Australia is the world’s sixth largest country by land mass, only slightly smaller than America’s lower 48 states. With just 22 million people and abundant resources, the country exports coal, iron ore, gold, uranium, alumina, meat, wool and wheat, as well as wine, olives, fruit and vegetables.
Its open trade policy produced 17 consecutive years of economic growth before the global financial crisis, which hardly slowed the progress. Last year the economy managed 1.5% growth during the first three quarters — the best performance in the OECD.
But for overseas anti-corruption enforcement, Australia is an international laggard, a recalcitrant country without any numbers on the scoreboard. What’s going on?
This week, one of Australia’s biggest natural resource firms, BHP Billiton, disclosed that it’s the target of a U.S. SEC investigation for potential FCPA offenses. The company would only say the investigation relates to “certain terminated minerals exploration projects” and involves “possible violations of applicable anti-corruption laws involving interactions with government officials.”
It hasn’t said where the compliance problems may have occurred. There are large-scale copper projects in Chile and Zambia, nickel targets in Australia, manganese targets in Gabon, and diamond targets in Canada. It explores for iron ore, coal, bauxite and manganese at home and in South America, Russia, and West Africa.
U.K. investigators also said this week they’re looking into BHP’s operations in Cambodia and beyond; they’ve reportedly identified several possible instances of multi-million dollar bribes to foreign officials.
BHP isn’t the only Australian company under the gun. Rio Tinto, the world’s largest mining company and a superpower in the iron-ore business, is making headlines. Last month, four of its executives were given long jail sentences — up to 14 years — by a court in China. They were convicted of bribery and industrial espionage. (Germany’s Cartel Office is examining the planned merger of the iron-ore production of BHP and Rio Tinto, which would create a duopoly in control of most of the world’s supply.)
Another Aussie company in international hot water is Securency — half owned by the Reserve Bank of Australia. Late last year, the Central Bank of Nigeria began investigating whether a Securency company called Note Printing Australia bribed Nigerian officials in return for a banknote supply contract. Australian police were said to be looking into what a press report described as “a series of multi-million-dollar payments made by the RBA companies to politically connected middlemen to help win contracts in Asia, Africa and Latin America.”
Meanwhile, the Australian Securities & Investments Commission — the chief anti-corruption enforcement agency — hasn’t said whether it’s investigating BHP or the other companies.
That’s the problem. Australia hasn’t recorded any enforcement against bribery abroad. The OECD scores the country in the worst category — “little or no enforcement” — along with 21 other slumbering members. In October last year, the head of the OECD’s anti-corruption group, Patrick Moulette, complained that Australia hasn’t “launched a single prosecution for foreign bribery offences in the decade since it joined dozens of nations in ratifying an anti-bribery convention.”
At home, Australia is perceived to be among the cleanest countries in the world for business — it ranked 8th in Transparency International’s latest survey. Abroad, however, its reputation is taking a beating and its OECD partners appear to be losing patience. What will Australia do?