Showing posts with label corruption. Show all posts
Showing posts with label corruption. Show all posts

Thursday, 27 February 2020

New Zealand National Party is a riven as its Australian cousin


Rod Emmerson

News Hub NZ, 19 February 2020:

Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross is facing charges which carry a prison term of up to seven years if convicted. Name suppression has been lifted for the four people charged by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) over donations to the National Party. 

Ross, who made the donation allegations in the first place, is one of them.

The other three are Zhang Yikun, the wealthy Chinese businessman who allegedly offered a $100,050 donation to National; Colin Zheng, Zhang's business partner and prospective National Party candidate; and Hengjia Zheng. 

In a statement made exclusively to Newshub and NZ Herald Ross made a plea, "I was the whistleblower and as a result ever since I have been attacked by the party and its supporters for bringing this matter to the attention of the nation. 

"Some seek to make me out as the bad guy, while that may be convenient spin for the party I will not be the National Party’s fall guy". 

If the case goes to trial Ross is promising to provide evidence to back up his claims, "it will then be clear who is behind any scheme but the public statements from Mr Bridges and the party that they had no involvement is simply not true."....

Read the full article here.

The $100,050 donation in question was made by a NZ-registered company Inner Mongolia Rider Horse Industry NZ, owned by Chinese billionaire Lang Lin.

Monday, 24 February 2020

‘Grant from Auditing’ dropped ‘Scotty from Marketing’ right in it and the net result is a strong stench of corruption emanating from the Morrison government


New Matilda, 14 February 2020:

Summer rains finally fell on large parts of New South Wales this week. They didn’t fall everywhere, and much of inland Australia is still in drought, but enough rain fell where it was needed to allow weary fire authorities to announce that the New South Wales bushfires were finally contained.

For different reasons, Scott Morrison has also had a difficult summer, so the Prime Minister would no doubt have been pleased the bushfire emergency he so badly mishandled is now receding. With Parliament back and the serious matter of COVID-19 Coronavirus to attend to, Morrison could be forgiven for thinking that February would be the month where the government could regain the political initiative.

But that’s not happening, because the government finds itself mired in a series of corruption scandals.

The key issue, as it has been for weeks now, is the sports rorts affair. As we now know, roughly $100 million in sports grants were distributed in a completely corrupt manner by former Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie before the 2019 federal election.

The scandal blew up after the National Audit Office released a devastating report into the orgy of pork barrelling.

The government’s initial response to the Audit was to try and downplay it: a variation of the classic “nothing to see here, folks” line. Morrison himself argued many times that no rules had been broken and that all the projects funded in McKenzie’s dodgy process were eligible.

That approach proved unsustainable, as the media turned its attention to the grants program and uncovered multiple instances of highly dubious decision-making. Huge grants to fancy rowing clubs in Mosman, grants for female change rooms to clubs with no female players, grants to a shooting club that McKenzie herself was a member of, grants that sporting clubs boasted about before even receiving them – the more journalists dug, the worse things seemed.

The Audit report was always going to be difficult to wriggle away from. The report set down, in black and white, a devastating series of findings about the sports grants program.

An established funding program was subverted by a “parallel process” of political decision making inside McKenzie’s office, quite transparently driven by political interest. Questions were raised about the program’s probity by senior bureaucrats, only to be batted away by McKenzie and her staff. A colour-coded spreadsheet was even drawn up, one that had nothing to do with the merits of the funding applications, and everything to do with the Coalition’s re-election strategy.

As former senior New South Wales judge Stephen Charles QC argued, this was not just ministerial misconduct; it was corruption.

So, after weeks of defending her, Morrison bowed to the inevitable and sacked McKenzie. After a hastily convened investigation by Morrison’s hand-picked Secretary of the Department of Prime Minster and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens, McKenzie was sent on her way.

On the day he sacked McKenzie, Morrison announced that Gaetjens’ report found that McKenzie had erred, but that the program itself was sound. Exactly how Gaetjens managed to come to that conclusion is something that has puzzled journalists and onlookers. If the program was sound, why was McKenzie sacked for rorting it? And if McKenzie rorted it, how could the program be sound?

