Week in Brief: 15–21 April 2018

22 April 2018

Week in Brief: 15–21 April 2018

Story of the week

‘Disturbing’ revelations from Banking Royal Commission hearings

This week showed a marked change in the nature of the hearings of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.

While previous hearings have uncovered relatively minor misconduct coupled with incompetent levels of oversight, this week’s hearings have ranged from tedious to absurd, revealing that the industry is riddled with systemic fraud and misconduct.

In previous hearings the Commission was told about individual brokers forging documents, banks having poor verification measures, and financial planners up-selling clients to take advantage of undisclosed commissions.

This week, however, senior executives in the finance industry have admitted to consistently and deliberately lying to regulators, charging fees to dead clients, and billing clients for services they had no intention of ever providing as a matter of policy.

One of the worst offenders for charging fees without providing services was AMP, whose CEO Craig Meller resigned this week following the hearings.

Both Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) issued statements in response to AMP charging fees for no service.

ASIC confirmed it has ongoing investigations and is cooperating with the Royal Commission, and that making false or misleading statements to the regulator can result in civil and criminal sanctions.

Mr Morrison’s statement acknowledges that “[t]his type of behaviour can attract penalties which include jail time. That’s how serious these things are. I am very reassured by the fact that these matters were already being pursued by ASIC and will continue to be pursued by ASIC.”

Further to this, Commissioner Kenneth Hayne and senior counsel assisting the Royal Commission have increasingly become visibly frustrated with non-cooperative and unqualified witnesses. This included Marianne Perkovic, an executive at one of the Commonwealth Bank’s subsidiaries, who was repeatedly called out on her evasive answers and reminded by the Commissioner to listen to questions and answer them, and Westpac executive Michael Wright who was unable to answer key questions relating to employee misconduct.

What has come to light has been described as “disturbing” by several politicians, including former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who admitted he regrets opposing the establishment of the Royal Commission. It is now being discussed that the time allotted to the Royal Commission may not be enough to perform a thorough inquiry, and the government is likely to extend the time if Commissioner Kenneth Hayne requests.


Australia

Government slams Greens’ plans to decriminalise cannabis

The Greens have announced a plan to legalise cannabis in Australia should they form government, prompting fiery denunciations from current Liberal-National Coalition ministers.

Richard Di Natale, the leader of the Australian Greens, made the announcement on Monday, stating that Australia’s approach to illicit drugs was an “unmitigated disaster” and that “prohibition of cannabis causes more harm than it prevents”. The Greens’ plan would reclassify cannabis as a legal substance to be sold and produced under licences issued by a national agency, which would also regulate and monitor conditions of use.

But Government Ministers have slapped down the idea, with Health Minister Greg Hunt arguing that cannabis is a gateway drug. Mr Hunt stated that the Government did not believe that cannabis use was “safe, responsible or something which should be allowed”.

Over 500 houses saved from bushfire weekend, says NSW RFS

Firefighters have publicly stated that over 500 homes were saved from last week’s bushfire weekend.

An assessment team from the NSW Rural Fire Service confirmed that 528 homes, three facilities and one outbuilding were saved from last week’s fires, which burned through 2,800 hectares over three days.

The fire, which started in Casula on Saturday, was eventually contained by backburning efforts on Monday, prompting a downgrade to a “controlled” fire. The blaze is being treated as suspicious, with NSW Police investigating it as a possible deliberate lighting.

Calls for ban on live sheep export to Middle East

A video has recently emerged showing thousands of sheep dying from heat stress while being exported from Australia to the Middle East last year. This has driven public outcry against the live export industry in general, and several have called for a complete ban of live sheep exports to the Middle East. Among the critics is Coalition backbencher Sussan Ley, who intends to introduce a bill to this effect next month.

At the same time, the live export industry has now agreed to discuss the idea of an independent inspector to oversee the wellbeing of livestock used for live export — an idea that was previously put forward by Labor in 2013, but scrapped by then-Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.

NT lifts ban on fracking

Chief Minister Michael Gunner has announced that the Northern Territory Government will lift the ban on onshore gas fracking (hydraulic fracturing) in the territory. The first exploratory frackings are due to occur early next year following the implementation of a regulatory regime.

The move comes after an independent report was handed down by Justice Rachel Pepper of the NSW Land and Environment Court, which found that the risks associated with fracking could be managed and regulated.

World

Facebook to exclude 1.5 billion users from EU data protection law

Facebook announced this week that it is making changes to put almost 1.5 billion users outside the scope of the European Union’s General Data Retention Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR allows heavy fines to be imposed if a service provider collects or uses personal data without a user’s consent. These fines can be up to 4% of service provider’s global annual revenue.

Currently Facebook users outside Canada and the United States are handled by the Company’s international headquarters in Ireland, and as a result would have been covered by the GDPR when it takes effect in 25 May. But Facebook will now switch these customers to the Company’s headquarters in San Francisco.

The GDPR also requires that users are able to access their data, can have it erased at their request, and can transfer data between different services themselves. Users outside the EU would come under the GDPR if the service was provided by an EU-based entity, like Facebook’s Irish subsidiary.

Facebook has insisted the move is of limited significance, as it imposes global privacy protections regardless of whether users are serviced by Facebook Inc or Facebook Ireland. However, users will not be able to launch complaints with Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner, and will instead be governed by American privacy laws, which are considered more lenient.

Judge plans to call up to 1000 potential jurors for El Chapo trial

Judge Brian Cogan of the United States Federal District Court of the Eastern District of New York said on Tuesday that he intends to call 800–1000 potential jurors for the trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Mexican cartel leader being tried for drug trafficking and conspiracy charges.

Judge Cogan said that the potential jurors would arrive in late-July to early-August to receive questionnaires for the September trial. The large number is a reflection of the difficulty of choosing impartial jurors for the internationally-notorious leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. Guzman was extradited to the United States in January 2017 after being arrested by Mexican authorities a year earlier.

Prosecutors alleged that Guzman, 61, ran a massive cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine trafficking operation that was at the centre of Mexico’s long-standing war on drugs, in which more than 100,000 people have been killed. Judge Cogan ordered in February that jurors’ identities will be kept secret to protect their safety.

Cuba set to elect first non-Castro leader since 1959

Raúl Castro, Fidel Castro’s brother, has just retired as the President of Cuba. He announced that he would be leaving the post several years back, and paved the way for his vice-president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, to take over from him.

While this may seem like a big change, it is unlikely to make much difference; Diaz-Canel is a solid Communist supporter, and is likely to focus on maintaing the support of long-term conservative backers rather than catering to younger Cubans wanting change.

SpaceX launches NASA space telescope

Last Wednesday a new satellite designed to search for planets, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (or TESS), was launched into space. For something a little different, it got there aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The satellite will do similar work to what NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has done in the past; but while Kepler identified around 2300 planets outside our solar system, TESS is expected to find around 10 times that amount.

The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope is also slated to launch in 2020, and will improve on this work even further.

Prince Charles formally appointed Elizabeth II’s designated successor as head of the Commonwealth

In her opening speech to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Queen Elizabeth II indicated her preference that her eldest son, Prince Charles, be appointed her designated successor of the head of the Commonwealth of Nations.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government obliged and duly appointed Charles as her designated successor. The succession of the head of the Commonwealth of Nations is neither hereditary nor automatic, and there had been talks in recent years of democratising the process with an elected leader.

The Queen has been head of the Commonwealth of Nations for 71 years, recently turning 92, and is the longest-reigning British monarch. Her son Charles, Prince of Wales, is currently 69, and is the longest-serving British heir apparent.