National Press Club Q&A

Subjects: AUSTRAC's National Risk Assessments; Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing; Privacy reform; Religious discrimination legislation; Whistleblower reform; Office of the Special Investigator; Robodebt Royal Commission; Age of criminal responsibility; Religion and identity; Anti-Semitism Envoy

LAURA TINGLE: Thank you both for that. So let's take it back a step for people who aren't involved in criminal activities like me. I just want to clarify, you said that we hadn't engaged in that tranche two, and we've been criticised a decade ago. But I'm just not quite clear whether we have, you know, moved into tranche two, but where the shortcomings are. I mean, this is people like real estate agents, lawyers, accountants. They are being prosecuted. So what are the rules governing that tranche two group now? And what would it be under the new model that you're looking at?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL MARK DREYFUS KC MP: We need to legislate, to bring in trench two entities, who are, as you just said, Laura, accountants, real estate agents, lawyers. gem traders and a few more smaller professions. It's something that Australia should have done 10 years ago. And, as I said, in my remarks, we're at risk of being grey listed if we don't get on with it. So it has to happen. The status quo is absolutely not an option. And we're one of a handful of countries remaining in the world who have not legislated to bring in these kinds of entities.

TINGLE: And what would be their obligation?

AUSTRAC CEO BRENDAN THOMAS: Australia's money laundering regime applies largely to financial institutions at the moment. And those obligations are based on a set of international standards enforced by a group called the Financial Action Task Force, the international body that sets money laundering standards. And there are a range of those standards, including understanding your customer, understanding the risk of money laundering to your business or the industry that you're in, and putting in place a range of controls to mitigate that risk. And there's also a range of reporting obligations on those organisations that are covered by a money laundering regime to provide us with data on cash transactions, over $10,000, international funds transfers, but most importantly, to identify suspicious activity and report that activity. So to understand the risk of when they're seeing activity that's breaching that risk to do something about reporting about it. And for those bodies that fail to implement those standards, there are sanctions. And we've talked a little bit about some of those sanctions and the fines that have been imposed. For the tranche two entities that are proposed to come under that money laundering regime they would have the same requirements, but at a lesser scale. So the level of transactions a major bank does, for instance, are hundreds of thousands a day. We get half a million international funds transfer instructions a day coming to us from the banks, the volume is incredible. But for a real estate business, an accountancy firm, and a law firm, it's nowhere near that level of compliance in terms of volumes. But what they would be required to do is to understand the customers, understand the money laundering risk it poses to their business, and to put in place some strategies to mitigate that risk. And those strategies include understanding who they're dealing with, and making sure they're confident they know who they're dealing with, making sure they're confident they know where the source of funds are coming from that they're dealing with and where those funds are going to. And if that client or customer is posing an increased risk, taking greater diligence around managing that transaction. And if they're concerned that they're seeing something suspicious, reporting that suspicion to us. And indeed, if they're concerned that they're dealing with something that might be criminal, they should think about whether to continue with that kind of transaction. So it's really about putting controls around risk, and not turning a blind eye to crime that might be in front of you.

REPORTER: Thank you, Attorney. I just wanted to ask you, firstly when do you expect these laws to be introduced? And are you confident you'll get them through before the Parliament is prorogued ahead of the election? And similarly, could you give us a bit of an update about where you're at on privacy reform as well, just on the timeline for that. And Mr Thomas, can I just ask you, one of the significant and growing risks in your report is related to government services fraud. Can you just give us a bit more detail what government services are being targeted and can you give us an idea of the scale in relation to that government services fraud?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The answer, the short answer is on this tranche two change, as soon as possible. We need to get on with it. I've just completed the second round of consultation, which I outlined in the speech, and as soon as I can bring this to the parliament, having considered the last remaining parts of that consultation, we will. On privacy, similarly, I'm looking forward to bringing that to the Parliament as soon as I can. We announced a response to the review of the Privacy Act, which I accelerated at the start of this year and we're I'm very hopeful that we will bring that to the Parliament later this year.

