The Australian Tax Office is aggressively trying to obtain details of persons holding accounts with the Vanuatu branch of Australasian banking giant ANZ Bank.
Rather than seeking details as regards a particular customer or customers (as is the norm) the ATO is demanding information about ANZ customers in Vanuatu who fit one or more of four criteria, including Australian nationality or domicile, a residential or business address in Australia, or an account recorded in Australian dollars.
The information sought from ANZ relates to the period July 1, 2008, to November 30 2010 and includes the account number, any identifiers of the customer, nationality and domicile, and the tax file number or Australian business number of the customer or signatory.
Under a second notice, the ATO is targeting similar information from ANZ customers with accounts kept in any currency other than the vatu, Vanuatu’s official currency. The ATO notices mention 17 different types of accounts, but are not limited to those accounts, or to accounts held in Vanuatu.
The ANZ says it would breach Vanuatu confidentiality laws if it gave up the information and its high powered legal team have lodged documents in Australia’s Federal Court essentially arguing that the tax office is engaged in a highly dubious fishing expedition.
The bank says that compliance with two December 17 notices from the ATO, which seek open access to customer data, would breach Vanuatu criminal law and put its licence to operate in the Pacific island nation at risk. It adds that each of the notices is “uncertain and/or oppressive”.
The ANZ’s chief executive for the Pacific region, Michael Rowland, said the bank had obligations under Vanuatu law and that it was seeking court guidance on its obligation to comply with the ATO notices.
“ANZ abides by the legal and regulatory requirements of the markets in which we do business, including Vanuatu, and we treat customer information sensitively and respectfully,” Mr Rowland said.
The ANZ has hired two QCs to press its claim, with the case set down for a directions hearing on February 17.
Last April, it was reported that the ATO following Australia’s signing of a Tax Information Sharing Agreement with Vanuatu, had demanded that 57 financial institutions, including Australia’s four major banks, hand over the records of clients with offshore bank accounts held between July 2005 and June last year.