Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addresses the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on Sunday 8 May 2016. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Photo: Alex EllinghausenThe public should be able to freely access the names of the people behind the ownership of assets and bank accounts in order to boost transparency and stop secret shell companies being used for criminal activity.
This is the key contention of a host of submissions to Treasury as part of the federal government’s plans to increase transparency of the beneficial ownership of companies following the Panama Papers revelations.
“The Panama Papers and other similar leaks provide a wealth of information on how legal entities created in tax havens are used to commit crimes and launder the proceeds,” said Transparency International Australia (TIA).
TIA supports the creation of a central register to record beneficial ownership information. It said ???a central register could be maintained by either AUSTRAC or the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).
“The only thing that is likely to stop or curtail the misuse of shell companies and other legal structures for criminal activity is the ability for law enforcement, journalists, financial institutions and interested members of the general public to cheaply, or freely, access the names of the people behind the ownership of assets and bank accounts.”
TIA said phoenix companies being incorporated off the back of their failed predecessors could also be tackled.
“There is the need to ensure that illegal phoenix activity is stamped out and a key method of achieving better detection of phoenix activities would be by reliably gathering and sharing information,” the submission said.
TIA has also suggested greater protection and financial rewards for whistleblowers. Don’t exclude trusts
The Treasury Consultation Paper does not apply to trusts, which are often used for tax avoidance or criminal purposes.
Chartered Accountants’ submission said “an informed discussion about the beneficial ownership of companies cannot occur without some consideration of trusts and other types of legal entities which can appear in a company’s ownership structure”.
“Failure to address this issue in the design … means that the policy intent could be easily frustrated by inserting a trust or other type of opaque entity in the ownership chain.”
The Law Society of NSW also wants the register of beneficial owners to be public. It said transparency was crucial as global finance and power became more concentrated.
The Australian Shareholders Association also supports a beneficial ownership register to “help create a global financial system that is transparent and accountable”. It said ASIC should operate the register and be given sufficient funding and resources to carry out this additional responsibility.
Tyro Payments also proposes a central register be part of ASIC’s existing companies public register. It could include detail on each individual shareholder on the company’s register, including name, date of birth, place of birth and residential address, and whether shares are being held on behalf of another entity such as a trust, company or partnership.
“This would merely be adding an extension to the current register and such changes to incorporate the new information would not be onerous to implement,” Tyro’s submission said.
The Australian Institute of Company Directors said Australia’s more than 2.4 million companies already grapple with compliance costs and suggested the government provide an exemption for listed entities from any new beneficial ownership disclosure requirements.
The onus, it said, should instead be placed on “the natural persons holding a relevant interest in a company’s shares, rather than the company being obliged to ascertain or verify this information”. G20 push for transparency
The federal government’s consultation process follows a global push for greater transparency, with the G20 committed to implementing rules requiring the disclosure of beneficial ownership of legal entities.
The push came after more than 11.5 million documents from a Panama-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca, were leaked and later published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, prompting a global hunt for criminals.
The papers, dating back to 1977, hold information on about 214,000 offshore entities including connections to Australian taxpayers being investigated by the Australian Taxation Office.
The Panama leaks allege that, apart from outright tax avoidance, some of the companies domiciled in tax havens were also being used for money laundering, financing of terrorism, and arms and drug deals.
World leaders including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Russian President Vladimir Putin were named in the papers, although no criminal activity was linked to them. Iceland’s former prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson was forced to stand down after his wife was named in the papers.