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Australia

Beneficial Ownership Transparency (AU0002)

Overview

At-a-Glance

Action Plan: Australia National Action Plan 2016-2018

Action Plan Cycle: 2016

Status: Inactive

Institutions

Lead Institution: Treasury

Support Institution(s): Attorney General’s Department , Australian Securities and Investment Commission, G20, Australian Taxation Office, Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, regional partners and Australian Accounting Standards Board, state and territory governments; Companies, peak bodies (including Law Council of Australia), non-government organisations (including Australian Open Government Partnership Network, Publish What You Pay Australia and Transparency International Australia), reporting entities under the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act, FATF, Global Forum, international tax partners

Policy Areas

Anti-Corruption, Beneficial Ownership, Private Sector, Public Participation

IRM Review

IRM Report: Australia End-of-Term Report 2016-2018, Australia Mid-Term Report 2016-2018

Starred: No

Early Results: Did Not Change

Design i

Verifiable: Yes

Relevant to OGP Values: Civic Participation

Potential Impact:

Implementation i

Completion:

Description

Objective and description: Australia will improve transparency of information on beneficial ownership and control of companies available to relevant authorities. As part of this, we will consult with the corporate sector, non-government organisations and the public on the details, scope and implementation of a beneficial ownership register for companies, as well as other options to improve beneficial ownership transparency. Status Quo: Improving transparency around who owns and benefits from companies is critical to protecting the integrity of our financial system and preventing the misuse of corporate structures for corruption and criminal activity. A beneficial ownership register shows who ultimately owns and benefits from the activities of companies. Australia currently has tracing powers for beneficial ownership of listed companies and investment schemes, but there is room to strengthen transparency across all companies. Australia has committed to the G20 Principles on Beneficial Ownership. The Principles state that countries should ensure that relevant authorities (including law enforcement and prosecutorial authorities, supervisory authorities, tax authorities and financial intelligence units) have timely access to adequate, accurate and current information regarding the beneficial ownership of legal persons (companies). Ambition: To ensure that adequate, accurate and timely information on beneficial ownership and control is available to relevant authorities in Australia to address issues of tax evasion, money laundering, corruption and terrorist financing. To improve regional and international cooperation on taxation, including strengthening information sharing between tax authorities and sharing learnings to increase the transparency of beneficial ownership information. We will use outcomes of the work by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes to help develop proposals to improve implementation of relevant international standards on transparency, including on the availability and exchange of companies’ beneficial ownership information. Relevance: This commitment will advance the OGP values of transparency and accountability in business by: improving the effectiveness of our legal, regulatory and institutional frameworks; preventing the misuse of corporate structures for illicit purposes such as corruption, tax evasion and money laundering; protecting the integrity of the financial system; and increasing growth through private sector investment. COMMITMENT DETAILS: OGP Grand Challenge Increasing Corporate AccountabilityTimeframes Recommendation to Government on improving transparency of information on beneficial ownership of companies available to relevant authorities by end 2017 Lead agency: Treasury (beneficialownership@treasury.gov.au) Other actors involved Government: Attorney General’s Department , Australian Securities and Investment Commission, G20, Australian Taxation Office, Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, regional partners and Australian Accounting Standards Board, state and territory governments; Non-government: Companies, peak bodies (including Law Council of Australia), non-government organisations (including Australian Open Government Partnership Network, Publish What You Pay Australia and Transparency International Australia), reporting entities under the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act, FATF, Global Forum, international tax partners

IRM Midterm Status Summary

2. Beneficial ownership transparency

Commitment Text:

Australia will improve transparency of information on beneficial ownership and control of companies available to relevant authorities.

As part of this, we will consult with the corporate sector, non-government organisations and the public on the details, scope and implementation of a beneficial ownership register for companies, as well as other options to improve beneficial ownership transparency.

[…]

Ambition:

To ensure that adequate, accurate and timely information on beneficial ownership and control is available to relevant authorities in Australia to address issues of tax evasion, money laundering, corruption and terrorist financing.

