JACK WATERFORD. Sexing up the charges for PR purposes

Dec 3, 2019

Austrac’s record on remittance scrutiny looks as lamentable as Westpac’s

Call me cynical, but one can’t help wondering whether the laying of millions of  administrative charges against Westpac, each capable of generating a million-dollar fine,  would have resounded so greatly in the public arena had it not contained the word “paedophilia.” We are all indignant that  Westpac management slackness and indolence has most likely facilitated the arrival of child sex material into Australia, or departure of Australian paedophiles to places such as the Philippines.

In modern matters of federal law enforcement – deeply politicised and seemingly mostly designed to enhance the profiles of ministers and senior folk in the game, introducing the word “paedophilia” into the discourse is a sure-fire way of disclaiming any sort of accountability, or dismissing any scepticism about the need for legislation, or a particular course of action.

Anyone who expresses even a routine doubt can be – and probably will be — accused of not being sufficiently against paedophilia  — sometimes even of promoting it.  Prime ministers, law and order ministers, bureaucrats of empire, senior cops not usually known for being at any “interface” and other bureaucrats all tend to suggest that were it not for the new heroic efforts of co-ordinated national law enforcers the streets would be flooded with paedophiles and child porn.

It’s wonderful to see police having a newfound interest in sexual assaults of children, not least after a lamentable performance with institutional child sexual abuse including, in many jurisdictions an active role in covering it up. As with some fresh focus on domestic violence, and more sympathetic management of rape cases, we can be sure that the powers that be now “get it,”  and want to be more efficient in detecting or preventing such crimes.

But that’s not to say that every invocation of the war against the scourge is a major development towards doing so. The Commonwealth was late to decide that most paedophilia fell into its jurisdiction, and the development of its role owes more to public relations than a dedicated plan. It’s mostly because horror at paedophilia plays far better into the hands of more and more unaccountable police powers than anything else, even terrorism. The national focus, moreover tends to obscure the fact that deplorable as international paedophilia is, and legion the number of its victims from Australian perpetrators or consumers, there are many more domestic victims of child sexual assaults or exploitation than from sex tourism or the traffic in child pornography. And there’s not much evidence that state, terror or national police forces have a plan to combat it.

The spectre of paedophilia, the international exploitation by Australians and others of children and other vulnerable people, particularly, so far as Australians are concerned, in South East Asia is regularly being used to justify the extension of police and security powers from the search for potential terrorists to the routine war against crime in the community.

The public is not necessarily impressed by the idea that cops need such powers to catch car thieves, or housebreakers or minor drug dealers – any more than the idea that compulsorily acquired phone metadata can be used to find allegedly overpaid single mothers. Police are increasingly dependent on such tools, and the fruits of increasing surveillance, as they withdraw from regular engagement with the community.

But talk of the sexual abuse of children enters the emotional as well as the rational brain. Those  who are seeking to con us into giving cops a complete free hand with minimal checks and balances will not hesitate to pretend that combatting paedophilia is the chief purpose of the exercise.

So much so that it invites some consideration of whether there could be a paedophile codicil to Strauss’s law, and the supplementary Godwin’s law. Strauss’s law – proclaimed even before Godwin was alive, I suspect – is that the first person to mention Hitler in a debate loses the argument. Godwin’s supplement says, in effect, that the longer any debate goes on, the more likely that one participant or another will mention Hitler (and thus lose the argument.)

My suggested addition is that when ministers, bureaucrats and cops speak of the horror of paedophilia in pious tones, one should understand immediately that their argument is thin, and that  that they are a bit desperate. Judged by results, other than intentions, not much activity, even with enhanced powers is occurring.

Pretty much everyone is against child sexual abuse. But not many people are doing not a great deal against it, and the occasional news report of a fresh arrest of someone with thousands of photos of children – perhaps connected to a small network of like-minded perverts – no more proves that cops are on top of the matter than the odd arrest of a minor drug pedlar says the same about winning the war against drugs.

If one reads AFP annual reports, one could be forgiven for thinking that most of the money, and most of the energy of senior managers is going into conferences, seminars, research grants and outreach programs and “driving a collaborative national response to counter online exploitation of children”  rather than finding perpetrators. This is also a reflection of the fact that Commonwealth claimed jurisdiction is narrow and new.

