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Reading Room: The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management

24 Dec 2017
Reviewed by Dr Allan Patience

The tongue in cheek title of this book by a highly regarded anti-corruption expert belies its excellence. It is a major and important exercise in scrupulously-researched, brilliantly-documented and eloquently-expressed scholarship.

It’s probably safe to say that governments all over the world are, in varying degrees, corrupt. Political mates are given preference when it comes to awarding lucrative taxpayer-funded contracts. Political cronies are given access to the most senior levels of government that ordinary citizens could never dream of having. Ministers who resign from parliament can immediately take up well-paid consultancies in the private sector, even as they draw their generous post-ministerial pensions.

Of course, it is worse in some countries than others. One former Papua New Guinean Prime Minister, for example, has noted (correctly) that PNG politics is “systemically corrupt” at every level: a view annually confirmed by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Other states are more ambiguously corrupt. As the author observes: “Switzerland has played an outsized role in hosting legitimate and criminal foreign wealth, as well as in the campaign to combat kleptocracy and repatriate looted funds.”

Professor Sharman’s book charts “the rise of a global norm and associated rules prohibiting one country from hosting money stolen by senior officials from another country.” He ponders the reasons for this outburst of apparent international rectitude. He also questions the effectiveness of the measures put in place to curb kleptocrats from laundering their stolen loot through banks and companies overseas. More often than not government officials in those overseas destinations are complicit in the tangled web of international corruption that still exists despite widespread claims that anti-corruption measures have been put in place and are being successfully monitored by the appropriate agencies.

The fact is that the normative and legal developments designed to curb these practices are far more frequently honoured in the breach than in the observance. In a series of fascinating case studies the author shows how states that loudly project images of themselves as morally sound global citizens can, and do, act in deviously grubby ways to facilitate the transfer of ill-gotten wealth from mainly poor countries to rich ones. These case studies include the United States, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The corruption sleaze these countries routinely facilitate casts an ugly shadow over their claims to be honest brokers in a dishonest financial world.

Of particular significance for readers in this country is the chapter on Australia. We have been warned for several years now that Australia has been steadily slipping down Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. The response in Australia has been similar to the response to international criticisms of the country’s increasingly bad reputation for its treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. Put simply, most Australian’s don’t give a fig about either of these very negative measures of their country’s international standing. Together they are evidence of a terrible pall of moral complacency befogging the consciences of most of those who call the island continent home. As Professor Sharman observes: Australia is living in denial.

The author focuses on two major sources of corrupt capital flowing into Australia, almost without any hindrance on the part of governments of all stripes: China and Papua New Guinea. The Chinese case is the more complex of the two and needs to be isolated from the anti-China hysteria being whipped up for very shortsighted political reasons at the present time.

The PNG case is straightforwardly alarming – or it ought to be for all ethically astute Australian citizens. The book documents how senior Papua New Guinean public officials are flagrantly using Australia to launder money corruptly gained in their home country. Many of these criminals are as much (or more) at home in this country than in PNG. The author writes: “Cabinet ministers and other senior officials have often been educated in high schools, universities, or military institutions in Australia, a pattern that is replicated among their children. Many…have established second homes in Australia, and indeed their families may spend more time in Australia as in Papua New Guinea.”

In the face of this kind of evidence Australian officials remain sitting on their hands. The author proposes that the Australian government’s reticence to censure or facilitate the jailing back home of the PNG miscreants arises from its “overwhelming priority…to preserve an earlier deal whereby Papua New Guinea had agreed to act as a detention centre for refugees trying to reach Australia by boat.” So there we have it! Could anything be more morally degrading? How low can this country go? Professor Sharman concludes: “there is an ironic circularity in the financial flows between Papua New Guinea and Australia: large aid payments of up to A$500 million go north, while large flows of illicit wealth come south.” Who benefits?

This is an extremely important book. For those who worry about “globalisation from above” it provides plenty of empirical evidence and analysis to show that the whole global financial structure desperately needs root and branch cleansing. That can only come about if we see a mobilisation of the forces of “globalisation from below.”

J.C. Sharman, The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management: On the International Campaign against Grand Corruption (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2017). ISBN: 9781501705519

Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences in the University of Melbourne. His book, ‘Australian Foreign Policy in Asia: Middle Power or Awkward Partner?’ will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in January 2018.