Just to make matters more opaque, Gaetjens’ report was never released, with Morrison claiming that it was a cabinet document. He therefore kept it secret. It’s marvellous stuff, this open government business…..

In scathing testimony, Auditor-General Grant Hehir and senior auditor Brian Boyd demolished the government’s position with a few well-chosen lines.

Were all the grants eligible, Senator Eric Abetz asked Boyd? No, answered Boyd.

In fact, as many as 43 per cent were not eligible. Boyd went on to explain why. Some applications were late. Some projects had started their work before they signed the funding agreement. Some had actually finished the work.

As Boyd told the Committee, “If you’ve completed your work, or in some cases — as in this one — you’ve even started your work before a funding agreement is signed, you’re not eligible to receive funding.” Oops.

It got worse. We also found out that the Prime Minister’s office was intimately involved with McKenzie’s office in drawing up the dodgy list of grant recipients. Auditor-General Hehir told Senators there were “direct” communications between Morrison’s office and McKenzie’s, including at least 28 versions of the now-notorious colour-coded spreadsheet that laid out the various sports grants by marginal seat.

The Auditor-General described a process where key advisors from Morrison and McKenzie’s offices haggled over which projects to fund, using the spreadsheet as the basis for their decisions.

To say this looks bad for the Prime Minister is an understatement. He has been caught out in a particularly ham-fisted cover up, one that looks all the more ill-judged now the facts have come to light. Given the level and detail of communication between his office and Bridget McKenzie’s, it’s hard to see how he can plausibly argue he wasn’t privy to the rorts…..

Read the full article here.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Tweets of the Week - #sportsrorts edition


In which the answer to Liberal Senator for Tasmania Eric Abetz's question reveals that #sportsrorts was a fact.


In which Australian Prime Minister & Liberal MP for Cook Scott Morrison cuts and runs after caught misrepresenting the Auditor-General's report concerning #sportrorts

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Morrison's refusal to release the written finding of the Gaetjens investigation into the allocation of Community Sport Infrastructure Grants during the 2019 federal election campaign is raising eyebrows


The handling of the Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program during the 2019 federal election campaign - otherwise know as SportsRorts scandal - has already taken the scalp of former Agriculture Minister & Nationals Senator for Victoria, Bridget McKenzie, after poor personal polling on 12 January  and growing public anger on the release of the Auditor General's adverse report of 15 January 2020 caused Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to order an internal investigation into this $100 million dollar scheme.

Ms. McKenzie has been made Leader of the Nationals in the Senate as compensation for the fact that she was forced to resign in an effort to put a lid on the whole affair.

Nevertheless disquiet remains after Morrison refused to release the written finding of the Gaetjens investigation.......

Former head of the Departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Finance, and Employment and Industrial Relations and currently Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University, Michael Keating, writing in Crikey.com.au on 11 February 2020:

In my view the Gaetjens’ report reflects poorly on its author.

It would seem on the evidence that Gaetjens has produced a report whose only purpose was to get the government off a political hook.

One suspects that finding McKenzie guilty on the grounds of political bias in her administration of these grants would have implicated other ministers and/or their offices, and therefore she was exonerated on this charge.

However, as head of the public service, Gaetjen’s first duty is to uphold its values and integrity. And as set out in its enabling legislation, the Australian Public Service is meant to be apolitical, serving not only the government but also parliament and the Australian public.

Gaetjens should be setting an example for the rest of the APS — indeed the head of any organisation has their greatest impact on its culture.

My other concern about this sports rorts saga is what it tells us about the prime minister’s attitude to the public service.

As the High Court has found: “the maintenance and protection of an apolitical and professional public service is a significant purpose consistent with the system of representative and responsible government mandated by the constitution”.

But the Gaetjens’ report reinforces doubts about whether Morrison accepts the independence and impartiality of the APS.

Furthermore, this report comes on the back of the Morrison government’s rejection of all the recommendations from the independent ThodeyReview of the APS which would have strengthened that independence, and therefore reinforces that concern.