Mercifully, the AFP’s capture of the Interpol liaison role – a frequent source of tipoffs from overseas – gives the AFP a power to seek partnerships and credits with state busts. Likewise with an increasing role with international police intelligence exchanges, and occasional bursts of activity cooperating with overseas cops in some sex-tour destination. So too does enhanced capacity to analyse metadata and establish networks of those involved in trafficking or sharing exploitation material.

And so too with Austrac’s tracking of money coming from or going overseas, looking for suspicious transactions, money laundering, the transfer of money by terrorists and others, and perhaps – oh how we wish it – the movement of rich people’s money into tax havens.

I have no sympathy whatever for Westpac’s failure to properly carry out its duties under Austrac legislation. It deserves what it gets. What Westpac failed to do was to properly record all the details it should have of more than 20 million transactions whereby money came into or left Australia. It had a record system but it was not good enough.  It also failed to apply, as it was required, its own forensic nose for transactions that ought to have seemed a bit iffy, and to report any suspicions to Austrac, for follow up by them.

But it might seem odd to the casual observer that Westpac could have been failing in this respect for more than eight years without Austrac realising that this was happening. I gave Austrac an opportunity to explain itself, letting them know my preliminary conclusion, but it did not avail itself of the opportunity. Austrac PR, like AFP PR, is about marketing itself, not explaining what or why.

Austrac is badly under-resourced – again a reason to doubt the government’s complete commitment to its necessary functions, let alone whether it has benefited from being under the Home Affairs umbrella. But even an agency resorting to sampling, or to light look-overs might have been expected to notice the absence of transaction reports from one of the big four banks over a very long period. The problem came to light when Westpac self-reported a year or so ago. Austrac’s zeal in then preparing a case and demanding exemplary punishment is no doubt admirable, but does not appear to account for its failure, somewhere, sometime, to trip over the matter.

Westpac’s failures seem to have occurred from attempts to streamline the inwards-and-outwards overseas remittance system, in an effort to make it cheaper and quicker, and, no doubt, more profitable. Taxes and charges levied by banks on remittances are extortionate, and one is caught coming and going. One of the nice swizzes is pretending that there are relatively low fees – say $15 upfront. Yes, but to that cheap fee is added the rip-offs involved in setting an exchange rate which, in a quick sample of some of the banks and businesses in this racket can amount to making a profit of up to 25 per cent of the value of the transfer.

In theory, most of the fee goes into preparing documentation with each transaction allowing both Westpac and Austrac to run an algorithm over the data, so that they can identify anything fitting into its intelligence-led search for terrorism funding, money laundering or other crimes. It is not to be thought that Westpac did no paperwork on the transactions, or that it was not available to Austrac. But it did not provide everything that Austrac wanted and the law required, and, apparently, omitted anything much about dob-ins about bank-suspected drug traffickers, terrorists or child sex traffickers. Pity no one noticed for eight years. Many senior Westpac staff must go because of the derelictions off duty involved. But what is one to say about those who hold a sieve that doesn’t seem to be working?

The pressure on Westpac to at least appear cheaper is because  it has some vigorous formal competition from bodies such as Western Union (which presumably has its paperwork right, or does now after the publicity this week). But it also has informal, and possibly illegal, competition from informal and scarcely documented, but highly secure and cheap transfers through money networks capable of being used by terrorists.

A Filipina woman working in Kuwait and sending weekly remittances of half of her miserable salary to her family back home can probably organise this at the local soukh.  Apparently it is about as easy, and common, as buying a phone card. She hands over her money and is given some slight receipt – since the little old lady taking the money already has her bank account details. Within 12 hours that money – minus a dollar or two and at a fairish exchange rate — can be withdrawn from an ATM in a town in the central Philippines – or, for a Bangladeshi, at an ATM there.

It’s  a money transfer method that has existed, particularly but not exclusively, in the Middle East for thousands of years. Jews getting their wealth out of Nazi Germany used such mechanisms. So do residents of nations such as Zimbabwe, trying to move cash when there are heavy exchange controls. Not a few Australians of British ancestry used similar methods to access cash during the prolonged sterling crisis for more than a decade after WW2, when, strictly, one was not allowed to take more than five pounds sterling out of the country.

