A taxing time: Bob Piper

The tax office for Papua New Guinea in the mid-1960s was located adjacent to the main wharf at Port Moresby. For the staff downstairs it was hot and often dusty but the assessors, upstairs, bathed in several pleasant air conditioners.

Income tax had only recently been introduced in PNG and was, of course, very unpopular even though it was lower than the Australian rate. However, we still received lots of printed notes in our mail saying it was illegal and the new taxpayer didn’t agree with it.

I arrived in June 1966 from Sydney Tax Office on a Section 47D transfer (remaining a Commonwealth Officer, on loan) and was taken into the new assessing section with Tony Last from Tasmania, Brett Baume (Adelaide) and Robina Sounness from Moresby. Robina then was PNG‘s first female tax assessor. She later became Darwin’s first female airport manager and subsequently married a Cathay Pacific flight engineer.

Joe Chow, an experienced Sydney tax officer, also recently arrived, became our instructor and supervisor. Joe was a funny and skilled teacher and taught us well: i.e. “lump sum payment in consequence of termination of employment is assessable at 5%”.

Other local staff (from Administration) were Stan Best, Brian Sherwood (who supervised the downstairs staff) and John Herbert. Also Frank Galvin (who had a band), Barry Bevan, Stan Best and John Lohberger, who later became the Chief Collector. Morea from Hanuabada supervised our local staff and a fine man he was. With him were two men from Hula, one I remember as Kila Gima.

Ray White was the Chief Collector of Taxes with other senior officers being Ron Hokin and Harry Ireland, both formerly of Sydney. Ray had previously been with Taxation in Malaya and we saw very little of him as he was a popular member of the nearby Papua Club.

New assessors received a Clerk Class 4 wage. We were expected to assess 100 returns a day or check 200 done by the others. If we did interviews out at the front desk, and I did many, it was about 20 to 30 per day. I would assist a taxpayer leaving the Territory in the morning with his tax form, then at an interview, assess it, take it to my father upstairs to quickly check and initial, then down to my mother Nola Piper (ex AWAS WWII) in accounts. We would have the cheque waiting for the client at 4 p.m. in the afternoon, when they arrived to pick it up. A super service and one not matched by government departments or Tax these days. So much for computers.

John Steffanoni from Perth and my father, Frank Piper (Sydney), were the first pair of skilled and experienced taxation investigators in PNG. However, the powers to be would not let them investigate, much to their frustration. Instead, they instructed us assessors to concentrate on the minor matters of missionaries and football players.

This did not go down well with the staff as it was reported that briefcases full of cash were going to Cairns to buy real estate. The evaders were on the fortnightly Fokker Friendship service and those responsible were avoiding their tax responsibilities with very large amounts of money.

Many of us at Tax were car enthusiasts with Ray White having an immaculate white Peugeot 404, John Lohberger a Mini Cooper, Robina Sounness and Joe Chow Fiat 850 fastbacks and dad a Toyota 2000. My pride and joy was a Toyota 800 sports car. John and I competed in some of the then popular South Pacific Car Rallies as well as the quarter mile drags at Wards Strip and local hill climbs at Mount Eriama.

One day a young girl from Statistics at Konedobu was visiting Tax and paused to open one of the slat windows upstairs. As fate would have it a glass pane slid out and went tumbling down straight on to Ron Hokin’s new car, just outside his window, with a tremendous crash. Ron came steaming up the stairs with smoke coming out of his ears and began to berate the poor girl with all sorts of expenses and dire consequences. Dad walked quietly across and reminded Ron that the Administration had its own insurance and would cover the entire repair bill.

Forty years later, I bumped into the same girl at a Mini car show in Canberra. She reminded me of the incident, and how Dad had saved her bacon that day. Incidents like that are never forgotten.

John Steffanoni, Dad and myself remained good friends and regularly visited each other up until John’s death in Perth a few years ago. He is sadly missed. We all had a common interest in sailing as well and had participated in the Moresby Yacht Club activities when we lived there. I can still remember John racing across the road from the yacht club to help me catch a mast that was overbalancing as we unrigged a boat.

Assessing in Tax was a hard and monotonous occupation. I lasted a few years and moved on. Joe Chow is understood to have moved back to the Cairns office and of course is now retired.

When Dad returned to Tax at Moresby for a visit in 1975. The Assessing Section closed down for the afternoon and went to Ela Beach Bowling Club. They held him in such high regard. He was also a WWII veteran in New Guinea and soldiers on aged 92 at Kincumber, north of Sydney. A total service of over 30 years in Taxation in Sydney, PNG and Canberra.


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