On 5 February 2020 the Senate resolved to establish a Select Committee on Administration of Sports Grants to inquire into and report on the administration and award of funding under the Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program.

The first and, perhaps the only, hearing day is today Thursday 13 February 2020 -  beginning at 4.30pm when the Auditor General Grant Hehir will be giving evidence.

The closing date for submissions is 21 February 2020 and the committee is to present its final report on or before 24 March 2020.
BACKGROUND
Terms of Reference 

1. That a select committee, to be known as the Select Committee on Administration of Sports Grants, be established to inquire into and report on the administration and award of funding under the Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program, with particular reference to: 
a) program design and guidelines; 
b) requirements placed on applicants for funding; 
c) management and assessment processes; 
d) adherence to published assessment processes and program criteria; 
e) the role of the offices of the Minister, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and any external parties, in determining which grants would be awarded and who would announce the successful grants; and 
f) any related programs or matters. 

2. That the committee present its final report on or before Tuesday 24 March 2020. 

3. That the committee consist of 5 senators, as follows: 
a) 2 nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate; 
b) 2 nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate; and 
c)1 nominated by the Leader of the Australian Greens. 

4. That: 
a) participating members may be appointed to the committee on the nomination of the Leader of the Government in the Senate, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate or any minority party or independent senator; and b) participating members may participate in hearings of evidence and deliberations of the committee, and have all the rights of members of the committee, but may not vote on any questions before the committee. 
c) a participating member shall be taken to be a member of a committee for the purpose of forming a quorum of the committee if a majority of members of the committee is not present. 

5. That the committee may proceed to the dispatch of business notwithstanding that not all members have been duly nominated and appointed and notwithstanding any vacancy. 

6. That the committee elect as chair one of the members nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and as deputy chair the member nominated by the Leader of the Australian Greens. 

7. That the deputy chair shall act as chair when the chair is absent from a meeting of the committee or the position of chair is temporarily vacant. 

8. That, in the event of an equality of voting, the chair, or the deputy chair when acting as chair, have a casting vote. 

9. That the committee have power to appoint subcommittees consisting of 3 or more of its members, and to refer to any such subcommittee any of the matters which the committee is empowered to consider. 

10. That the committee and any subcommittee have power to send for and examine persons and documents, to move from place to place, to sit in public or in private, notwithstanding any prorogation of the Parliament or dissolution of the House of Representatives, and have leave to report from time to time its proceedings and the evidence taken and such interim recommendations as it may deem fit. 

11. That the committee be provided with all necessary staff, facilities and resources and be empowered to appoint persons with specialist knowledge for the purposes of the committee with the approval of the President. 

12. That the committee be empowered to print from day to day such papers and evidence as may be ordered by it, and a daily Hansard be published of such proceedings as take place in public. 

The resolution establishing the committee is available in the Journals of the Senate No. 37 - Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), Award of Funding under the Community Sport Infrastructure Program, Report NO. 23 OF 2019–20, which found:
  • The award of grant funding was not informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice.
  • The successful applications were not those that had been assessed as the most meritorious in terms of the published program guidelines..... 
  • There was evidence of distribution bias in the award of grant funding. Overall statistics indicate that the award of funding was consistent with the population of eligible applications received by state/territory, but was not consistent with the assessed merit of applications. The award of funding reflected the approach documented by the Minister’s Office of focusing on ‘marginal’ electorates held by the Coalition as well as those electorates held by other parties or independent members that were to be ‘targeted’ by the Coalition at the 2019 Election. Applications from projects located in those electorates were more successful in being awarded funding than if funding was allocated on the basis of merit assessed against the published program guidelines.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Political Donations 101: cause and effect 2019-2020


THE CAUSE: Reliance on political donations

Individuals and corporations making large or regular political donations are rarely giving money for philanthropic reasons - they usually want something in return.

Sometimes it is access to a prime minister or premier, sometimes access to a particular minister and sometimes it is a barely concealed bribe in order that the donor gets a specific outcome from a particular government.