Our anti-terror authorities are very keen to monitor the flow of money, but they can never be sure that terror money is not moving on such informal networks – perhaps because someone in Syria gave the equivalent of $5000 to someone in the next village, and the next day (presumably after a coded email or phone call) a person in Barton is given the same sum of money by someone she has never met before. Perhaps, if it’s a one-off terror transaction, it will not be on an established network. Rather, the courier, on his next trip home to Egypt will be given equivalent value in Egyptian pounds. With or without a terror element, such transactions are reputedly scrupulously honest, with little incriminating documentation containing no element of usury.

Which is more than one can say about official remittances inwards or outwards to Australian banks, with or without the scrutiny of Austrac. From time to time, Austrac publishes series of anecdotes about its successes in detecting the passage of dirty money, sometimes with a child sex element. But the statements of claim in seeking civil (not criminal) penalties against Westpac, and the accompanying press statement would leave room for doubt about the proportion of such transactions to the billions moving around the world from or to Australia.

The Austrac summary says Westpac “failed to carry out appropriate customer due diligence on transactions to the Philippines and South East Asia that have known financial indicators relating to potential child exploitation risks. Westpac failed to introduce appropriate detection scenarios to detect known child exploitation typologies, consistent with AUSTRAC guidance and their own risk assessments.”

Yes, but Austrac didn’t seem to notice that it didn’t for years and years. Does it just mail out circulars and assume everyone will adopt fresh algorithms based on Austrac’s experience of previous cases?

Moreover, the places where Australians seem to look for children to exploit (other than the large numbers of children actually here in Australia, chiefly in perpetrators’ own close and extended families) are just the sort of places that have sent to Australia men and women remitting most of their money home regularly.

I’d bet that the volumes of the second massively outweigh transfers from our perverts. And I’d bet that a hint that one should regard as suspicious every transfer to a nation “with known financial indicators [of] potential child exploitation risks” would massively increase costs and delays to those involved, without making much discernible damage to the passage of child exploitation material.

Even when Austrac is doing its job, it is not a big barrier. Indeed anyone can fly to the Philippines, Thailand or Cambodia, without paying any money that would go through Austrac. Those who buy overseas child exploitation material seem to get most of it from the dark web with a credit card.  If the AFP knows the relevant internet address, it might be able to monitor this transaction and pay the “consumer” a visit, but this will have little to do with Austrac.

Austrac insists that the risk of money-laundering, terror-funding or trafficking in child sex exploitation materials is as great with low-value transactions as with high ones. No doubt that is so.  But that is not necessarily the most cogent reason for imposing all of the cost, and a great deal of inconvenience on the great proportion of people making an innocent transfer, just in case. Australia’s remittance system is already very expensive in international terms. Austrac can force banks and financial institutions to comply with its rules, but the more expensive the system – and it will get more expensive now that banks are on notice  – the more remitters will find alternatives entirely away from Austrac’s scrutiny. Then, money launderers, terror financiers and others will piggyback on their efforts. And there will be little that Austrac can do.

Instead of being an expensive and compulsory way station – and embuggerance to the efficient transfer of money, lest a tiny proportion be dirty money —  it would be far better for our law enforcement community to find ways of facilitating cheap and efficient transfers while further developing its capacity to detect the dodgy deals.

That might not necessarily involve imposing the cost of the bureaucracy involved on the customer — the vast majority of whom are innocent. The better approach might involve more active confiscation of dodgy transfers, perhaps with incentives to bank officials who drew to notice suspicious or “in profile” cases. And the better approach might involve proactive cooperation with banks rather than discovering, long in arrears, not only that some were playing the game, but that the referee had not even noticed their absence.

The explanatory material accompanying filing of the charges made only passing reference to money laundering or terrorism. Instead it gave instances of about 12 people thought to be involved in child sex tourism or pornography who had made a lot of transfers without seeming to arouse Westpac’s suspicions. That it put such a focus on paedophilia suggests more interest in getting a headline and  in somehow making a triumph of its sleepiness. And, of  course, a purpose of creating a logroll of prejudice against the defendant, designed to make them give up immediately more  than proper and detached law enforcement. It’s a bit like the AFP, so often more show and PR stunt than substance.

Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times

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