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Aussie property a tasty prospect for money laundering

Money laundering

Australian residential property is at “significant risk” for money laundering, OECD experts have warned, and it could be because real estate professionals are exempt from anti-money laundering obligations.

In its latest report, the OECD’s Working Group on Bribery called on policymakers to strengthen the country’s guard against foreign bribery, and highlighted the need to “address the risk that the Australian real-estate sector could be used to launder the proceeds of foreign bribery”.

Further, the working group composed of 44 member countries noted that under current Australian law, accountants, auditors and real estate agents and lawyers are not explicitly subject to anti-money laundering/counter-terrorism financing (AML/CTF) obligations.

Noting this, the working group recommended that Australia take “urgent steps to address the risk that the proceeds of foreign bribery could be laundered through the Australian real estate sector.

“These should include specific measures to ensure that, in line with the 2015 Financial Action Task Force (FATF) standards, the Australian financial system is not the sole gatekeeper for such transactions,” the working group said.

The review team referred to international AML/CTF and anti-corruption expert Professor Jason Sharman’s point that the Australian AML/CTF system’s “failure to counter the flow of corrupt proceeds from abroad into the Australian real estate sector” was the result of a “lack of willingness to take action rather than a lack of capacity”.

In his 2017 book, The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management, Mr Sharman said of Australia: “At most times and in most places, kleptocrats have stolen and laundered without action being taken against them.

“Nevertheless, even where the trail of money from grand corruption has not attracted much attention or provoked countermeasures, it may still be possible to glean enough evidence to establish its presence.”

Continuing, he said his chapter on Australia highlights the way inward corruption flows have “attracted scarce publicity and little or no investigation”.

Mr Sharman argued that Australia is an example of wealthy host country governments’ resistance to “the idea of tracing, freezing and returning looted wealth from abroad”.

“Even the most enthusiastic anti-corruption crimes are never publicised or investigated,” he said.

“Australia has some of the most powerful applicable [anti-corruption] laws in the world … but the authorities have lacked the inclination to apply them.”

Mr Sharman also criticised AUSTRAC’s belief that money laundering in the real estate sector was “not its problem”.

Transparency International in March also slammed the “insufficient rules” governing suspicious real estate transaction reports in Australia.

The organisation said Australia has “severe deficiencies” when it comes to AML/CTF legislation in the real estate sector, specifically pointing to real estate agents’ exemption from AML/CTF obligations.

“This means that properties can be bought and sold without any due diligence on the parties,” Transparency International said.

“Currently, there are no requirements for real estate agents or any professional involved in real estate deals to submit suspicious transaction reports, even if they suspect illegal activity is taking place, and there are no requirements or rules for verifying whether customers are politically exposed persons or their close associates.”

How do we address this?

The OECD working group recommended that Australia raises awareness of “foreign bribery as a predicate offence for money laundering”. It said Australia could do that by providing guidance, case studies and categorisations of various offences to the reporting entities.

Concluding, the working group argued that Australia needs to take “urgent steps to address the risk that the proceeds of foreign bribery could be laundered through the Australian real estate sector”.

Aussie property a tasty prospect for money laundering
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