The Guardian, 3 February 2020:

The Liberal party received $4.1m from a single donor before the 2019 election, one of the largest amounts in political history, dwarfing former leader Malcolm Turnbull’s $1.75m gift before the 2016 election.

The donations, revealed in Australian Electoral Commission disclosures published on Monday, are second only to the $83.3m donated by Mineralogy Pty Ltd to Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party.

Both major parties also took significant sums of money from the fossil fuel industry, including multinational giant Woodside, something environmentalists say explains government inaction in the “face of a rolling national emergency driven by climate change”.

The $4.1m donated to the federal Liberal party and its state branches was given in multiple instalments by Sugolena Pty Ltd, a company linked to philanthropist Isaac Wakil, who made his fortune in the clothing industry and invested heavily in property, with his wife Susan, around the Sydney suburb of Pyrmont…..


The Liberals declared $22.6m in donations Labor $18.2m. Total receipts, which include all donations regardless of the $13,800 reporting threshold, other payments, returns from financial investments and loans, amounted to $165m for the Liberals and $126m for Labor.

Australia’s weak donation disclosure system continues to mask a huge chunk of political financing. 

Analysis by the Centre for Public Integrity shows that $1bn in party income has not been disclosed between 1999 and the last reporting year, almost 36% of total party financing.

But the disclosures that have been made continue to show the significant influence of the fossil fuel industry in Australian democracy. Clive Palmer’s Mineralogy, which gave $83,681,442 to Palmer’s United Australia Party, was by far the single biggest fossil fuel donor.

An analysis by the Australian Conservation Foundation found a further $1.89m in fossil fuel donations to Australian political parties.

This data explains why even in the face of a rolling national emergency driven by climate change and community demands for change, the government continues to defend and promote the industries that are the root cause of the problem,” ACF’s economy and democracy program manager Matt Rose said.

Serious donations reform is needed now to make sure our political system works for the benefit of all Australian, not just those with the biggest wallets.”

The biggest fossil fuel donor to the major parties was Woodside, Australia’s biggest LNG exporter. It gave $135,400 to Labor, $136,750 to the Liberal Party and $11,190 to the Nationals. The gas industry lobby, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA), was also a significant donor. [APPEA donated a combined total of $24,990 to the federal Liberal and Nationals parties]

Prime minister Scott Morrison recently identified gas as a key “transition” fuel for Australia’s economy, saying “we need to get the gas from under our feet”. 

He also recently struck a a $2bn deal with the New South Wales government to increase gas supply and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector…..

The federal Liberal party also declared two donations from Adani Mining Pty Ltd totalling $50,000….. [the Australian Electoral Commission identified a combined total of $97,300 as donations directly from Adani Mining Pty Ltd to the federal Liberal and Nationals parties]

Carmichael Rail Network, another wholly-owned subsidiary of Adani Australia, gave $50,000 to the federal Liberal party and $100,000 to the Nationals….. [my red annotations]

THE EFFECT: Requirement to fulfil the terms of the unwritten contract between a political party and its donors

Within the 8 months following the May 2019 federal election the Morrison Government acted to benefit certain of its donors in the gas industry sector.

Santos Limited which had donated a combined total of $42,723 to federal Liberal and Nationals coffers in 2017-18 went on to donate another $78,854 in 2018-19, with this result......

According to Lock The Gate Alliance on 31 January 2020:

The ‘energy deal’ announced today between NSW and Federal Governments looks designed to unleash coal seam gas drilling in north-west NSW, threatening drought-affected farmers and allowing Santos to drain 37 billion litres of groundwater.

Crucially, it will do little to bring down greenhouse gas emissions due to its reliance on dirty, polluting unconventional gas.

Media reports indicate the NSW Government has been compelled by the Commonwealth to make a commitment to supply 70PJ of gas for the east coast market in exchange for up to $2 billion in Federal funding for renewable energy and unquantified reduction incentives.

The volume of gas mentioned in the deal is similar to the amount Santos expects to produce at its proposed water-hungry Narrabri coal seam gasfield.

