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The Impact of Audit Risk, Materiality and Severity of Ethical Decision Making: An Analysis of the Perceptions of Tax Agents in Australia

By Rex Marshall, Malcolm Smith and Robert Armstrong


This paper focuses on the role of the tax agent as a preparer of tax returns and provider of professional tax advice under a system based on self-assessment principles. In particular it recognises the competing pressures under which tax agents attempt to discharge their professional responsibilities, and the implications for potentially unethical behaviour. Empirical research into taxpayer attitudes suggests that the risk of audit, the severity of tax law and the materiality of dollar amounts involved, will all impact on the decision making process. This paper extends these principles from taxpayer to tax agent, by seeking their response to alternative client demands as represented in realistic tax return scenarios. The findings suggest that the severity of tax law violation is an important factor in ethical decision making, but that audit risk and the amounts involved are not. The lack of support for audit risk as an influential variable is an important outcome, because policy makers have traditionally proceeded on the basis that increases in audit probabilities will reduce the likelihood of taxpayers adopting aggressive tax reporting positions. The implications are that alternative enforcement and compliance strategies must be considered by tax administrators.

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