The Attorney-General’s department continues to “finalise” its review of the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act. Rarely has a finalisation process taken so long to finalise.
The department has been “finalising” this review for some months now, a review which was supposed to have been put before parliament last year; indeed this is a review of laws which were originally supposed to have passed into statute eight long years ago.
Had these laws been enacted for real estate agents, as well as lawyers and accountants as was intended, they may have stemmed the flow of Chinese money into Sydney and Melbourne property markets. Housing might have been more affordable for first home buyers. The market distortion which is the metropolitan real estate bubble might have been tempered.
Now the dithering looks set to continue. It may be too late. House prices have run too high and the government is loath to frustrate the flow of the Chinese billions in case the property bubble is pricked.
Besides, the property lobby is unlikely to let it happen. The “industry consultation” process behind the scenes will no doubt see to that.
The Attorney-General’s department and the office of the Minister for Justice Michael Keenan have staunchly stonewalled questions for the past three weeks. What was the level of industry involvement in the anti-money laundering review? No response. Would the Minister be prepared to talk about the process? No response. No interviews granted, no response to questions except this from a spokesperson:
“The Attorney-General’s Department is currently finalising the statutory review of the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act 2006 (AML/CTF Act) and associated Rules and Regulations.”
So we have a situation where the Financial Action Taskforce, the world body charged with co-ordinating the compliance of all governments with the international AML regime, has had some uncomplimentary things to say about Australia’s dithering. It is getting embarrassing for AUSTRAC too, Australia’s financial intelligence agency which is there to combat money laundering and organised crime.
Like the Attorney-General’s department, AUSTRAC has now pulled down the media shutters as well, refusing point blank to respond to questions. Given the paranoia, when the review finally does see the light of day it may be feeble; and even if it does make robust, unequivocal recommendations in line with the taskforce’s standards it will probably be buried as soon as politically possible.
That AUSTRAC is reticent about being publicly critical of government dillydallying is understandable. Last year though, before the agency adopted its “no comment” approach to any and all questions on the subject, it admitted in fairly frank terms that money laundering was a big problem in Australia.
“AUSTRAC has identified that laundering illicit funds through real estate is an established money laundering method in Australia,” said a spokesperson. “Criminals are drawn to real estate investment in Australia because it is possible to purchase in cash, it offers reliable returns and it is possible to disguise ownership.”
Further, criminals also used professional facilitators such as lawyers and accountants to help them seem legitimate, the agency noted. So what was being done about it? The feted ‘review’ was underway.
“The AML/CTF review provides the opportunity to consider whether Australia’s AML/CTF regime should be expanded to certain non-financial businesses and professions, as required by the FATF standards. This includes real estate agents. The review is expected to be completed by late-2015. Consultation with a range of business sectors is continuing.”
Under the first tranche of anti-money laundering legislation which was introduced in 2006, banks already have to prove where their money is sourced. Same deal for casinos. Suitcases of cash are no good. The second tranche of anti-money laundering legislation was due to be rolled out in 2008, following the release of draft provisions in 2007. That didn’t happen. The global financial crisis was the scapegoat. In mid-2009 the Attorney General’s department announced it was to make an announcement later that year. Nothing came of that and in 2010 there was a statement saying the government was in consultation with stakeholders.
Apparently then a consultation process has been dragging on with stakeholders for six years. Perhaps it is a different consultation process, perhaps one of many. Who knows?
What is evident is that, to the detriment of the national interest, successive governments are culpable of high-level pussyfooting on introducing the anti-money laundering laws.
Amid further evidence lately of slipshod lending standards by banks and their proxies in the housing markets, fears of a “hard landing” are on the rise. It may therefore be not only the property lobby thwarting money-laundering reform but also the banks.