THOMAS: In terms of government services fraud, we've seen a number of prosecutions over recent years where organised crime have been involved in exploiting government funded programs. We've seen at a state level, frauds in disaster recovery schemes. We've seen frauds in the childcare system, fake childcare centres established by organised crime and money flowing through that. We've seen frauds of the NDIS system. It's those kinds of frauds that we're seeing. We've recently got some funds from the government in the recent Budget to increase our intelligence capability to assist understanding the nature of those frauds so that we can bring more of that intelligence to law enforcement toward attention, and help those agencies that are experiencing that fraud to get on top of it.

TINGLE: Can I just follow up on Ron's question about the legislation, there's been a lot of talk about the fact that it's actually quite difficult, you've got a logjam of legislation and there's also a bit of a delay because of a shortage of parliamentary draftsmen. Is that an issue? And you know, when you say as soon as possible, what's a realistic timeframe, just logistically, to get stuff into parliament.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: My aim is before the end of this year. And it's true, we have been a legislatively active government. And as far as possible, I'm hoping that Parliamentary counsel, for whom I am responsible, are not the cause of any log jam. There's only so much that the Parliament can get through in a given year, whether or not there's enough drafting. And we've got a busy legislative program coming up starting in August.

REPORTER: Attorney General, just on being legislatively active, the draft religious discrimination laws remain in a stalemate. You have said you're awaiting a response from the Coalition. They say they won't negotiate with you until you consider serious concerns from religious groups. So where to from here? Will you try and find a path forward with the Coalition and those religious groups? Or can you clarify, are the reforms dead in this Parliament?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, we've said, right from the start, that we're looking for an enduring reform here. We're looking to give protections to staff and students in religious schools and protections to people of faith. And working on that notion of getting an enduring reform I gave to the Opposition, to Mr Dutton and Senator Cash back in March, the bills that we hope to bring to the Parliament. We are still awaiting a response from the Opposition. I don't count the public statements that Senator Cash has made as a response because she's actually refused to engage. We're waiting for line by line type of engagement. That's what normally should occur. That's the response that we gave to the former Morrison Government when we were in opposition, when they brought a bill to the Parliament. I'm waiting for that kind of engagement. It hasn't happened yet. And the reason for wanting to make sure that there is bipartisan approval of what we bring to the Parliament is that we don't want a religious discrimination act in Australia that is subject to change on a change of government.

REPORTER: Assuming that you don't get the line by line response without responding to the religious groups, is it your judgment, it is just too difficult? Will the Labor Government take a promise to the next election to pursue it in the next term?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We think this is worth doing. That's why we voted in favour of a religious discrimination bill in February of 2022. It's why we moved amendments to that bill, some of which were successful because Liberal Members of Parliament in the Morrison Government crossed the floor. This is an unfinished project.

REPORTER: You said in your speech Mr. Dreyfus, that penalties are just one element, we need to use all tools available to us to combat money laundering. Surely one of the tools available to us is a fully actualised whistleblower protection system. Now, the consultation for the second stage of your whistleblower reforms concluded in December last year, and one month after that Transparency International gave us a score which is about 10 points behind where we were a decade ago. Transparency International Australia said delivering on a Whistleblower Protection Authority is one of the next steps to restoring Australia's anti-corruption reputation. So where are we up to with the second stage of whistleblower reforms? And do you think you'll include them before the next election?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Sorry to strike a familiar theme, but this is another area where the former government didn't act. I brought the Public Interest Disclosure Act to the Parliament in 2013 in my first go as Attorney-General and I'm very proud of that piece of legislation. And to make sure that it was as fit for purpose as possible we wrote into that legislation a statutory review. That statutory review was required to be carried out by the former government. They got Philip Moss, an eminent Australian public servant, to do the review. He did the review. He made over 30 recommendations in 2016. And that's where it sat. When we came to government the former government had done nothing for six years. I brought a first round of reforms that were urgent arising from Philip Moss' report, they needed to be done in time for the commencement of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. That happened, and as you rightly said, in your question, there's a second round coming. We've had consultation about that we are considering, and continuing to consider, what will be the form of the further reforms which we've acknowledged are needed that we bring to the Parliament.

