Are the days of bookkeepers and accountants numbered?

Peter Strong JobKeeper nuclear power

COSBOA chief Peter Strong. Source: supplied.

Will accountants, bookkeepers, tax agents and payroll suppliers disappear in an age that includes improved internet access, standard business reporting, faster and more powerful accounting programs and the cloud?

When the federal government brings in the Single Touch Payroll process will, as some people have said, accountants and bookkeepers disappear?

Read more: Five things your accountant should be doing for you besides your taxes

Some time ago, a senator said that the internet, e-books and e-readers would be the death knell of bookshops. But bookshops have weathered the storm and have prospered and grown. Not all bookshops, some closed as they couldn’t deal with the change, but isn’t that what happens when change comes along? Some fall by the wayside and others readjust and move on.

This will be the same with the people who provide expert tax and business advice and administrative support for the millions of small business people around the country.

This isn’t the first change for business professionals. I recall one of my first jobs as a clerk for a small transport company in the early 1970s. The chief executive decided to update our technology and buy a calculator with – wait for it – a print-out capacity! Extraordinary.

I had two sales reps come to my office and show me their products and I purchased what I thought best met our needs (the cheapest one). We could then attach a print-out onto accounts and trial balances for transparency and due diligence. What a wonder of its time.

Some years later I worked in an area where we entered, or as we called it in those days “punched”, pay information into a very modern and very large accounting machine. It did in seconds what took much longer by calculator and typewriter.

Then, with the advent of personal computers, we could easily access financial and accounting software and even then it was believed that the accounting profession would be decimated as the speed of accounting and administration improved. That did not happen.

The cleverer accounting professionals improved their offering by using the software to streamline their own activity. Many small business people of the day gave their complicated and all-consuming compliance activity to the bookkeepers and accountants as we did not have time or the inclination to learn a new process. We just wanted to run our business. Not much has changed.

As time moved on better programs were developed and the role of accountants continued to change and grow from the basics to more advanced activity around business planning, financial management and corporate structures. The role of the bookkeeper expanded as more and more businesses accessed this cost effective support. With the development of the GST many small business people had no choice but to access the support of professionals. The development of even more government regulations and processes increased the need for business services.

Now the next change is upon us. This is based on the instant movement of information between business and government. This is a process that uses Standard Business Reporting, or SBR, which is a key component of the commendable new approach by the government called the Digital Transformation Agenda.

SBR is still developing, but it is here to stay and will underpin future change. Part of the process will be the Single Touch Payroll where, in theory, whenever a pay-run is finished we can press a few buttons in our computer programs and all the information about the pay and employees will be sent to the tax office along with any PAYG and other payments we might wish to include.

For this new opt-in process to have a negative impact on business professionals will depend upon whether a small business person wants to do their own payroll and send money and information direct to the ATO. Most of us are understandably concerned about a process that appears so simple. Nothing is simple with tax and payroll activity, nothing.

If anything, a poorly introduced Single Touch Payroll process that compromises SBR will be a boon for accountants and bookkeepers, who’ll be paid good money for tidying up complicated messes.

So the new SBR and DTA processes, managed effectively, will allow small business people who do their own accounts and payroll to send information more easily to the government – nice for some. It also allows the accounting and bookkeeping people to provide a streamlined and cheaper service to the small business community. The better professionals will use this to their advantage while others fall by the wayside. Either way, small business will be better off.

Whether this future is sooner or later will depend upon the ability and attitudes of the key government agencies, the speed of reaction of software providers and the change management capacity of professional business supporters.

Accountants and bookkeepers and others who provide expert business support will not be disappearing soon. Even the best science fiction novels set far in the future seem to include accountants and the like. Interestingly, dystopian novels never mention small business, accountants or bookkeepers. The dystopian worlds are always run by some big overbearing government or private sector organisations. There is a lesson there.

Peter Strong is the chief executive of the Council of Small Business of Australia.


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