Malcolm Turnbull’s problem are coming not in pairs but in multiples, even as marriage equality pitches the whole show dangerously close to the rocks.

Whatever remaining case there was against a banking royal commission evaporated yesterday afternoon when the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) released a statement announcing Federal Court action against the Commonwealth Bank for breaches of money-laundering laws. Worse, it released a 44-paragraph “concise statement” of its case, detailing deeply disturbing allegations of systemic failures by the bank to act to prevent money-laundering even after law enforcement agencies had specifically warned it about particular accounts.

And in a shocking look for both the bank and AUSTRAC, the breaches have been going on since 2012, right up until 2016. There was even one breach in January this year. Why AUSTRAC waited so long to take action isn’t clear.

This isn’t historical stuff. It can’t be wished away with the usual line from bankers and regulators that the whole sorry saga has been a learning experience for them and that everything’s fixed now. Terrorism funders could just as easily have exploited the CBA’s wilful indifference to money-laundering as drug syndicates. And if the regulatory system is working, it’s working at a painfully slow pace, allowing tens of millions of dollars to be laundered over a period of years, even after the AFP alerted the bank.

In 2014, the Abbott government decided to move AUSTRAC onto a full industry-based funding model, cutting government funding and abandoning a “cost recovery” levy — which was constrained to cost-covering — in favour of a broader industry levy that was going to eventually fully fund AUSTRAC. Financial institutions and other entities subject to report requirements, like clubs and real estate agents, have been complaining about the expanding levy ever since, while AUSTRAC has been trying to demonstrate it is as efficient as possible to industry.

Nor is this the end of the political risks for the government. Anything short of a truly massive fine and a significant intervention into CBA’s processes by AUSTRAC will look, yet again, like the system working in the interests of the top end of town. The rest of us don’t get to negotiate how much we get fined for breaking the law; nor are we allowed to discuss how we comply with it. But clearly there’s something deeply wrong in the culture of our banks.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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