To facilitate the creation of one or more gasfields in north-west New South Wales the Berejiklian Coalition Government held a second hearing into the NSW Chief Scientist’s recommendations on coal seam gas in NSW on 4 February 2020.

As the Berejiklian Government failed to act on the Chief Scientist's original recommendations, this second hearing was a cause for concern......

Lock The Gate Alliance, 3 February 2020:

CSG hearing round 2 must deliver more than just hot air

The holding of a second hearing into the NSW Chief Scientist’s recommendations on coal seam gas in NSW is evidence the Berejiklian Government is not prepared to deal with the repercussions of the destructive industry, according to Lock the Gate Alliance.

The hearing, to be held tomorrow, is only happening because the Government was unable to properly answer questions about CSG at the original hearing, held in December last year.

Lock the Gate NSW coordinator Georgina Woods said it was even more crucial than ever now for the Government to answer questions about its forgotten promises on coal seam gas, given the state and federal governments look poised to sacrifice the north west following last week’s energy deal announcement.

It was deeply troubling to watch government representatives scratch their heads when asked basic questions about their oversight of this damaging industry at the last hearing. It demonstrated an alarming lack of attention to the serious risk coal seam gas poses to groundwater in North West NSW,” Ms Woods said.

Last week’s energy deal with Canberra has raised the very real risk that state and federal governments will run roughshod over the facts and heap political pressure on planning authorities to approve Santos’ destructive Narrabri coal seam gas proposal.

This inquiry has shown how unready and unaware the Government is for the environmental, social and economic damage that will inflict.

There is still time to stop Santos’ Narrabri gas project from puncturing holes in a recharge aquifer of the Great Artesian Basin, one of western New South Wales’ most precious groundwater resources. There is still time to make this important area a no-go zone for coal seam gas and safeguard the water resources of north west New South Wales.”

Ms Woods said it was clear from the last hearing that major recommendations made by the Chief Scientist had not been implemented.

The biggest gaps include failure to provide a three-tiered environmental insurance scheme, failure to establish a standing expert committee, and failure to develop systems that can detect cumulative impacts of the industry on precious water resources,” she said.

There are 11 expired and unused legacy coal seam gas licences languishing over the farmland, towns, and precious water resources of the drought-stricken north west that have never been through the Government’s new system for assessing areas for gas exploration.

The NSW Government is leaving farming communities in the north west exposed to unforeseen and irreversible loss or contamination of water resources and other environmental and health impacts from the CSG industry.

We need a reset from the Government that prioritises water security, people, and the needs of future generations and that means stopping the Narrabri gasfield.”

Brisbane Times reported on 3 February 2020 concerning the Adani Group's strategically timed donations:

On April 5, $12,500 was donated to the Liberal Party; that was four days before then-Environment Minister Melissa Price signed off on the groundwater management plans for Adani's central Queensland mine. 

Another $100,000 was donated to both parties in the month after Ms Price gave final federal approvals to the mine.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Given the last seven years is anyone surprised that Australia has slipped once again in the international perceived corruption rankings?



Transparency International's Corruption Transparency Index ranks 180 countries by the perceived levels of public sector corruption. 

In 2019 Australia was one of only three countries highlighted as examples of the 21 countries countries who scores had markedly declined between 2012 and 2019 - Australia dropping 8 points from 85 out of 100 in 2012 (when it was the 7th least corrupt nation) to 77 out of 100 in 2019. 

It should be noted that the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison federal Coalition government came to power in September 2013. 

Transparency International's 2019 report points the finger at Australia's poor performance with regard to rules around campaign financing, donations and grants.

Stating of counties such as Australia that; unfair and opaque political financing and undue influence in decisionmaking and lobbying by powerful corporate interest groups, result in stagnation or decline in control of corruption. [my highlighting]


It would appear that it is not just "the Twitter crazies" who are concerned about the possibly higher levels of corruption in Australian federal, state & local governments and the public service.

It comes as no surprise that the report rated New Zealand (along with Denmark) as the perceived least corrupt nation. Once again shaming its near neighbour and ally Australia by comparison.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

In which certain Clarence Valley elected councillors and senior council management try to pretend that a resolution at a NSW LGA conference has the force of law......


