Australia’s financial crimes authority, AUSTRAC, is investigating the state-owned Perth Mint in a move that could have wide-reaching ramifications, not only for the WA government, but also for taxpayers.
- AUSTRAC is investigating the Perth Mint for suspected criminal and civil breaches
- The Perth Mint is the only government-owned and backed precious metals enterprise
- The refinery holds around $6 billion worth of gold, with an annual turnover surpassing $26 billion
So what is the gold refiner suspected of doing wrong, and what’s the possible fallout?
Making a mint
Many people assume the Perth Mint is little more than a tourist attraction or place where commemorative coins are created, but this is far from the full picture.
The Perth Mint is the world’s largest producer of newly mined gold. It processes around 10 per cent of annual global gold production, and mints the vast majority of gold mined in Australia.
According to its 2021 annual report, the Perth Mint’s yearly turnover was more than $26 billion. The mint holds around $6 billion on behalf of its clients, who range from central banks and sovereign wealth funds, to individuals, in over 130 countries.
It is the world’s only government owned and guaranteed precious metals enterprise. By extension, all metal deposits are underwritten by WA taxpayers.
The Perth Mint’s foundations are steeped in WA’s gold rush history. It was created at a time when currencies were backed by gold, and mining the precious resource was key to powering Australia’s economic growth. But the “gold standard”, as it was known, was abandoned globally in the early 1970s.
Thomson Reuters Asia Pacific financial crime expert Nathan Lynch said these days the justification for the state underwriting the mint was “really thin”.
“When this was set up the mint wasn’t running a massive, commercial safe deposit box,” he said.
“I mean, it’s the biggest primary producer of mined gold in the world, it’s sitting on $6 billion of gold. And if any of that gold goes missing, or is stolen, it has to be paid for by who? Taxpayers.”
Technological advances have allowed the mint to reach clients around the world, through an app called GoldPass.
The app allows anyone to trade gold and silver digital certificates — certificates that are backed by physical Perth Mint gold/silver stored in its central bank-grade vaults.
The app also allows investors to choose whether they trade in Australian or US dollars — which could also expose the mint to US regulators, as well as AUSTRAC.
What is the mint being investigated for?
Put simply AUSTRAC has expressed serious concerns around the Perth Mint’s compliance standards, saying it suspects it has breached criminal laws and provisions of transaction reporting laws.
The federal financial crimes regulator has ordered a sweeping audit of the processes and records at Gold Corporation, the owner of the Perth Mint.
The financial crime agency said it had “reasonable grounds to suspect” that the Mint breached one of the criminal provisions of the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act, by running an unregistered remittance business.
In layman’s terms, a company or entity is acting as a remitter if it moves money or property on behalf of a client.
“Under the anti-money laundering law, they have to have a compliance program in place,” Mr Lynch explains.
“They have to do a risk assessment and look at their vulnerabilities, they have to do things like customer due diligence.
“So this is a whole buffet of failures.”
What has been the response?
WA Premier Mark McGowan first brushed off the issue as the result of an “administrative” oversight.
But he’s since reversed course, saying “my government is taking this matter very seriously”.
The Premier, who is also the state Treasurer, said he was not told until recently about the Mint’s alleged bungle, which was first discovered early last year, ahead of the March state election.
The Perth Mint has undergone a raft of management changes in recent years, with a new CEO, Jason Waters, appointed in April.
He acknowledged the organisation had been working to rectify the issues, saying “the Perth Mint is constantly identifying areas of improvement”.
Gold Corp said its registrations had been compliant with AUSTRAC requirements since March 2021.
What happens now?
Once an external auditor is chosen and appointed, they’ll have 180 days to report back to AUSTRAC.
The agency said this included the requirement to have an ongoing customer due diligence program and to comply with suspicious matter reporting obligations.
AUSTRAC chief executive Nicole Rose said the agency “does not hesitate to take action where a business that we regulate is failing to satisfy their responsibility to protect themselves and Australia’s financial system from criminal activity.”
AUSTRAC has a reputation for taking strong action against some of Australia’s largest companies.
This includes record-breaking penalties, with Commonwealth Bank fined $700 million in 2018 and Westpac paying $1.3 billion in 2020 for anti-money laundering compliance breaches.
The financial crime agency has also commenced proceedings against Crown Resorts this year.
‘Like a spark in summer landing in a bush’
Mr Lynch said the seriousness of this case can’t be understated.
“It’s way worse than the Westpac and CBA cases because of the ownership structure. It’s not a good look for the Western Australian government,” he said.
The financial crime expert explained that without the proper regulatory checks and processes in place, you can’t say for certain what level of criminality took place — such as who might have been using the Perth Mint’s services for illegal means.
Mr Lynch thinks that this could be just the start of the gold refiner’s problems.
“It’s like a spark in summer landing in the bush. If the organisation doesn’t put them out then they turn into a wildfire and they get out of control,” he said.