AUSTRALIA'S LAWS MUST CHANGE TO CONTAIN PUTIN'S DIRTY MONEY
The Canberra Times, 12 March 2022
As advanced democracies tighten sanctions on Vladimir Putin, regulators are looking more closely at how the Russian President made his money. Some sources suggest that he may have $100 billion – others as much as $200 billion. That would put Putin’s wealth higher than the combined annual output of South Australia, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory.
One thing that we can be sure about is that Putin uses tax havens. In 2016, the leak of the Panama Papers revealed a complex web of transactions that Putin and his associates used to hide their assets, including helicopters, planes, a superyacht and a palace on the Black Sea. Tax havens like Panama helped conceal the true owners of these assets.
Why does this matter to Australia? Because while the Morrison Government is – appropriately – imposing sanctions, it has left Australia open to being used as a destination for corrupt cash.
The Australian head of Transparency International, the aptly named Serena Lillywhite, says that ‘Australia is one of the best places to launder dirty money and the reason for that is there is very little scrutiny, there’s very little verification and checking of information.’
Lillywhite points especially to the lack of a register that lists the beneficial owners of Australian companies. ‘This is where Australia has absolutely fallen off the wagon and is lagging behind international trends’, she says. Lillywhite warns that while other countries have put beneficial ownership registers in place to stop dirty money, Australia has not.
As with other economic reforms, this is an area where the Coalition has had more announcements than answers. In 2016, the Coalition pledged that they would implement a beneficial ownership register. Three years later, the Morrison Government backflipped, and said that it would no longer provide transparency.
As a result, it’s devilishly difficult to figure out who really owns shares in Australian companies. Bizarre as it sounds, it is considered normal for large Australian firms to pay financial private investigators substantial sums to track down their true owners. You heard that right. Most managers of big Australian firms use shareholder money to find out who their largest shareholders are. All because Australia lacks the kind of transparency that’s routine in other advanced countries.
The Coalition’s opposition to transparency in share ownership is shocking, but it’s not surprising. This is, after all, the government that promised before the last election to create an anti-corruption commission. It’s the government that gave us sports rorts, carpark rorts, safer communities rorts, and Stuart Robert. Transparency is to the Coalition as sunlight is to vampires.
Yet we shouldn’t minimise the gravity of the Coalition’s addiction to secrecy. Their failure to crack down on tax havens makes it easier for Putin’s associates to steal from ordinary Russians and stash the cash in the Caribbean. Their failure to tighten Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing laws have left the door open for illicit capital to flood into Australia. Their failure to implement a beneficial ownership register makes it more likely that Putin’s associates are investing their ill-gotten gains in the Australian share market.
Transparency around who owns shares is a live issue around the world. Most continental European countries already have beneficial ownership registers. In Britain, agitation from the opposition has prompted the government to act. After British Labour leader Keir Starmer argued that ‘the creeping tendrils of the Kremlin have been allowed to wrap themselves around the UK’, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson suddenly announced that a bill will be brought forward to ‘open up the Matryoshka doll of Russian-owned companies’, by peeling back the façade of beneficial ownership by Russians and others of UK property and companies.
In a new development last Friday, a joint statement from the United States, European Union, Britain and Canada pledged a transatlantic taskforce committed to identify and freeze the assets of Russian elites. The only way this will work is if it includes measures to break the veil of secrecy that Putin’s moneymen have used to hide their assets.
With his atrocious acts in Ukraine, the world desperately hopes that Putin has overplayed his hand, and that a combination of international pressure and domestic unrest will ultimately force him out of office. But just wishing won’t make it so. If Australia wants to shirtfront Putin in a way that’ll really hurt him, we need to get serious about tax havens and transparency.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.