The Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity will investigate lurid allegations suggesting an unsavoury relationship between Australian Border Force, Crown Resorts, and international criminals, in a matter that has become a rallying point for supporters of a broader federal anti-corruption agency.
A chorus of cross-benchers from across the political spectrum wants a wider parliamentary inquiry that could expose claims of improper, incompetent, or illegal actions by a long list of government bodies across several states and the Commonwealth. Several say it exposes ACLEI’s limitations and demonstrates the need for a stronger watchdog.
Attorney-General Christian Porter told parliament he had made a “precautionary referral” to the commission on Tuesday, as there were “sufficient concerns raised to at least warrant further investigations”.
Porter said he made the referral because the allegations were “either directly relatable to, or tangentially relatable to Commonwealth officers” and not because he had any specific evidence. Prime Minister Scott Morrison had earlier said he saw no need to take any action.
Porter emphasised the strong powers of the law enforcement integrity body but others like independent MP Andrew Wilkie said the case went far beyond its limited jurisdiction.
“Look, the referral to ACLEI is good, as far as it goes, but it just doesn’t go far enough,” Wilkie said on the ABC’s 7.30 on Tuesday night.
“[…] It doesn’t have any power to, for example, and probably most importantly, to inquire into the conduct of serving politicians and possibly ministers because, let’s not forget, there is a whole raft of allegations being made here and it is not just about, say, the performance of border security or consular officials or the AFP.
“It goes much broader, including to the conduct of serving and former politicians, and agencies in other jurisdictions, such as the Victorian gambling regulator [and] Victoria Police. It is a long list.”
Allegations against multiple agencies across state lines
Apart from Border Force, Wilkie wants to see an investigation into a large number of agencies, including the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation, Victoria Police, the Australian Federal Police, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, and AUSTRAC.
The reports in Channel Nine newspapers and on television focus on arrangements to facilitate the entry of high-rolling gamblers into Australia, including the story of an ABF officer who allegedly “moonlighted to provide security for an international criminal fugitive,” involved in arranging trips to Crown’s gambling venues, and a Victorian police detective who did much the same.
Another report suggests links between organised crime syndicates from China and the ruling Communist Party’s agents of influence in Australia, including a cousin of Chinese premier Xi Jinping.
Wilkie also said two Crown whistleblowers and three from police came to him with stories of the company’s big-spending clientele evading normal Border Force checks, and of the casinos being largely left alone by state and federal law enforcement agencies.
Former ABF commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg featured in a related episode of 60 Minutes, giving viewers the benefit of his considerable knowledge of the links between gambling and organised crime as a former senior officer with the federal police.
Quaedvlieg also said that as ABF commissioner, he had been asked by two ministers and a backbencher to help smooth the passage of big-spending Chinese gamblers into the country. Coincidentally, the woman who was found guilty of lying to a different ACLEI investigation into Quaedvlieg’s involvement in her recruitment to a junior ABF role, Sarah Rogers, was sentenced to community service this week.
State gambling regulators are also under fire and the governments of Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales are all facing questions about alleged special treatment for Crown and its richest customers.
Crown denies any wrongdoing, and the Department of Home Affairs has denied that anybody gets special treatment. The department said it had no evidence of a special deal for Crown customers, and confirmed that arrangements were made to quickly process a large number of short-stay visas for multiple large organisations. The last with Crown officially ran from 2003 to 2011.
Claims of bipartisan political corruption
Wilkie, as a vocal supporter of gambling reform, told parliament the stories amounted to allegations that the casino operator had corrupted both major parties.
“We’re talking about allegations of capital-c corruption involving ministers,” said Greens leader Richard di Natale on Tuesday. “If you ever needed more evidence of why we need a national anti-corruption watchdog, you just saw it.”
On Wednesday, Wilkie joined the Greens to once again call for a federal integrity commission “with teeth” alongside the Centre Alliance, Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie and independent MPs Zali Steggall and Helen Haines. The powerful model they are backing is promoted by The Australia Institute’s committee of retired judges.
On Tuesday, the Tasmanian independent MP had gained vocal supporters among the cross-bench for a joint parliamentary inquiry but did not secure the opposition’s support. Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus agreed with the referral to ACLEI.
Porter said a parliamentary inquiry would be ill-equipped to investigate these matters and undermine ACLEI’s investigations, adding that if the watchdog uncovered crimes by people outside its jurisdiction it could refer the evidence to the AFP.
The law enforcement integrity commission has strong powers, as Porter pointed out, including coercive questioning powers and the ability to seize evidence. He could even ask it to hold a public hearing if he wanted.
“They have very significant investigatory powers, very significantly stronger than those of a parliamentary committee, obviously including the ability to apply for search warrants, issue notices that attract a criminal penalty, if not complied with,” said Porter.
And he’s right to say law enforcement officers are expected to be beyond reproach.
“They, of course, as the part of the broader Australian law enforcement community, hold very privileged positions, and as such are expected to uphold the highest standards of integrity and professionalism,” the attorney-general said.
But the problem that Wilkie and many others identify with the federal integrity system is that nobody but law enforcement officers are subject to this kind of oversight, and Porter has staunchly opposed a comprehensive anti-corruption commission in favour of a minimalist model.
The Tasmanian MP told 7.30 host Laura Tingle he favoured “a big, high-level inquiry” because similar allegations concerned multiple agencies across several jurisdictions, particularly Victoria and the Commonwealth.
“It’s multi-agency — the [Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation], Victoria Police, the AFP, ASIO, Border Force, AUSTRAC — I could go on. And it’s international; it involves conduct, allegedly, both within Australia and in China.
“So we don’t need one modest agency to look at this — and that is why today we on the crossbench moved, albeit unsuccessfully, for a joint select parliamentary inquiry that would have that ability to summon witnesses, to have hearings, possibly in secret, and to really get to the bottom of this.”
Wilkie said the stories of special favours to the massive company and criminals slipping over the border to launder ill-gotten wealth in its casinos should be considered alongside the large donations Crown had made to both major parties over the years.
He said the company, which has former Liberal politician Helen Coonan and former federal department head Jane Halton on its board as non-executive directors, was like “a retirement home for ex-politicians”.
“There are other allegations that some serving members of parliament, possibly ministers, have even heavied government agencies to have them do the right thing by Crown,” Wilkie said, adding that he hoped more whistleblowers would come forward to pressure both state and federal governments.
“This really gives impetus to the push for a federal anti-corruption agency because some of these allegations aren’t necessarily of criminal behaviour, but they go to whether behaviour is occurring which might be quite improper.
“So it might not be criminal, strictly speaking, but it certainly would be in the remit of an effective anti-corruption body.”
The Commonwealth integrity commission Porter committed to establish before the election would be “relatively ineffective” in his view. A lot of academic experts and most non-government parliamentarians agree.
“You know, we need something with real teeth, not unlike the anti-corruption body in New South Wales, which I know… there are people who criticise that, but I am sure we can remedy the things that are criticised and come up with an effective federal body.”