REPORTER: But do you have a timeline on that at all?


REPORTER: Before we begin today's broadcast there was an acknowledgement of the Afghanistan ambassador here in the audience, effectively an ambassador in exile since the return the Taliban there in Kabul. So I'd like to ask about the Office of Special Investigator looking at war crimes. The Office has been going for four years now. There's only been one lot of charges one charge of eight against one former Special Forces soldier in that period. In that time, though, we've had obviously the Ben Roberts-Smith defamation trial, I appreciate it's a civil matter versus criminal, so there's a lower burden of proof in that case. But are you disappointed or frustrated at all, that there's only been the one case, that the one charge that has been laid? And how committed is the Government to ensuring the Office continues its work? Or is it getting to the point where it's all just getting sort of too hard, and there really won't be any other further prosecutions to come from this office?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I can say very directly, the Government is fully committed to the office of the Special Investigator. That's why the Office of the Special Investigator has been funded in successive Budgets, you've rightly identified that only as yet one person has been charged. And I'm not going to comment further on whether or not there will be further charges. But it would be apparent to anyone in this room who's familiar with the burden report, the published version of the burden report the degree of difficulty that there is in war crimes investigations. That said, I think Australia can be very proud of the fact that we are one of the very few countries in the world that has embarked on war crimes prosecutions of our own servicemen, and it remains a work in progress.

REPORTER: Just first to Mr Thomas, I just want to ask about Pacific banking. Seeing as that's topical over the past few days do we have to work with our Pacific neighbours? And how do we work with our Pacific neighbours to ensure that illicit funds don't just get transferred offshore? And to the Attorney-General I just wanted to ask, in the debate about the Middle-East, we hear the suffix and the prefix Muslim minister, Jewish minister, Muslim MPs, Jewish MPs. Should this be used at all? Or should a religion of an MP not be relevant to their stance on human rights? And does it just encourage pigeon holing?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'll let Brendan answer the first question while I think about the answer.

THOMAS: We do work extensively with our Pacific neighbours for a number of reasons. One, it's a very good thing to do. Secondly, I mentioned that Australia is exposed to money laundering risks, not just from criminal proceeds generated in Australia, but those generated in our region that might be flowing into Australia. We work very closely with all of our Pacific neighbours in building capacity for them. AUSTRAC runs training programs for financial intelligence units right across the Pacific. We've got a number of them running this year. We provide software services to specific countries so they can track financial payments amongst one another much more effectively. And we bring those specific financial intelligence units together in a group called the Pacific Financial Intelligence Community. And through that community we share learnings around money laundering. We develop particular activities around targeting particular money laundering groups, about strengthening anti-money laundering activities across the Pacific. There's a very strong coherent group of Pacific money laundering bodies trying to tackle money laundering throughout the Pacific. The challenge is they are very small. So AUSTRAC is a reasonably large organisation, we've got a couple of hundred people doing financial intelligence, some of these Pacific countries, we've got two or three people doing that kind of financial intelligence. So we're doing everything we possibly can to try and strengthen their arm, increase the capability, give them technology, if they need that technology, and provide professional development for the Pacific Financial Intelligence units, to be able to combat money laundering, as they see it. It's, it's a good thing for us to do to help our neighbours become stronger. And it's a good thing for us to do, because we can stop the flows of money coming into Australia if we can have a stronger Pacific.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: And just to reinforce what Brendan said, it's something that the government is committed to doing, to helping our Pacific neighbours, many of them have reached out and asked for assistance. AUSTRAC is not a gigantic organisation but it is a lot bigger than anything that the Pacific island countries have got and we're very happy to assist and we aim to continue to do this. It's something that Australia can really offer to our Pacific neighbours, and we intend to go on doing that. On your question about whether or not Members of Parliament or ministers should be labeled. I'm proud to be Jewish. I'm a Jewish Australian. You could give me some other labels as well. I'm proud to have been a lifelong member of the Australian Labor Party. But, and many of my colleagues will often have the adjective will, people will say, she is a Muslim Member of Parliament or he is a Muslim Member of Parliament or he is a staunch Catholic or she is a staunch Catholic, or he's a Protestant or all sorts of labels get attributed. I think there's nothing wrong with identifying that people are members of particular groups in our community. In my case, I would hope it informs the way I live, that it informs, gives me a moral framework to live by. But it's not determinative. And the problem which you probably are adverting to in the question there is that when it becomes determinative, or it is seen as absolutely directing someone because they bear that label, then we fall into error. One of the great things about Australia is that people can be members of a vast range of different organisations, and groups, and have a range of beliefs. But we get on and we don't allow labels to define everything that we do. So I don't think there's anything per se wrong with identifying people's religion or identifying that people belong to particular groups or have particular ethnic backgrounds. What's wrong is when we assume, and this is prejudice, and discrimination, that that is determinative of their views or determinative of the way they'll vote or determinative of the way that they will behave in society. Australia is a much richer place and a much more diverse place than that. And that's where, if you like prejudice and discrimination start.