To improve regional and international cooperation on taxation, including strengthening information sharing between tax authorities and sharing learnings to increase the transparency of beneficial ownership information. We will use outcomes of the work by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes to help develop proposals to improve implementation of relevant international standards on transparency, including on the availability and exchange of companies’ beneficial ownership information.

Milestones:

  1. Treasury to release a public consultation paper seeking views on the details, scope and implementation of a beneficial ownership register for companies. The consultation will also consider the use of nominee shareholdings to conceal beneficial ownership.
  2. Recommendation to Government on the details, scope and implementation of a beneficial ownership register for companies (informed by public consultation).
  3. Begin work to implement Government decision on transparency of beneficial ownership of companies.

Responsible institution: Treasury

Supporting institution(s): Various

Start date: February 2017 End date: June 2018

Editorial Note: This is a partial version of the commitment text. For the full commitment text, see the Australia National Action Plan available at https://www.opengovpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2001/01/Australia_NAP_2016-2018_0.pdf

Context and Objectives

This commitment considers establishment of a beneficial ownership register in Australia. The principles of beneficial ownership transparency are intended to assist in reducing the ability of companies and other legal arrangements to disguise the identity of those involved in corruption or other illicit activities, including tax evasion, money laundering, bribery, corruption and terrorism financing.[1] Common approaches to beneficial ownership can also facilitate information sharing among authorities internationally to combat cross-jurisdictional activities. It can also be used to prevent corruption of public officials in the procurement process.[2]

There are currently various obligations on entities to disclose beneficial ownership information in Australia. Under the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) companies are required to maintain a publicly accessible register of members, including whether shares are held beneficially. ‘Relevant interests’ in a substantial number of shares in publicly listed companies must be publicly disclosed.[3] Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) or a listed company can also issue a ‘tracing notice’ to require public disclosure of relevant interests. Various financial and other organisations[4] also have obligations under Australia’s Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing legal framework[5] to verify beneficial ownership information in relation to certain customers. Beneficial ownership information relating to accounts held by foreign residents for tax purposes must also be provided by financial institutions to the Australian tax office and then shared with overseas tax authorities.[6]

However, in its Mutual Evaluation Report, completed in April 2015, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) – an international body setting beneficial ownership standards - and the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering considered that existing mechanisms in Australia were not sufficient to ensure accurate and up-to-date information on beneficial owners was available.[7] The report recommended that:

Australia should also take measures to ensure that beneficial ownership information for legal persons is collected and available. Trustees should be required to hold and maintain information on the constituent elements of a trust including the settlor and beneficiary.[8]

The introduction of a beneficial ownership register has the potential to increase the effectiveness of regulatory oversight of corruption or other illicit activities, including tax evasion, money laundering, bribery, corruption and terrorism financing. If the information was made public, a beneficial ownership register could have a transformative impact on the information available to the public, including information which could be used to scrutinise public officials, including regulatory authorities and those involved in public procurement, by exposing connections with private interests.[9] However, the commitment does not expressly commit to establishing a beneficial ownership register. It commits to consulting on the details, scope and implementation of such a register, making a recommendation to government and work to begin to implement that recommendation, but does not set out measurable standards for that work other than the implicit basis that some form of register will be introduced.

It is the expectation of civil society groups interviewed for this report that the commitment will result in a beneficial ownership register being established which will be sufficient to meet the FATF standard, but not necessarily result in a public register.[10] Therefore, the potential overall impact of this commitment, including the opportunity for public participation it presents, is moderate.

The commitment does not provide any details on the scope and depth of consultation, and therefore is of medium specificity.

Completion

Milestone 2.1: This milestone is completed. Treasury released a consultation paper on 13 February 2017 inviting submissions over a four-week period.[11] Treasury also emailed information about the consultation process to various stakeholders and civil society groups who had previously expressed an interest in the issues.[12] Several national newspapers including Guardian Australia provided coverage of the consultation.[13] Treasury published all non-confidential submissions on issues raised in or by the consultation paper.[14]

The consultation paper asks for submissions on a variety of issues, including: the identification of beneficial owners, what details should be collected, how should this information be collected and stored, and how any central register should operate. Issues involving use of nominee shareholders and bearer share and share warrants are also raised.

