Professor David Weisbrot AM, chair, Australian Press Council.
Investigative journalism in Australia has suffered repeated blows in recent times, with overly broad anti-terrorism laws potentially ensnaring reporters covering security matters; a declining commitment to Freedom of Information; laws criminalising some forms of whistleblowing; metadata retention laws further discouraging public interest disclosures to journalists; and a worrying tendency to use the full force of the law to track down the source of merely embarrassing leaks.
As overzealous as some of these measures are, there is at least some argument about their ostensible value in enhancing public safety and security. However, the latest potential blow to investigative journalism defies any credible public interest justification: the planned sell-off of Australia’s corporate registers to a private monopoly operator.
These important databases are currently maintained by the Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC) and contain some ten million financial records from over two million corporations. These include corporate histories, business names, ownership structures and shareholders. This information is absolutely essential to ensuring open and transparent government, maintaining the integrity of free markets, and securing compliance with corporate, banking, taxation, competition, industrial and criminal laws.
It is squarely in the public interest for investigative journalists, civil society watchdog groups, academics and other researchers to have unimpeded access to the information in the ASIC registers. This level of scrutiny can expose serious malpractice, including fraud, corruption, tax evasion, money laundering, insider trading, human trafficking and supporting terrorist activities.
Government should be concerned that access to this critical information is already unduly restricted by costs, with ASIC imposing fees that are among the highest in the industrialised world—while our close counterparts in New Zealand and the United Kingdom provide such access for free. Privatisation would likely lead to even higher costs in future.
Selling off Australia’s corporate registers to a private monopoly would be a monumental error, leaving corporate accountability and the future of open and transparent government at the mercy of private interests.”