Given that local government is potentially the most corruptible of all three tiers of government in Australia, it comes as no surprise that transparency is still resisted though it is very disappointing to see Clarence Valley Council searching about for an excuse not to do the right thing.

One of the risible objections to having Disclosures of Interest published online was that it would be difficult to redact staff signatures & residential addresses and, is "considered a waste of valuable staff resourcing" [Item 6c.19.090, CVC Ordinary Monthly Meeting, Minutes, 29 November 2019].

Another was a suggestion that councillors and staff may be at physical risk if declarations were published online, even though these declartions are already available for inspection at council offices and have been for some years.

Clarence Valley Independent, 11 December 2019:

Councillor Karen Toms has lodged a rescission motion to try and overturn a decision, made at the November Clarence Valley Council (CVC) meeting, which raised the ire of the NSW Information and Privacy Commission (IPC).

Councillors Lysaught, Ellem, Kingsley, Baker, Williamson and Simmons voted against uploading councillors’ and senior staff’s declarations of interest to the CVC website. 

Following the decision, which was contrary to a guideline developed under the Government Information (Public Access) Act issued in September, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Tydd released a statement. 

She said three local councils – Gosford City, Mid-North Coast and Clarence Valley – had “publicly stated their intention to adopt practices that appear to offend the requirements of the GIPA Act and Guideline 1”. 

“The resolutions by councils, as they seek to deviate from clear requirements under the GIPA Act, [to] justify non-compliance for privacy reasons will be something I consider carefully,” she said. 

“It is important to stress that the guideline was developed in consultation with the NSW Privacy Commissioner.” 

She said the interests required to be declared by councillors and senior decision makers include business and pecuniary interests. 

She said declaring these interests is “a demonstrably effective tool in preventing corruption and promoting integrity. “These are strong factors in favour of disclosure, particularly in the local government sector where decisions impact the everyday lives of people,” she said. 

“Those factors must be balanced against factors against disclosure, including privacy. “However, declarations of business interests will not necessarily disclose any information impacting personal privacy.” 

At the November CVC meeting, general manager Ashley Lindsay said: “…on behalf of staff and designated persons … I think it is unfair for them to have their information on the website.” 

Councillor Greg Clancy suggested that any “sensitive information could be redacted”. “What’s the problem with having [the disclosures] on the website?” he said. 

Mr Lindsay advised councillors that the recent Local Government NSW conference had resolved to support a motion by Mid-Coast Council, which “strongly objects to the [disclosures] … being published on any website”. “…We should support the Local Government NSW motion,” 

Mr Lindsay said when answering a question from Cr Toms. “If unsuccessful, we can come back and change [CVC’s decision] and comply,” he said. Referring to the IPC guideline during debate on the matter, mayor Jim Simmons said it “may not be legislation” and that he thinks “there is some doubt … so I intend to vote for” not uploading the disclosures. 

However, he said “if it becomes clear to me in the next day or two [that it is legislation] I’ll support a rescission motion”.

BACKGROUND

Information Access Guideline 1 - For Local Councils on the disclosure of information (returns disclosing the interest of councillors and designated persons) at https://www.ipc.nsw.gov.au/information-access-guideline-1.



Friday, 27 September 2019

Debt collector used by DHS-Centrelink to chase unproven robodebts being sued by Australia’s consumer watchdog for a raft of coercive and unconscionable practices


IT News, 24 September 2019: 

A debt collector recently awarded a $3.3 million contract by the Department of Human Services (DHS) to chase money for Centrelink is wholly owned by a company being sued by Australia’s consumer watchdog for a raft of coercive and unconscionable practices. 

In an embarrassing twist to the ongoing Robodebt controversy, iTnews can reveal ARL Collect (Pty Ltd), which is wholly owned by Queensland based Panthera Finance, snared a plum debt recovery deal from DHS just weeks before its parent company was hit by landmark legal action from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. 

The ACCC’s case against Panthera accuses the firm of coercing payments from people – including identity fraud victims – for bills they did not actually owe. 

