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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Page: 4115

Mr MATHESON (Macarthur) (12:25): I rise to speak on the report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement inquiry into unexplained wealth legislation and arrangements. This inquiry was a very important one because it looked specifically at unexplained wealth derived from serious and organised crime in Australia. Serious and organised crime has a serious impact in this country, threatening the economy, national security and the wellbeing and liberty of all Australians. The financial cost to the community is conservatively estimated at around $15 billion per year. This, along with the safety of our communities, is what made this inquiry so very, very important.

The committee's inquiry considered our country's need for legislative or administrative reform to address unexplained wealth. A number of organisations contributed to the inquiry, including Commonwealth, state and territory agencies, police associations, the Law Council of Australia, the Queensland Law Society and Civil Liberties Australia. I would like to pass on my appreciation to all parties who contributed to this inquiry by either written or oral submission or by attending a public hearing.

Put simply, the unexplained wealth laws represent a relatively new form of criminal asset confiscation where serious and organised criminals who cannot account for the wealth they hold are forced to forfeit these assets to the state. Being a former police officer, I am well aware that the incentive behind organised crime is to make money and accrue wealth. Initiating a reverse onus of proof on those involved in serious and organised crime to show that they have legally obtained their wealth gives us the opportunity to tackle serious and organised crime head-on. I am also a strong believer that confiscating criminal profits will remove funds that are used as capital for further criminal enterprise. Removing these funds significantly disrupts the ability of criminal networks to operate. This can only be a good thing. During the inquiry, the Australian Crime Commission stated that, while serious and organised criminal groups prove resilient and adaptable to legislative amendment and law enforcement, the reduction or removal of their proceeds of crime would likely cause a significant deterrent and disruption to their activities.

I have to say that it has been a great honour to be part of this committee, which has worked hard throughout this inquiry. As a member of the New South Wales Police Force for 25 years, I am very excited about the new form of law enforcement that this unexplained wealth legislation represents. While traditional policing has focused on securing prosecutions, unexplained wealth provisions contribute to a growing body of measures aimed at prevention and disruption. In particular, these provisions will fill an existing gap which has been exploited whereby the heads of criminal networks remain insulated from the commission of offences and enjoy their criminal gains.

I believe this inquiry takes a great step forward from the introduction of unexplained wealth provisions into the Commonwealth proceeds of crime legislation we saw in 2010. While we welcomed the introduction of these provisions, unfortunately in the past two years no unexplained wealth proceedings have been brought before the courts due to a range of limitations. This is why the committee wanted to examine these provisions more closely and has made a number of significant recommendations in this report to enhance the effectiveness of the Commonwealth unexplained wealth provisions. These recommendations will target the provisions of serious and organised crime; provide further support for unexplained wealth investigations; improve the operation of task forces, including enhancing the role of the ATO; streamline the court process; and develop a consistent and effective national approach to unexplained wealth across Australia.

In particular, we have recommended a harmonisation of Commonwealth, state and territory laws. We believe that a national strategic approach to organised crime will eliminate gaps that can be exploited between jurisdictions. The committee has also recommended a series of technical amendments to ensure that unexplained wealth proceedings are fair and efficient. We believe it is vital that Australia has effective unexplained wealth legislation which will take the profit out of criminal enterprise. This will undermine the business model of serious and organised criminal networks and protect our communities from these individuals and criminal organisations. As part of our recommendations, the committee have sought to support future unexplained wealth investigations by ensuring that ACC examination material can be used as evidence; exploring the possibility of enabling the ACC to conduct examinations for the purpose of unexplained wealth proceedings in a manner consistent with Proceeds of Crime Act court proceedings; and amending the search warrant provisions in the Proceeds of Crime Act to allow for the collection of evidence for unexplained wealth proceedings. We would also like to see an improvement in the operation of task forces which involve the tax office through the prescription of the Criminal Assets Confiscation Taskforce under taxation regulations to allow greater information sharing; and allowing the tax office to make greater use of information obtained through telecommunications interception, where appropriate.

We believe it is also possible to streamline the court process by eliminating the current and unnecessary duplication of meeting an evidence threshold test; providing for an extension of time limit for serving notice of a preliminary order, where appropriate; removing the potential for abuse of legal expense provisions by harmonising them with other Proceeds of Crime Act proceedings; and granting an ability to create and register a charge over Australian property to secure later payment.

I think this inquiry is a great step forward for policing and law enforcement in Australia. Along with my colleagues on the committee, I am a firm believer that, if we can remove this incentive behind organised crime in this country, then we are in a better position to protect our communities from these criminal organisations and bring about a major disruption to all of their criminal activities.

Debate adjourned.