Wednesday, 21 March 2018
Today, I want to discuss one of the most important questions which confronts us: how can Australia as a democratic state defend its institutions against the rising tide of authoritarianism, corruption and criminality which we see now in so many countries? In Australia, debate around this question has focused mainly on our complex relationship with China, but today I want to talk about another authoritarian power, Russia—and we saw the results from their election on the weekend. Taking advantage of the preferential sale of state assets, President Putin's cronies have amassed huge profits, which they have then shifted offshore by investing in foreign business and property. Anyone who challenges or investigates this corrupt system can expect harassment, arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on bogus charges, or even murder.
Among the many victims of Putin's regime has been Sergei Magnitsky, a tax lawyer who died in police custody in 2009 after being tortured and denied medical care. Magnitsky was investigating corruption on behalf of Bill Browder, a US-British hedge fund manager. Browder had once been a major investor in Russia and a supporter of Putin but was barred from the country in 2005 after opposing corruption. Browder felt personally responsible for Magnitsky's death, and he has spent the last nine years campaigning for Western countries to take action against the spreading tentacles of Russian corruption. In 2016, the US congress passed the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. This act empowers the US President to impose visa and property related sanctions on foreign persons who are responsible for violations of human rights and also against those 'who have materially assisted, sponsored or resourced significant corruption'.
Bill Browder has not rested after achieving this success. He has broadened his campaign, urging all democracies to adopt a local version of the Magnitsky act. To date, the UK, Canada, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have adopted Magnitsky-style provisions into their domestic laws. This week, Bill Browder has made a direct appeal to Australia to join these countries. On Monday, he was quoted as saying:
Australia has imposed sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, but so far has not for human rights atrocities.
This puts Australia out of sync with allies like the US, Canada and the UK who all have Magnitsky Acts in place.
By not being in sync with other allied countries Australia creates a perverse incentive for bad people to come to Australia and keep their blood money in Australia.
What has Australia's response been to this appeal? On ABC Radio National last week, the Minister for Foreign Affairs said:
We keep the structure of our sanction regime under regular view, and at present we're considering what further action may or will be necessary in the light of this recent attempted assassination using a military grade nerve agent developed by Russia.
In my experience, when a minister says that something is 'being kept under review', that means that they actually have no plans to do very much at all. I don't think that's good enough. As we have seen in the US, the ambitions of the Putin regime to extend its influence into the democracies, to find the weak spots in our institutions and to exploit them, is a real and growing threat to all democratic states, including Australia. We need to consider as a matter of urgency how we respond to that threat. We already have provisions in our laws, such as the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act, to apply sanctions to foreign individuals who are engaged in corrupt or criminal behaviour or in abuses of human rights. But these laws do not have the broad reach of the Magnitsky acts and nor do they have the moral impact of an act specifically aimed at the Putin regime or indeed any totalitarian or authoritarian regime and its corrupt elite.
As we are seeing from events in the US and Europe, the penetration of the Russian state and the corrupt Russian elite into the affairs of democracies is an urgent matter. It requires both a strong and an urgent response. I urge the government and indeed all political parties represented in this parliament to give serious and immediate consideration to developing a Magnitsky-style legislative response to this real and increasing threat.
Senate adjourned at 19:40