Cash register

Already, it is one of the most expensive to access registers in the world. As a tool of transparency, it is a failure. This is, perhaps, its intention.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission database is the repository for company records in this country. It is a vital resource for investigative journalism.

By the government’s own assessment, this register “forms a critical part of Australia’s economic infrastructure and is essential to the efficient operation of Australia’s economy”.

But a move is under way to privatise this asset. Michael West reports that final bids for the running of the database will be evaluated this month. “Flogging the nation’s company database to a monopoly private operator must be one of the zanier ideas to have been hatched in Canberra,” West writes, “but that is precisely what is now being plotted by our elected representatives.”

Hidden in this vast trove of documents – more than 10 million records – is much of the truth about corporate Australia. Here are the shell companies and the concealed interests that shelter the elite. Here are the crooked directorships and byzantine structures that deserve interrogation.

It can cost a media organisation hundreds of dollars to search the database. Most complex arrangements require multiple searches, one document leading to another, a daisy chain of corporate malfeasance, for which the journalist is charged multiple times.

As it stands, this information can be prohibitively expensive. Leads can be abandoned because of the costs associated with establishing them. About $60 million a year is spent on these searches, not exclusively by journalists. The privatisation of this information could only be expected to make it more expensive, to see it made more difficult to carry out large investigations, to make it more difficult to hold to account businesses and powerful individuals. 

A campaign is under way to oppose the privatisation. The Saturday Paper supports it. A group of unions and social organisations, including the Australian Council of Social Service and the Tax Justice Network, have written to the treasurer arguing against the sale. 

“The ASIC corporate register is currently relied upon by law enforcement agencies, such as the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Australian Tax Office, in identifying company ownership and location,” the letter read. “Placing this register in private hands risks undermining a range of law enforcement activities as well as Australia’s attempts to curb money laundering and the financing of terrorism.”

But the issue is larger than that. Almost all of what we know about corporate rapacity in this country, we know through journalism. Our regulators are hopelessly impotent. The privatisation of a key repository of information will only make this worse. 

Already, this information costs too much. The fact is, it should be free. It is in Britain, and in New Zealand. Any citizen should be entitled to make searches on company ownership without the levying of exorbitant fees. Certainly, journalists should not be charged for this information.

The current running of this database forces Australia to know a little less about itself. It protects business from scrutiny. It allows for money and influence to hide. Selling it – allowing a corporation to own the records of the corporate regulator – is a madness. It is part of a larger madness of greed, shared almost equally between governments and corporations in this country.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2016 as "Cash register".

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