WEDNESDAY, 2 MARCH 2022
SUBJECT: Tax havens and Russia.
LIAM BARTLETT, HOST: Joining us this morning is Andrew Leigh. Andrew’s the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Charities. How are you, Andrew?
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: I'm terrific, Liam. How are you?
BARTLETT: I'm well, thanks. Look, I know you've been campaigning on this for a while, long before the invasion got underway. But how could the government make it easier to put a stop to this dirty money?
LEIGH: They could do three things, Liam. The first is to crack down on tax havens. The second is to tighten the anti-money laundering laws. And the third is to put in place a beneficial ownership register that would let people really know who owns Australian shares. All of those are straightforward transparency measures, and without those changes it makes it really hard to track down the sources of Putin's illicit cash. It's not as though they're all sitting in a big bank account marked ‘Vladimir Putin’. His cronies have stashed money in tax havens like Panama or the Bahamas. They're using illicit shell companies, and they're hiding the source of the transactions very deliberately. And Australia's laws just aren't up to date enough in order for us to be able to track down the sources of the dirty money.
BARTLETT: We saw this, didn't we, a little while ago – probably, what, two years ago - when we were talking about the Pandora Papers. There were many, many names that were released during the Pandora Papers scandal, and some of them obviously Russian and very closely associated with Putin. Did we take measures after that, to make it a bit more difficult? Or is that sort of largely gone by the wayside?
LEIGH: It's largely gone by the wayside, Liam. And the fact is that we're talking about a large amount of money. Investigative journalists say Putin’s hidden wealth is somewhere between 100 billion and 200 billion. If it's the latter figure, that would mean that Putin's wealth is equivalent to the annual output of South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. It's a massive amount of money. We're talking about palaces, helicopters, planes, super yachts. And yet we can't crack down on it if our own laws protect secrecy. I fear that the coalition has just put all of this into the too hard basket. We've seen in Britain the same sort of debate going on, where the British Labour leader Keir Starmer has spoken out and said that ‘the creeping tendrils of the Kremlin have been allowed to wrap themselves around the UK’. And that's then prompted Boris Johnson to act, and to put in place some of these transparency measures that are necessary in order to track down the illicit cash that Putin has been stashing around the world.
BARTLETT: Here in Australia, do we have any idea at all, Andrew? Do you have any idea how deep Russia's business links are in Australia, in that sense?
LEIGH: No, I don't. And that's a direct function of the way in which the Australian government has chosen secrecy over transparency. The Australian head of Transparency International says ‘Australia is one of the best places to launder dirty money, and the reason for that is there's very little scrutiny. There's very little verification, and checking your information-’
BARTLETT: Sorry, even with something like AUSTRAC, that's you know with names registered, Russian names registered with AUSTRAC - that's not enough, you're saying?
LEIGH: That’s right. We've got to have more, and we've got to have a government which is committed to openness rather than secrecy. I fear that this is all of a piece with their opposition to an anti-corruption commission, carpark rorts, sports rorts, Safer Community rorts. It feels to me like transparency is to the coalition what sunlight is to vampires. They're just not very interested in providing the sort of openness that would make it possible for investigators to track down the illicit Russian cash, and to really put the squeeze on Putin.
BARTLETT: These things don't happen overnight though, do they? I mean, it's a bit like Keir Starmer’s criticism. And you know, he's probably right, Andrew. But, you know, thinking back to when Tony Blair was Prime Minister of England, I mean - the London financial markets have operated on Russian money, well and truly, very happily for many, many, many years. And it's a bit the same in Australia. We've had consecutive governments, so Labor and Liberal, who really haven't done much about this. If what you're saying is correct, these things don't happen overnight. They need to be a system changes, don’t they?
LEIGH: Certainly. But it's important that we keep up to date with the ways in which the illicit money has been hidden. It's a bit of a whack-a-mole exercise - you can expect that as you close down one tax haven, then another one's going to open up. So you've got to have agile regulators who are there looking at what's going on with the dirty money and closing it up. But I don't see why the coalition has been lax on tightening anti-money laundering and counterterrorism financing laws. That's meant that we've had more illicit capital flooding into Australia. There was a period there when the coalition said they wanted a beneficial ownership register, and then they backflipped and said ‘no, actually it's all too hard’. So by putting this into the too hard basket, we've left ourselves in a situation where we're not able to put the squeeze on Putin in exactly the way that all Australians want to right now.
BARTLETT: Alright. Well, you've given us some food for thought this morning. Thanks very much for your time, Andrew.
LEIGH: Thank you, Liam.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.