There were 23 non-confidential submissions responding to the consultation paper from a variety of industry and peak body groups, civil society organisations and individuals. Various submissions raised concerns with the scope of the consultation paper, especially the paper’s failure to raise the issue of whether the register of beneficial ownership should be publicly available.[15] Other submissions discussed the need to consider how any beneficial ownership register would impact on other existing reporting requirements,[16] as well as those proposed in other national action plan commitments, including 1.3 on implementing EITI membership which includes a commitment to work towards public available beneficial ownership information.[17]

When interviewed, Publish What You Pay and Transparency International raised concerns about beneficial ownership of trusts and other legal arrangements not being considered in the consultation paper.[18]

There was no feedback provided by Treasury on the results of the consultation process. The Government’s OGP mid-term self-assessment report indicated that Treasury was continuing to consult with stakeholders on the beneficial ownership register.

Milestone 2.2: This milestone was not completed within the expected timeframe of 30 June 2017. Interviews with Treasury Officials indicated that a recommendation to government was not expected until October 2017.[19]

Milestone 2.3: Work to implement any Government’s decision following on from the recommendation was not commenced. It was scheduled to begin in the second year of implementation of the action plan and had not started as of June 30, 2017

There were no changes in government practice within the implementation period of this report.

Next Steps

Depending on what recommendations are made as a result of the consultation, and the government’s decision on those recommendations, in the view of the IRM researcher possible next steps could include:

  • Further consultation on expanding any beneficial register to trusts and other forms of legal arrangement, including feedback on the results of the consultation process and its use in any recommendation to government;
  • Establishing a collaborative process including forming a multi-stakeholder group to consider making beneficial ownership information publicly available;
  • A process of evaluation of any implementation of a beneficial ownership register, including costs of compliance and use by authorities, if any.

[1] Treasury, Increasing Transparency of the Beneficial Ownership of Companies, Consultation Paper, 2017, https://treasury.gov.au/consultation/increasing-transparency-of-the-beneficial-ownership-of-companies/ (‘Consultation Paper)

[2] For example, Anti-corruption summit London 2016, Communique, 12 May 2016 at [9], https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/anti-corruption-summit-communique

[3] Including persons with the power to exercise or control voting rights or other powers associated with shares: see Consultation Paper at 4-5.

[4] Including remittance, gaming and bullion businesses.

[5] The Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act 2006 and associated Rules made under that Act, see the Consultation Paper at 6.

[6] Consultation paper at 6.

[7] FATF and APG, Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures: Australia, April 2015 at p.10, http://www.fatf-gafi.org/countries/a-c/australia/documents/mer-australia-2015.html

[8] Above at p 11.

[9] See for example the identification of politically exposed persons as beneficial owners in reviewing the operation of the UK public beneficial ownership register: Global Witness, ‘What Does the UK Beneficial Ownership Data Show Us?’, at https://www.globalwitness.org/en/blog/what-does-uk-beneficial-ownership-data-show-us/ (9/4/2018).

[10] Interview with Jessie Cato, National Coordinator, Publish What You Pay Australia, Melbourne, Vic, 24 August 2017.

[11] Consultation Paper.

[12] Interview with Treasury Department, Canberra ACT, 14 September 2017.

[13] For example, Guardian Australia, ‘Coalition to create public register to reveal true owners of shell companies’, 22 April 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/apr/22/coalition-to-create-public-register-to-reveal-true-owners-of-shell-companies

[15] For example, the submissions of Publish what you pay and Transparency International Australia, https://treasury.gov.au/consultation/increasing-transparency-of-the-beneficial-ownership-of-companies/.

