| 25.02,19. 06:50 PM |
Labor proposes crackdown on 'dirty money' laundered through Australian real estate
Photo: AUSTRAC says the laundering of illicit funds through real estate is an established method in Australia. (ABC News: Alistair Kroie)
Real estate agents, lawyers and accountants will be forced to report dirty money that is used to buy property if Labor wins the upcoming federal election.
Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen pledged to extend anti-money laundering (AML) laws to professionals including real estate agents, solicitors and accountants.
The ABC's Four Corners program last week revealed that Chinese law enforcement agencies employed former police detectives in Australia to covertly track down the proceeds of crime, which may have been illegally transferred to Australia by corrupt Chinese officials or employees of Chinese state-owned enterprises, often by buying homes.
Criminals use real estate to 'clean' the money they make from crime by using the proceeds to buy legitimate assets such as houses.
Australia has long been seen as a target for hot money, with real estate agents, lawyers and accountants the weak link because they do not have to report suspicious transactions.
Last year, the Federal Government delayed a long-planned extension of the AML laws to non-financial businesses and professions, which would force them to report dodgy deals to financial crimes regulator AUSTRAC.
Mr Bowen said the Government had "dropped the ball" on toughening the laws.
"According to the Government's own work plan, real estate agents should already be covered by our money laundering laws — but the Liberals have done nothing to progress this."
A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said the Government is committed to strengthening anti-money laundering laws and making sure that any changes do not place "undue burden on industry".
However, a new bill amending the law does not include the extension of the legislation to real estate agents, lawyers or accountants.
In 2017, the Government commissioned a cost-benefit analysis to look at extending the laws to these groups.
Mr Bowen also said Labor would reverse budget cuts to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the Australian Federal Police.
"Only Labor can be trusted to take money laundering financial crime seriously," Mr Bowen said.
The Federal Government has increased ASIC's funding after last year's surprise cut.
International pressure to act on real estate money laundering
Australia has been slammed at home and overseas for failing to extend the AML laws, with New Zealand already passing legislation to stop criminals using real estate agents, solicitors and accountants to launder money.
AUSTRAC said in a 2015 report that the laundering of illicit funds through real estate was "an established money laundering method in Australia".
It said about $1 billion in suspicious transactions came from Chinese investors into Australian property in 2015-2016.
In late 2017, the OECD Working Group on Bribery said that Australia needed to "address the risk that the Australian real estate sector could be used to launder the proceeds of foreign bribery".
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental body which monitors efforts to combat financial crime, also called out Australia for failing to crack down on the significant risk of money laundering through Australian property.
Thomson Reuters financial crime expert Nathan Lynch said the Federal Government was under pressure to act because FATF will visit Australia in September to monitor progress on anti-money laundering laws.
"The international standard setter will want to see evidence Australia has acted upon the weaknesses set out in its 2015 mutual evaluation report. Chief among these was the failure to regulate lawyers, accountants and real estate agents," he said.
"Chinese oligarchs and organised crime groups are extremely fond of the privacy, lack of scrutiny and legal certainty that Australian real estate offers."
Mr Lynch's report for Thomson Reuters Regulatory Intelligence said that Chinese drug syndicates are targeting people in China who want to get their money out of the country and who may not be aware that the house they are buying was originally purchased with cash generated from drug sales in Australia.
"Money laundering facilitators will take these illicit funds, place them in the financial system, then use them to buy hard assets, including real estate," the report said.
ANZ's head of financial crime told the ABC in 2017 that Australia was "a place of choice for illegitimate money" because of a lack of regulation.
Real Estate Institute of Australia president Adrian Kelly said the association wanted to limit the impact of any changes on the industry.
"Any moves down this track are going to be an imposition on real estate agents who are largely small-business people," he said.
"We wish to ensure the impact on agents is minimised because much of the information required can be sought from others involved in the transaction process, including the banks and their conveyancing process, the ATO and the Foreign Investment Review Board," Mr Kelly said.