Martin Thomas | High-profile money-laundering cases highlight need for change

By Martin Thomas
November 21 2023 - 5:30am

This time the alleged criminals, with links to Beirut, were allegedly gun running, drug dealing and laundering vast sums of money.

That raid followed hot on the heels of the dismantling of Australia's largest money-laundering syndicate by the Australian Federal Police last month.

NSW Police, aided by Strike Force Tromperie, arrested 28 individuals, executed 43 warrants, and confiscated 25 firearms in a major operation targeting a criminal network from Lebanon involved in over $1 billion worth of illicit activities.

Police then made a series of arrests as part of what they described as the most complex money laundering investigation in the nation's history. It also involved the confiscation of more than $50 million in property and luxury vehicles.

Then again in February this year authorities busted another syndicate, money laundering on an industrial scale. Aside from a large collection of luxury goods and cars, it parked the allegedly illicit funds in a prized property portfolio, including 20 addresses across Sydney - with two homes in the eastern suburbs worth a combined $19 million alone - and a $47 million block of land near the future Western Sydney Airport.

Revelations of such successful raids are a double-edge sword.

NSW police make an arrest as part of a 12-month investigation into organised crime. Picture NSW police
NSW police make an arrest as part of a 12-month investigation into organised crime. Picture NSW police

They provide us a sense of security that such syndicates are in the sights of authorities and they are working successfully to dismantle these complex and large criminal activities.

On the other hand, they leave us with a sense of unease. Do these raids actually only reflect a fraction of the money laundering that is happening in Australia involving mind-boggling amounts of money? Are they just the tip of the iceberg?

Apart from enforcement efforts, what else could Australia do to combat money laundering, or better still prevent it?

Given the vast sums of money involved, the often-complex structures and the flow of dirty money into million-dollar properties one action that has been proposed is that real estate agents, lawyers, accounts, bullion dealers and some other professions should be required by law to report suspicious activities.

In 2006, Australia passed the Anti-Money Laundering/Counter-Terror Financing Act; this legislation sets out parameters for detecting, preventing and mitigating flows of dirty money. Financial sector organisations and casinos are amongst the professions required under the act to report suspicious transactions to authorities.

Tranche two of this legislation would see real estate agents, lawyers, accountants and other profession services agents covered under the act too. But this is yet to be passed in Australia. It leaves us as one of a handful of countries that have yet to adopt this alongside Haiti and Madagascar.

These professions have lobbied hard not be included under tranche two arguing that there is no need for such legislation as the industries are taking their own, self-regulated actions and the costs would be too much of a burden.

Earlier this month the Law Society even released its own independent report that acknowledged organised crime groups were increasingly turning to the professions to exploit specialist knowledge and skills to launder profits within complex and globalised financial systems.

But perhaps not surprising, it found the actions the profession was taking was adequate to respond to the problem.

Unfortunately, the evidence on money laundering reinforces the contrary.

The reality is Australia has become a go-to destination for money launderers. Our real estate is a hot destination to park their proceeds of crime. And it is not just criminal syndicates as several high profile cases have demonstrated but also foreign officials including kleptocrats, crooks and corrupt officials from China, Cambodia, PNG, and Sudan.


The situation is so bad that Australia is at risk of greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force, a step which would see us categorised with Nigeria, the DRC, and Syria as requiring additional monitoring. Such a move would come at quite a cost to the Australian economy.

Transparency International Australia has long tracked the impacts of money laundering on Australian society and advocated for legislative change to close loopholes that allow this damaging practice to continue.

The federal government is now holding consultations on these reforms.

The status quo means these professions are not required to conduct due diligence on a client, including verifying whether a client is or is closely associated with, a politically exposed person (a person who has been entrusted with a prominent public function, and therefore may present a higher risk for potential involvement in bribery and corruption).

In fact, in some cases, these professionals and businesses actively or recklessly facilitate money laundering, by providing structures such as shell companies and trusts, and advice on how to conceal the origins of funds.

Given the massive breach of trust involving PwC, now is the ideal time for the private sector, including lawyers and the big four, to come out and support reforms that strengthen Australia's financial systems.

And the implications of Australia not implementing these tranche two reforms are simply too great.

There are grave implications from the increased flow of unearned money into further illicit activities such as drug trafficking and child exploitation material, a lack of justice for international criminals, and reduced trust globally in the safety and security of Australia's financial and real estate institutions for legitimate investors.

It is time for the government to act to close this loophole so that Australians can have confidence that we are doing all we can to eliminate the flow of dirty money into our economy that adversely impacts all of us.

  • Martin Thomas is a board member of Transparency International Australia and a not-for-profit consultant.