REPORTER: I have a question for each of you, respectively. Mr Thomas, there's a reference in the documents distributed today about the difficulty capturing how much money has been laundered in the Australian economy and also the scope and extent of the social harms. I'm wondering if there's any work being done to sort of refine or get better at understanding the landscape, so to speak. And Attorney-General on Sunday it marked one year since the Robodebt Royal Commission report was handed to government. There are some in the community, well, many according to my readers, who would say restorative justice has not been fulfilled as yet, a sense of accountability is not palpable as yet. I'd love you to just remark on the sort of wash of consequences post Royal Commission and what that looks like to a Labor Government who really champion this royal commission.

THOMAS: It's always difficult predicting the volume of unreported crime. Money laundering is the same as many other types of crime. While we understand the crime that gets reported and the crime that gets prosecuted, it's often difficult to assess the crime that isn't. In the money laundering area we've got some great examples of where we can start to get at least some indication of the cost of money laundering. I talked about the great work the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission does. They do wastewater analysis every year, which looks and analyses wastewater an awful thought but someone's got to do it. They do a great job and through that analysis, they can get a good picture of the volume of drug use, the volume of individual drug use, the mix of the types of drugs that people are using, and from that can make some strong estimates on the total volume of drug use in Australia. Using that information along with what we know about drug markets, we can get an estimation of the total cost of drugs in Australia, which they come out with $12.4 billion. So in that type of crime we've got a reasonably good picture. Our colleagues at the Australian Institute of Criminology have also done some great work in recent years in a cost of crime report, estimating the costs of different kinds of crime and the money that might be flowing from those. And that report looks at a whole host of different categories of crime, and what the total cost of those crimes might be. It is very difficult to get that kind of picture. And from our point of view one of the challenges in regulating this type of environment is trying to understand the displacement that might occur once one sector become stronger. And criminals look far for other areas to launder funds through. And particularly one of the great susceptibilities of the Australian market is a place for international criminals to launder funds. And so what we want is to make it harder for them to place their money here so they've got to look someplace else, to be quite frank, so that money doesn't enter our economy in the first place. So that we don't have to measure the volume of international funds that have been laundered through Australia, because it's harder for them to do that. And it displaces to, to another place or to another time, but it is quite difficult to look at. But we do have some good indications of the volume of money coming through the Australian economy.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: And on your question about Robodebt we moved swiftly when we came to government to establish a Royal Commission, which is always an unusual thing to do. We aimed for it to be a very short and sharp Royal Commission and it was and the report could not have been more direct. It exposed what occurred here, which was that hundreds of thousands of Australians suffered grievously as a result of the illegal conduct of the former government. There were suicides, and some people's lives were permanently ruined, and we're not going to get them back. We're not going to be able to make good to those families and we're not going to be able to absolutely repair the lives of some people whose lives were damaged. But there have been hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation paid by the Commonwealth Government, we've had a successful class action brought against the Commonwealth Government as a result of that illegality. And I would like to think that the Robodebt Royal Commission remains there as an absolutely salutary warning to the Australian public servants and future Australian governments that when an act of the Australian Parliament directs certain things occur, that has to be obeyed. Because that was the problem, that there was clear legislation but successive ministers directed that legislation not be followed, that was all exposed in the Royal Commission.