[17] For example, the submissions of Publish what you pay and Transparency International Australia, https://treasury.gov.au/consultation/increasing-transparency-of-the-beneficial-ownership-of-companies/)

[18] Interview with Jessie Cato, National Coordinator, Publish What You Pay Australia, Melbourne, Vic, 24 August 2017, Interview with T Greg Thompson, Board Member Transparency International Australia, Phone meeting, 5 September 2017; See also Royce Millar, Ben Schneiders, ‘Australia dodges international crackdown on trusts’ Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April 2017, http://www.smh.com.au/national/australia-dodges-international-crackdown-on-trusts-20170411-gvisrd.html

[19] Interview with Treasury Department, Canberra ACT, 14 September 2017.

IRM End of Term Status Summary

Commitment 2. Beneficial Ownership Transparency

Australia will improve transparency of information on beneficial ownership and control of companies available to relevant authorities.

As part of this, we will consult with the corporate sector, non-government organisations and the public on the details, scope and implementation of a beneficial ownership register for companies, as well as other options to improve beneficial ownership transparency.

[…]

Ambition:

To ensure that adequate, accurate and timely information on beneficial ownership and control is available to relevant authorities in Australia to address issues of tax evasion, money laundering, corruption and terrorist financing.

To improve regional and international cooperation on taxation, including strengthening information sharing between tax authorities and sharing learnings to increase the transparency of beneficial ownership information. We will use outcomes of the work by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes to help develop proposals to improve implementation of relevant international standards on transparency, including on the availability and exchange of companies’ beneficial ownership information.

Milestones:

  1. Treasury to release a public consultation paper seeking views on the details, scope and implementation of a beneficial ownership register for companies. The consultation will also consider the use of nominee shareholdings to conceal beneficial ownership.
  2. Recommendation to Government on the details, scope and implementation of a beneficial ownership register for companies (informed by public consultation).
  3. Begin work to implement Government decision on transparency of beneficial ownership of companies.

Responsible institution: Treasury

Supporting institution(s): Various

Start date: February 2017                             End date: June 2018

Editorial Note: This is a partial version of the commitment text. For the full commitment text, see the Australia National Action Plan available at https://www.opengovpartnership.org/sites/default/files/Australia_NAP_2016-2018_0.pdf

Commitment Aim:

This commitment looked at increasing transparency of beneficial ownership information in Australia. Beneficial ownership transparency can help expose the identity of those involved in corruption or other illicit activities, including tax evasion, money laundering, bribery, corruption and terrorism financing. [12] It may also facilitate information sharing among authorities internationally to combat cross-jurisdictional activities or be used to prevent corruption of public officials in the procurement process. [13] This commitment involved consulting on the details, scope, and implementation of such a register, making a recommendation to government, and beginning implementation.

Status

Midterm: Limited

The commitment was only completed to a limited degree by the midterm of the national action plan. A consultation paper was released on 13 February 2017, [14] with non-confidential submissions published on the consultation website (milestone 1). [15] However, no recommendation had been made to government as provided in the commitment (milestone 2). For more information please see the Progress Report 2016-2018.

End of term: Limited

There has been no further publicly accessible progress on the milestones in this commitment. No feedback on the submissions made in the consultation process, nor an indication of what recommendation has been made to government has been publicly provided. Participants interviewed for this report also indicated that they have not been informed of further progress. [16]

Did It Open Government?

Civic Participation: Did Not Change

The commitment’s limited completion saw no change in government practice as a result of implementation. The establishment of a consultation process involving the release of a discussion paper and accepting submissions is in line with usual practices by the Treasury in relation to corporate law reform, according to an expert interviewed by the IRM researcher. [17] In submissions and in interviews for the midterm report, several civil society groups who had advocated for establishment of a beneficial ownership register were concerned about the limited scope of the consultation paper. [18]

The lack of public feedback or indication of further progress since submissions on the consultation paper closed has also limited the opportunities for public participation provided by this commitment.

On 7 August 2018, after the end of the term of the first national action plan, the Department of the Treasury, in response to a question on notice during Senate Estimates Committee hearings, indicated that the Treasury had considered submissions to the public consultation and provided the Minister for Revenue and Financial Services with recommendations to increase the transparency of beneficial ownership of companies. Any further action was ‘a policy matter for Government’. [19]

Carried Forward?

