The news was announced last week that Dana Fleming, who had been the ATO SMSF segment assistant commissioner for close to the past two years, was taking on a new role at the government agency starting this week.
While Fleming’s stint overseeing SMSFs was short, it certainly made a mark and, in my view, noticeably improved the regulator’s interaction and transparency with the sector.
During her time in the role, she was always keen to share with sector stakeholders exactly what the regulator was focusing on. In addition, she was continually willing to let us know the new compliance activities the ATO was undertaking. An example of this was the revelation last year the ATO was developing an online test for potential trustees to improve their understanding of their duties when running their own super fund.
Further, Fleming was willing to tell the world about compliance initiatives that were not working, prompting a new approach to be pursued. This was demonstrated during her presentation at this year’s SMSF Association National Conference when she frankly admitted the ATO’s practice of remitting the majority of administrative penalties was not producing the desired results and as such a more forceful approach would be adopted.
Without doubt though the characteristic that stood out most to me was Fleming’s willingness to engage with both advisers and trustees and her inherent understanding and empathy regarding issues causing practitioners a considerable level of angst. I suppose you could say she appeared to really immerse herself in the sector.
In my experience, Fleming was the only ATO representative who invited every participant in the sector to connect with her on LinkedIn and continually used this social media platform to show she was in touch with everything SMSF, including the reporting of the latest actions from the regulator.
Further, after conducting a Q&A session with trustees at last year’s smstrusteenews Trustee Empowerment Day, Fleming readily admitted how much she’d enjoyed the interaction and how she had learned a lot during it.
But what probably impressed me most was her practical response to questions she fielded about the new non-arm’s-length expenditure rules.
At last year’s Self-managed Independent Superannuation Funds Association SMSF Forum plenty of accountants showed how worried they were about charging a deemed appropriate commercial fee for administration services of their own super funds to avoid having all of their retirement savings earnings classified as non-arm’s-length income.
Specifically, they wanted clarification as to whether they would have to take every accountant’s fee schedule within a certain vicinity when formulating a suitable administrative fee to charge their SMSF – an arduous exercise by anyone’s standards and one akin to a process applied to fringe benefits tax (FBT) calculations involving employee parking.
Immediately, Fleming assured the audience she understood what the spirit of the rules were and assured them a scenario, such as whether FBT is or isn’t applied for employee parking based on fees charged within a certain kilometre radius, was definitely something she was determined to avoid.
In one response she demonstrated an understanding of the concerns and the intricacies of the issue at play. Certainly not a common experience with the majority of regulators or legislators in the superannuation and the broader financial services spheres.
I know I’m not the only one who thinks Fleming raised the bar when it comes to the chief SMSF regulator’s role and I’m sure the sector at large is looking for this established level to be maintained in the coming years.