REPORTER: Can I just ask the AG about the accountability, and what that means for justice?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The report held people accountable and named people as accountable. There is still disciplinary proceedings occurring within these processes of the Australian public service. So we're not quite done. And I think you should keep asking the question, maybe ask me again in a year's time, but we're not quite done.

REPORTER: My questions for the Attorney General. Do you support raising the age of criminal responsibility for Commonwealth offences from 10 to at least 14?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: This is something that's being looked at in the Standing Council of Attorneys-General now. It's something that's still under consideration at the Commonwealth level. Some states have moved on this, notably in some territories, the ACT has already legislated the NT has legislated, Victoria is on the point of legislation. And I would say that it's of slightly lesser urgency for the Commonwealth. We have no children that are presently convicted of Commonwealth criminal offences, and most Commonwealth criminal offences, overwhelmingly Commonwealth criminal offences, are not likely to catch a child.

REPORTER: You've recently moved to create a new Commonwealth offence that is likely to involve children and that's around deepfakes. There are also calls for you to take a leadership role as the Federal Attorney-General and this is something that's been on the Council of Attorneys-General agenda for many years now. Do you think that the age should be raised?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I'm going to say it's still it's going to remain under consideration. But you're not quite right. Sorry to be a lawyer. But on the deepfake amendments to the Criminal Code, they do not deal with child sex abuse material. There are separate provisions.

REPORTER: In relation to the victim, not the alleged offender.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: You right, potentially, an alleged offender could be under the age of 14, we would hope not.

REPORTER: But should they be charged as an adult.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No. And they wouldn't be charged as an adult. The age of criminal responsibility raises a different question. Children in Australian courts are dealt with in children's courts. The age of criminal responsibility raises a different question, which is whether a child or someone of a certain age can ever be held criminally responsible in Australian courts under the age of 10 you can't be and now we are moving, in some jurisdictions, to, as it's put. raise the age.

REPORTER: Just on the matter you both spoke about today, how often do you think that the real estate industry is knowingly taking proceeds of crime? And how will you enforce any rules to stop that? And how much of an impact do you think any of this is having on Australia's extraordinarily high property prices?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I might go first. One of the problems caused by the tranche two entities, including real estate agents not being currently covered by the regime, is that we simply don't know the correct answer to your question. On occasion, real estate agents have been discovered to be involved and have been charged with criminal offences. But the full extent we don't know. On the property price question, there is no evidence, directly about the impact. There's anecdotal suggestions that criminals pay inflated prices for real estate in Australia which would have potentially an obvious impact on raising overall property prices. There's been some work done in Canada, which is directly to that effect, that there's been an increase in property prices because of money laundering through real estate. So I'll hand to Brendan, because he may have some data, or at least some better idea than I do. But I know from all that I've read that we don't really know, in the real estate industry.

THOMAS: Yeah, the Attorney's, right, we don't really know in the real estate industry. It's difficult to speculate what's in the mind of people conducting a real estate transaction. We do see, as the Attorney said, prosecutions where real estate agents are actively involved in crime. There's certainly that case, but I think what's true to say is for real estate agents being outside the current regime, there's no cause for them to even ask the question. So if someone turns up - I gave an example earlier of someone paying for a property in Sydney with cash of more than $30 million. In the current arrangements there's no requirement to ask where that money's come from, to properly attest to that person that's buying that property, to understand who the beneficial owner of that transaction actually is. If they come under this regime they'll have to ask those questions and they'll have to understand the nature of who they're dealing with and be assured themselves of where their funds are actually coming from. That is, if they're under the money laundering regime, it'd be impossible to turn a blind eye to crime. At the moment it is to turn that blind eye.

