"We need to see Australian firms held to a higher standard".

"We need to see Australian firms held to a higher standard". Photo: Judy Green

As the leading worldwide anti-corruption body, Transparency International named Australia as one of its most improved enforcers in our annual progress report on the enforcement of the OECD Anti-bribery Convention.

The high-profile prosecution of Securency International and Note Printing Australia and several of their executives has seen Australia move from the ''little or no enforcement'' category to the ''moderate enforcement'' category.

This is deserved recognition of the extensive forensic and international enforcement efforts of the Australian Federal Police.

The report makes clear that the involvement of central bank officials in at least five countries is a matter of great concern. Likewise, it says, is the decision by Australian central bank officials not to refer to police the written allegations they had received of serious corruption. They say this was based on legal advice - not a cover-up.

There is some basis for hope the Securency prosecution is indicative of our country placing greater importance on fighting corruption at home and in Australia's dealings abroad.

We need to see Australian firms held to a higher standard. Only where there is active enforcement is there sufficient deterrence against foreign bribery.

For Australia to move into that top echelon of nations fighting bribery, we believe a few things need to happen.

The government should determine and provide clear incentives for companies to self-report and, as defendants, to make an early plea where their own investigations uncover facts indicating foreign bribery.

It should also consider legislating for alternatives such as civil remedies rather than prosecution where key conditions have been satisfied, in light of the time and resources needed for obtaining evidence abroad.

Legislation should clearly spell out the responsibility of companies for bribery committed by subsidiaries and other intermediaries, as presently the Australian provisions may not apply unless it can be proved that the Australian company ''caused'' the bribery.

We are also encouraged by the promise of a forthcoming National Anti-Corruption Plan, currently in development by the Attorney-General's Department. In my view it needs to commit to a number of basic measures to strengthen the oversight regime and in particular to reinvigorate the fight against bribery and corruption at home and abroad.

The federal government needs the capacity to prevent, detect and investigate serious corruption that does not fit easily under the limited Australian Public Service misconduct regime.

Gaps in the current system arise quickly when there are not sufficiently clear and serious criminal offences to warrant the resources of the AFP.

Moreover the weaknesses in the oversight regime for federal agencies and lack of clarity in reporting obligations are exacerbated by the fact that no comprehensive whistleblower protection system has been enacted. The government's promises to introduce a bill for such a system have not been fulfilled, which leaves another large gap.

The OECD's enforcement figures are imposing. More than 250 individuals and almost 100 companies were sanctioned as a result of foreign bribery-related cases in OECD Convention countries to the end of last year, and 66 people have gone to jail in those countries for the crime of bribing overseas officials in business deals.

The chairman of Transparency International Australia, the former Federal Court judge Roger Gyles, has said that that in the Securency and Note Printing Australia cases: ''Two questions of importance are thrown up which warrant public scrutiny of the facts and are separate from any current proceedings.

''Firstly, the governance of a subsidiary of, and of a company associated with, the Reserve Bank of Australia as to the issue of corruption.

''Secondly, the obligation of those connected with public organisations to inform the appropriate authorities of potential breaches of the law.''

All that has come into the public domain since he first said that last year has demonstrated the need for public scrutiny of the full course of events. Upon the face of it, these would appear to warrant scrutiny every bit as much as those in the AWB matter.

Michael Ahrens is the executive director of Transparency International Australia.