a heavy cold that turned to pneumonia and he died in office on 14 July 1916.

On his death, Mr Robert Ewing acted as Commissioner until his permanent appointment in 1917.

Commissioner Ewing was noted for his outstanding administrative efficiency and determination to uphold the integrity of his office.

He was remembered for continuing McKay’s work on implementing income tax legislation along with wartime profits tax and, later on, sales tax.

Ewing remains the longest serving Commissioner of Taxation. His tenure was from 1917 until his retirement in 1939.

Tax and the war effort

The outbreak of WWI illustrated the benefits of taxation for society and its importance for Australia during war time.

In 1914, while the war was building momentum, matters relating to the new federation were at the forefront of most Australians attention, with internal political power struggles the key point of public interest. On the taxation front, the Labor partys social policies continued to absorb revenue collected by the Land Tax Office.

As Australias involvement in the war escalated, the governments focus soon changed from social policy to raising war time revenue. The many horrific battles, including the Somme and Gallipoli, drained the resources of the nation.

Customs and Excise were not able to provide the required war finance because trade and industry had slowed, so attention turned to the Land Tax Office to help fund a solution. Income Tax, Entertainment Tax, Wartime Profits Tax and War Postage Tax were all introduced between 1915 and 1918 in an effort to meet the increasing demand for financial resources.

Even though there were only a small number of people employed at this time they worked tirelessly, providing a vital contribution to the wartime reforms. Female employment was introduced in 1917 to counter the absence of the many men away at war.

The toll on the nation was heavy and the Land Tax Office suffered its own loss when its Commissioner George McKay died in office in 1916.

Tax employees proved that, like their military counterparts, they too were an important part of the war effort. They could operate under incredible pressure and produce results on which the entire country depended.

WWI was a catalyst for the growth of federal taxation and provided the beginnings of personal taxation.


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