REPORTER: The Government announced an Anti-Semitism Envoy this morning. Will you adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-semitism? And does the government consider criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic? And for Brendon, these accounting, law, real estate businesses are quite a bit smaller than banks are. Does AUSTRAC have a role to play in supporting those businesses with this additional regulation?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Just on the announcement by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration, Mr Giles this morning, on the creation of an envoy to combat anti-Semitism. I want to say how immensely pleased I am with this announcement. Because I know that Jillian Segal, who has been appointed to this job, from her long record of public service, including some pretty senior Commonwealth positions and senior positions in private enterprise is going to make a difference, is going to do a tremendous job. It's concrete action. It's something that's been done to deal with what has been an unprecedented rise in anti-semitism in Australia, a shocking rise in anti-semitism in Australia, I'm really pleased to see that we've hit upon something that 31 other countries around the world already have, which is an envoy to combat anti-semitism. I met with the excellent American envoy to combat anti-semitism Deborah Lipstadt in Washington in January of this year. So I'm pleased that this has occurred. I think I'll take a leaf out of Jillian Segal's book, she was asked at the press conference this morning whether the government should adopt the IHRA definition and she said she's going to be giving that consideration and give advice to the government about it. I will await her advice. And on your last point, is criticism of Israel, anti-Semitic? It absolutely can be. Not always, I criticise the government of Israel from time to time, I don't think I'm anti-Semitic. Other people criticise the government of Israel, and I don't think they're anti-Semitic. But when people are singling out Israel and applying a standard to Israel that they do not apply to other countries, then potentially, there's anti-Semitism going on.

THOMAS: Your tranche two question, one of the things that does characterise the tranche two entities, so many of them are small businesses. I'm incredibly conscious of that as the potential future regulator. And we're not interested in regulation for the sake of regulation. The whole purpose of this is to try and close the door to crime, and strengthen all of our institutions against organised crime. So we have an incredibly strong role to play in educating those sectors of the industry around money laundering and around the money laundering risk, in making sure we work hand in glove with them in how we design a new regulatory scheme. So it's working with business in the most efficient and effective way, making sure that we understand the current requirements, other requirements that are on those businesses, so where people might be performing activities that are going to otherwise mean they're compliant with money laundering regulations, we don't ask them to do the same thing twice, that we just lift the standards or in fact accept the standards that they might have, as part of other regulatory practices. And my commitment is to work hand in glove with all of those industries and the industry associations, once the legislation passes, in designing the regulatory elements of this scheme to make sure that it is really fit for purpose and we're not just ticking boxes on compliance, but we're working in partnership as we do with a lot of our financial institutions to really shut out organised crime.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: And if I could add to what Brendan said, there's $166 million in the Budget. Part of it is for education of the tranche two entities, working with consultation, and an education program to make sure that we have the most effective regulation possible. And as I said, in my speech, I do thank the professional associations, the Law Council of Australia, the Law Societies of Australia, the three accounting organisations, real estate organisations, for their work in the consultation, for talking to us about what this scheme needs to look like. So I'm very confident we're going to get there. I'm hoping we get there as soon as possible. But I do know that it's going to be after a very long and effective consultation.

TINGLE: Could I just get a bit of clarification on that comment Attorney about Israel versus anti-Semitism and saying that it can be when Israel is singled out and in a way that doesn't apply to other countries? Can you just elaborate on what you meant there?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: When people apply to Israel a standard that is not applied to other countries then potentially it's anti-Semitism. When people deny to Israel its right to exist. When people pretend that Israel was not created by the United Nations in 1948, and is absolutely a full member of the United Nations, those sorts of things. I can go on but I'd be giving you a long list of anti-Semitic approaches to Israel. I'd say again, as a matter of principle, when people criticise Israel in a way that they would not dream of applying to another country, then you are at the point of anti-Semitism.

TINGLE: So it's about approaches to Israel as opposed to actions by Israel?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The question was directed, when is criticism of Israel anti-Semitism and I'm saying there absolutely can be criticism of Israel which is anti-Semitic, anti-Semitism.

TINGLE: We've covered a very vast range of topics this afternoon. Thank you both once again for your speeches, and thank you to the journalists for asking very interesting questions. And thank you to everyone here today.

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