Commitments related to a beneficial ownership register have not been included in the second national action plan. [20] The IRM midterm Progress Report recommended that further consultation on including trusts and other forms of legal arrangements be considered, and feedback provided on the results of the consultation process to date. A process of further collaboration and evaluation of any action taken on beneficial ownership was also recommended.

[12] Australian Government, Treasury, Increasing Transparency of the Beneficial Ownership of Companies, Consultation Paper, 2017, https://treasury.gov.au/consultation/increasing-transparency-of-the-beneficial-ownership-of-companies/) [13] For example, Anti-Corruption Summit Communique, London 2016, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/anti-corruption-summit-communique [14] Treasury, Increasing Transparency of the Beneficial Ownership of Companies, Consultation Paper, 2017, https://treasury.gov.au/consultation/increasing-transparency-of-the-beneficial-ownership-of-companies   [15] Australian Government, Treasury, https://treasury.gov.au/consultation/increasing-transparency-of-the-beneficial-ownership-of-companies/. [16] Interview with Serena Lillywhite, Chief Executive Officer, Transparency International Australia, Melbourne, 7 September 2018. [17] Professor Katherine Hall, expert in corporate law reform, Australian National University, interview 16 November 2018. [18] Interview with Jessie Cato, National Coordinator, Publish What You Pay Australia, Melbourne, Vic, 24 August 2017; Interview with T Greg Thompson, Board Member Transparency International Australia, telephone call, 5 September 2017. [19] Senate Economics Legislation Committee, Answers to questions on notice, Treasury Portfolio, Budget Estimates 2018 – 2019, Question 93, https://www.aph.gov.au/api/qon/downloadattachment?attachmentId=df61b676-9eaf-4965-974b-4584688b9e48. For a further discussion of developments see Rosie Williams, ‘The Open Government Partnership: Australia’s best kept secret’, 2 September 2019, https://ausgov.info/index.php?Topics=Open%20Government%20Partnership&Article=The%20Open%20Government%20Partnership:%20Australia%E2%80%99s%20best-kept%20secret. [20] The second national action plan is available at PM&C, Australia's second Open Government National Action Plan 2018-20, https://ogpau.pmc.gov.au/australias-second-open-government-national-action-plan-2018-20.

Commitments

  1. Strengthen Anti-Corruption Framework

    AU0016, 2018, Anti-Corruption

  2. Political Donation Transparency

    AU0017, 2018, Legislation & Regulation

  3. Data Sharing

    AU0018, 2018, Access to Information

  4. Improve Public Service Practice

    AU0019, 2018, Capacity Building

  5. Access to Information

    AU0020, 2018, Access to Information

  6. Enhance Public Engagement Skills in the Public Service

    AU0021, 2018, Capacity Building

  7. Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

    AU0022, 2018, Capacity Building

  8. Expand Open Contracting

    AU0023, 2018, Access to Information

  9. Whiste-Blower Protections

    AU0001, 2016, Anti-Corruption

  10. Beneficial Ownership Transparency

    AU0002, 2016, Anti-Corruption

  11. Extractive Industries Transparency

    AU0003, 2016, Anti-Corruption

  12. Combating Corporate Crime

    AU0004, 2016, Anti-Corruption

  13. Data Innovation

    AU0005, 2016, Access to Information

  14. Public Trust in Data Sharing

    AU0006, 2016, Access to Information

  15. Digitization of Government Services

    AU0007, 2016, Capacity Building

  16. Information Management and Access Laws

    AU0008, 2016, Access to Information

  17. Freedom of Information

    AU0009, 2016, Access to Information

  18. Access to Government Data

    AU0010, 2016, Access to Information

  19. Electoral System and Political Parties

    AU0011, 2016, Political Integrity

  20. National Integrity Framework

    AU0012, 2016, Anti-Corruption

  21. Open Contracting

    AU0013, 2016, Access to Information

  22. OGP NAP

    AU0014, 2016, Public Participation

  23. Public Participation

    AU0015, 2016, Capacity Building

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