Government needs to get serious about reducing foreign bribery and corruption

By Associate Professor Kath Hall

Last week a Super Summit on Anti-Corruption took place in London, hosted by the Prime Minister David Cameron. Attending the conference were big names in the global community including World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Transparency International Global chairman Jose Ugaz, and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde.

The aim was to "bring together world leaders, business and civil society to agree on a package of practical steps to: expose corruption so there is nowhere to hide; punish the perpetrators and support those affected by corruption; drive out the culture of corruption wherever it exists".

Did Cameron achieve his "super" goals? The positive outcomes do include securing agreement from 12 additional countries to sign up to or look into signing up to a public register of information on beneficial ownership in companies.

Australia committed to look into the issue, while the US was not on the list. Second, Cameron announced the establishment of an international centre to enable the sharing of information between law enforcement agencies tracking corrupt money. Australia and the US are involved in this initiative.

Third, next year will see the first international forum on the return of stolen assets, with a focus on returning assets to Nigeria, Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Tunisia.

These are all positive developments. The focus on increased transparency and the international co-ordination to track illicit funds are good. It is vital that money drained out of developing countries is returned wherever possible and that those who enable or receive those funds are prosecuted.

It is also important that there is more global co-operation among law enforcement agencies around information sharing and the pooling of resources. These developments build on current standards set by the Financial Action Task Force and the Mutual Legal Assistance framework that are already in place.

But so much more is needed if we are to achieve the ultimate goal of reducing global corruption. As the Fairfax Unaoil report and Panama Papers revealed, the problem of corporate bribery is systemic, entrenched and far more widespread than many realised. In addition, many countries, including Australia, are still struggling to investigate and prosecute even the clearest cases of foreign bribery.

To tackle this problem, we need a global education campaign to change corporate attitudes that bribery is a necessary part of doing business abroad.

We need to think about the burden we place on those individuals who are willing to report corruption. In Luxembourg, India, South Africa and many other countries around the world, whistleblowers who have exposed corruption are facing prosecution and even death threats. The media and public focus on demonising these people, rather than on the information they bring forward and the corruption they expose, must be stopped.

Developed countries need to address their own failings in responding to the challenges presented by foreign bribery and corruption.

The Australian government has recently done more to improve its record in this regard by holding inquiries into our foreign bribery laws and considering the introduction of deferred prosecution agreements. It has also introduced new false accounting rules and committed an additional $15 million to strengthen the AFP's capacity to investigate bribe payments made by Australian corporations.

But what the government is not doing is speaking up on these issues so that countries within our region know that we are committed to tackling all aspects of foreign bribery and corruption. Many of the poorest people in our region suffer terribly as the result of corruption, in countries in which Australia businesses prosper through investment. To properly respond to this situation, the Australian government needs to take a national and regional leadership stance supported by concrete action.

This does not mean holding a grand summit or signing a declaration. What it does mean is getting our own house in order first. For example, the government has not yet condemned the serious evidence of corruption by Australian businesses contained in the Unaoil report. It has failed to deliver on its promise of a National AntiCorruption Action Plan.

The government also needs to take responsibility for the role of the Reserve Bank of Australia in the Note Printing and Securency cases. Today committal proceedings against executives of these subsidiary companies are still before the courts, seven years after the allegations were raised. In contrast, in London, a lower-level former manager of Securency has been sentenced to 30 months' jail for making corrupt payments to a foreign official in Africa. Yet, we are unlikely to ever see such results in Australia, with our cases stifled by suppression orders, and rumours indicating most are being settled before they make it to trial.

The time has come for the Australian government to wipe the slate clean on the past and show it is serious about reducing foreign bribery and corruption.

Dr Kath Hall is Associate Professor at the ANU College of Law and Deputy Director (law) at the Transnational Research Institute on Corruption. This article was originally published in The Canberra Times.

Associate Professor Kath Hall

Associate Professor

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team