Monday, November 5, 2012

An embarrassing scandal reaches far into Australia's central bank

Although Australia is listed in the top 10 least perceived corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International, an ongoing bribery case involving the companies Securency International and Note Printing Australia, which are jointly owned by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) is causing embarrassment to the government in Canberra.

The RBA is Australia's central bank and as such is responsible for money supply and the setting of interest rates, an integral part of any country's monetary policy. Consequently the government’s banker must not just act with integrity, it must be trusted as an institution beyond reproach if the financial system and public are to maintain confidence in the institution.

Note Printers Australia developed a unique polymer banknote technology in the 1980s which gave the company a great leap forward in technology and security that it could offer around the world. The marketing arm Securency International obtained tens of millions of dollars in orders from foreign governments for the product. According to sources inside the company at the time, there was much debate about how the company could increase its market share within Asia, where the dominant management group at the time commissioned a number of allegedly shady middle men to assist in securing business.

The story even has an air of James Bond about it, in which a high ranking female Australian official, Elizabeth Masamune, had an secret affair with Anh Ngoc Luong, a top colonel in the Vietnam State Intelligence Network, who is accused of receiving up to US$20 million in suspected bribes from the subsidiary company of the Australian reserve bank when she was serving in Hanoi in the early 2000s. Colonel Luong was working with the RBA firm Securency trying to win a large banknote contract according to testimony given in court by Australian prosecutors. The prosecutor's allegations also claim that multi-million dollar payments were made to officials in Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa, India, Nepal, and Uruguay. Apparently Securency also hired a Malaysian arms dealer and a convicted South African criminal to assist in paying bribes.

The Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens has consistently denied that the RBA knew much about the bribe allegations until a memo surfaced by the Note Printing Australia company secretary Brian Hood to the then deputy Governor Ric Battelino detailing corrupt behavior inside NPA. The greens MP Adam Brandt suggests that this shows that this corruption was known at the highest levels of government.

This is all adding pressure for a board of inquiry into the bribery allegations, which could not only implicate officials of the Reserve Bank of Australia, but also raises allegations that senior officials of Australia's Ministry of Trade (AUSTRADE) were involved. Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Treasurer Wayne Swan, with the support of the opposition in parliament, have been fiercely resisting calls for any inquiry by the Australian Green party as it could not only jeopardize the standing of the central bank, but show Australia's intelligence networks have been compromised by the affair.

The committal hearings for alleged bribery offenses by eight former Securency International and Note Printers Australia officials are ongoing in the Melbourne County Court. To some degree this could be a move to create scapegoats as the Australian Federal Police until today have not investigated the role of government agencies despite clear evidence that officials were aware of, or involved in some of Securency and Note Printers Australia international dealings.

This is Australia's worst corporate corruption scandal and it directly involves the government. The case is not just about a group of individuals who have been alleged to bribe foreign officials for business. This case is about the integrity of the most important financial body in Australia and the way the Australian government conducts itself internationally.

Payments have been made to politicians of many political parties with the intention of getting favors in return. Some of these payments were allegedly made as donations to political parties, indicating that the Australian government has interfered in domestic politics within the region for corrupt intentions, which could be construed to be mocking the attempts of Asian governments like Indonesia to eradicate corporate and government corruption. This not only breaches Australian law but sets a very poor example to the corporate world and other governments within the region.

While it's up to the courts to decide the innocence or guilt of those already charged. It is necessary to widen the investigations. There has been an apparently deliberate attempt to cover up the truth in this case by the Australian government. Until the government comes clean with a Royal Commission, Canberra’s dealings with Asia and the integrity of the public service will be under a cloud.

Ironically the Asian Development Bank mentions in its Asian Century report that corruption will be one of the greatest challenges for the region, yet the recently released Australian White Paper on Asia does not even mention the word "corruption" once.

At the very least the affair has been grossly mishandled by the government, and one can add the opposition (some of this happened when the opposition was in government), which is letting down the Australian people.

Who are both sides of politics in Australia trying to protect?
Asia Sentinel

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