The direct ownership link between the two companies, which technically are separate legal and financial entities, raises fresh questions around the adequacy of vetting and due diligence surrounding government outsourcing deals, especially those dealing with vulnerable people. 

The ACCC’s action against Panthera, lodged in the Federal Court on 24th July this year, sets out an appalling litany of allegations related to undue harassment and coercion, unconscionable conduct and false and misleading representation to consumers. 

They include forcing money from identity fraud victims by using credit default listings as leverage and follow consumer complaints made about Panthera. 

According to Department of Finance records, DHS published notification of the $3.3 million ARL Collect contract on 29th July; however the contract period is listed as running from 1st July 2019 to 30th June 2020, indicating the tender was let prior to commencement of action by the ACCC. 

The ACCC’s allegations against Panthera, ARL Collects’s owner, all stem from commercial recovery actions, namely attempts to collect on contested bills issued by utilities AGL, Origin Energy and Telstra, raising serious questions of governance and corporate culture. 

A particularly embarrassing coincidence for the government and DHS is that all the examples put forward to the court by the ACCC in its allegations arise from payment demands made by Panthera for bills that were not actually owed and actively disputed by those hit by recovery actions. 

The revelations that the ultimate owner of DHS’s contracted debt collector is a current target of regulatory action is another headache for the government as it vigorously defends its data matching-reliant enforcement regime. 

A class action now in the works against Robodebt being mounted by Gordon Legal also broadly makes its case along the lines of an unreasonable burden of proof being foisted on people labelled debtors, while organisations claiming to be creditors get away with questionable claims. 

The Department of Human Services, its minister Stuart Robert and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have steadfastly maintained welfare overpayment recovery mechanisms are subject to due administrative process, a stance that has done little to quell criticism of Robodebt, which has now become a political weapon. 

Irrespective of the politics, the ACCC’s case against Panthera is highly significant because it spotlights the poor conduct of some collection agencies. 

It also reveals how receivables ledgers of questionable data accuracy are on-sold and the way legitimately disputed debt is treated. 

And it goes deep into the hardball culture and often high pressure tactics of the darker corners of the collections industry, a sector that has been struggling to reform its image......

In one of the examples, a Queensland woman anonymised as “Witness A” disputed a $378 debt for an Origin electricity bill racked up under her name for an address in New South Wales where the woman had never lived. 

She had also never been a customer of Origin. After filing a complaint with the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN) and supplying Panthera with the case reference number the debt collector still pursued her. 

“Witness A again informed them that she had never lived in NSW, she had provided an ACORN reference number and stated that she had never received Centrelink payments in her life, referring to the Centrelink deductions recorded on the Origin bills provided to her,” the ACCC court documents state. 

“Witness A provided Panthera with the details of the person the police had informed her was responsible for the Origin Debt, including that the person still resided at the NSW premises to which the electricity was supplied, and also with the relevant police officer’s contact information,” the ACCC’s court documents continue. 

Despite this, Panthera continued asking her for information she just did not have, the ACCC alleges.....

In another case a man dubbed "Witness B" told Panthera that he believed a Telstra mobile broadband account created in his name had been fraudulently obtained. 

Despite a police officer telling Panthera that she was “looking into fraud” in relation to the account “the man still had a credit default listed against his name.” What came next borders on extortion. 

“On 4 April 2017, a Panthera representative called Witness B’s financial advisor and stated that Panthera was aware of Witness B’s dispute and was investigating it, offered to negotiate a payment in order to secure the removal of the default listing and represented that Witness B would need to make a payment of $100 to Panthera in order for the default listing to be removed,” the ACCC’s court documents state. 

“This was in circumstances where the Panthera representative knew that Witness B’s account was in the process of being ‘written off’ by Panthera, but also knew that Witness B needed the default listing removed quickly because he was trying to obtain finance.” 

Even after paying the $100 and Panthera telling the man the default listing had been removed “as at September 2018 Witness B’s credit file still contained a default listing with respect to the Telstra Debt”.......

Read the full article here.