`Free pass’ fears in anti-corruption idea

Transparency advocates are worried not enough is being done to crack down on corruption in the nation’s biggest companies and institutions.


And they fear an idea being pursued by the federal government – to implement deferred prosecution agreements – would mean many people who have done the wrong thing would escape prosecution.

Justice Minister Michael Keenan in March released a discussion paper into the agreements.

Under the scheme – which is already in place in the UK and US – companies or workers who have committed serious corporate offences can turn themselves in for a negotiated settlement.

Catherine Hawkins, a senior official from the Attorney-General’s Department, raised the concept during a a hearing of a Senate inquiry into a national integrity commission on Thursday.

“It’s a way to incentivise individuals in companies or the companies themselves … to actually come forward to law enforcement and say ‘so mea culpa’,” she said.

Ms Hawkins conceded there were negatives – concerns about a “free pass” – but said it was an innovative way to increase identification of wrongful conduct.

The department insisted there were already many agencies investigating serious corporate crime, including the Australian Federal Police’s fraud and anti-corruption Centre, corporate regulator ASIC, competition and consumer watchdog ACCC and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

The government had also set up the Serious Financial Crime Taskforce in May 2015.

“The Australian government is not complacent about the threat of corruption,” the department’s deputy secretary Leanne Close said.

AFP Deputy Commissioner Ian McCartney cited the 2015 arrest of a former Australian Bureau of Statistic worker and National Australia Bank employee as an example of agencies working together.

Lukas Kamay and Christopher Hill were jailed over a $7 million insider trading scheme.

But Transparency International Australia warned taskforces were temporary while a national integrity commission would be permanent.

Chairman Anthony Whealy, a former NSW Supreme Court judge, said deferred agreements in the UK were very much in their infancy.

“If everyone gets a deferred prosecution agreement no one gets convicted,” he said.

“I don’t know what the public thinks of that.”

Several crossbench senators have been pursuing the idea of a national ICAC, arguing the government’s reluctance to support one as the reason it didn’t vote to reinstate a building industry watchdog earlier in the week.

Inquiry chairman Dio Wang said having an over-arching national integrity body would help limit the need for duplicated resources and hopefully lead to better co-ordination among agencies.