Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., Australia’s third-biggest lender, is seeking a court ruling to stop the country’s tax office from accessing its customer records in the South Pacific Ocean nation of Vanuatu.
The bank, based in Melbourne, said it contested in the federal court of Australia yesterday ATO’s request for the information and is seeking guidance from the court about its obligations to comply. A copy of the filing wasn’t immediately available.
“We treat customer information sensitively and respectfully,” Michael Rowland, chief executive of ANZ’s Pacific region, said in an e-mail today. “We’re committed to keeping customer information confidential.”
The ATO, which is investigating promoters of tax havens and their clients, on Dec. 17 sought access to the records of 13,000 ANZ customers in Vanuatu. ANZ has the largest operation in the island nation of Australia’s four major banks.
The release of the customer data would breach Vanuatu criminal law and put ANZ’s license to operate in the country at risk, the bank said. The bank has worked to resolve the Vanuatu dispute with the ATO for more than 18 months, Rowland said.
“We have cooperated as much as possible with the ATO’s request while meeting our obligations under Vanuatu law,” he said.
A spokeswoman for ATO, who requested her name not be used because of the agency’s policy, declined to comment on the case.
Under the probe, called Project Wickenby, the investigating agencies, which include the tax office and the Australian Crime Commission, have identified A$935 million ($938 million) in taxes owing, according to a Sept. 30 report on the tax office’s website. The agencies have recovered A$513 million in outstanding taxes, the office said.
The Australian newspaper first reported the dispute today. A hearing in federal court on ANZ’s request is scheduled for Feb. 17, the newspaper said.
The ATO signed a tax information agreement with Vanuatu in April, giving it more ability to track down offshore tax evaders, according to a statement on the agency’s website.