Professor Jason Sharman of Griffith University, Australia, contributes the following guest post:
On November 15th–two days from now–the latest G20 leaders’ summit kicks off in my home town of Brisbane, Australia, with anticorruption once again on the agenda. Though the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group has made some important progress, many of the member states have been letting down the side. Specifically, Australia tends to receive less critical scrutiny than it should when it comes to international action against corruption, particularly in terms of hosting stolen assets from other countries in the region. And the G20 leaders’ summit is as good a time as any for the international community to press Australia for its many failures to deal with its status as a regional haven for money laundering in the Asia-Pacific.
Australia’s position as a haven for dirty money is perhaps most apparent, and most egregious, with respect to Papua New Guinea (PNG), a resource-rich developing country immediately to the north. Rich in hydrocarbons, gold and other minerals, Papua New Guinea suffers from the same sort of resource curse and corruption that blight many other developing countries: The local police estimate that up to 40 percent of the entire national budget is stolen by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Where does this money go? Though the evidence is inevitably patchy, the best indications suggest that Australia is the number one haven for these looted funds. As Sam Koim (who headed the PNG’s anticorruption “Investigation Task Force Sweep” until the PNG government disbanded the unit last summer), put it in a hard-hitting speech given two years ago:
They [PNG’s kleptocratic ruling elites] have bought property and other assets [in Australia], put money in [Australian] bank accounts and gambled heavily in [Australian] casinos and have never been troubled by having their ill-gotten gains taken off them… Be under no illusion, these people have chosen Australia as their preferred place to launder and house the proceeds of their crimes because it is easy.
Moreover, as Koim has consistently pointed out, not one cent of this dirty money has ever been repatriated to his country by the Australian authorities. Australia’s Financial Intelligence Unit, AUSTRAC, agrees with Koim’s assessment, having acknowledged as far back as 2008, that “Australia is a significant destination country for funds derived from corrupt activities within the region.” In what he thought was an off the record meeting in May 2013, the Australian Federal Police Senior Liaison Officer in PNG Steve Mullens stated that “half a billion” kina (approximately US$200 million) of corruption funds flows from PNG to Australia each year.
And it’s not just corrupt officials from PNG who are hiding their assets in Australia. For example, a leaked secret report from the People’s Bank of China from 2008 investigating the flight of thousands of Chinese Communist Party officials with up to US$130 billion of state funds claimed that Australia was the third most common recipient of these funds. Just last month, the Australian Federal Police corroborated this claim by saying that corrupt Chinese officials had laundered hundreds of millions of dollars in Australia over a period of years.
So there’s plenty of evidence that millions of dollars of dirty money–proceeds of corruption and other illicit activity–are flowing into Australia. What is the Australian government doing about this? Not nearly enough. Despite the accumulation of evidence–and the facts noted above are just the tip of the iceberg–the Australian government, and especially AUSTRAC, has tended to deny that there is problem with foreign corruption proceeds. The Australian Federal Police has so far agreed only to register foreign restraining orders from countries in the region seeking the return of stolen assets, but has shied away from taking the initiative. A much more positive response would be to follow the example of countries like Britain and the US, which have in different ways sought to take the lead in actively looking for foreign corruption proceeds within their own financial systems. One can only hope that among all the speeches and back-slapping and self-congratulation at the G20 summit, other world leaders and the international community will take the opportunity to push Australia harder to take serious action on this issue.
This is really interesting, particularly given Matthew’s earlier post about Transparency International increasing awareness regarding shell companies leading up to the G20 Summit. I did not realize that this problem was so pervasive in Australia, although I hope that hosting the Summit will help to shine the spotlight on the problem of money laundering.
I agree that taking initiative is key here. This is a golden opportunity for countries like Australia (and perhaps Singapore, Switzerland, etc.) to start leading the pack on searching for and seizing assets acquired from foreign corruption. It’s important to recognize the impact this could have on the countries which suffer from corruption. Ill-gotten wealth beyond the reach of local prosecutors could be returned, and pressure could be exerted on local anticorruption agencies to prosecute addition assets held locally. Because countries which suffer from serious from corruption are limited in their ability to prosecute high ranking officials, the victims of corruption have so much to benefit from countries like Australia taking more initiative in this area.
Thanks for the timely post, Jason. I also expect a lot of self-congratulating at the upcoming summit, particularly given Australia’s recent commitment to help China repatriate stolen assets, which you reference. I’d like to know more about the China-Australia joint operation and its broader implications. Why now? Is this a unique deal or a signal of increased Australian interest in asset recovery (whether under MLATs or UNCAC)?
As Rick noted in a related post on PNG, Australia needs to do more to combat corruption there but its ability to do so is restricted by PNG’s own reluctance to investigate and prosecute misconduct. Asset recovery is an area that requires a particularly high degree of coordination. China’s interest in pursuing corrupt officials and tainted proceeds is, of course, integral to its deal with Australia. Given that the PNG government dissolved the Investigation Task Force Sweep and that the prime minister faces serious corruption allegations, political will seems lacking. Is that an accurate observation? Even if Australia goes after assets on its own, how will authorities handle repatriation to PNG, where government desire to eradicate corruption appears absent?