Still in the dark, with governor on the defensive

THE testimony given yesterday by the RBA governor, Glenn Stevens, about the Reserve's handling of the bank-note bribery scandal was faltering, defensive and, at times, evasive.

It was in keeping with Mr Stevens's past appearance at the committee and highlighted again the need for a proper inquiry into the affair.

Mr Stevens was asked about briefings given to senior officers of the RBA in 2007 about bribery and corruption in its subsidiaries.

The facts are clear. A briefing was given to the RBA deputy governor Ric Battellino by Brian Hood, the company secretary of RBA firm Note Printing Australia. The briefings raised serious allegations of bribery and corruption, including the claim that a Malaysian agent was paying off politicians.

Earlier this month, the federal police told Parliament it expected serious bribery allegations received by a Commonwealth agency to be reported to police.

But the RBA didn't call in the cops in 2007. The AFP were only called after it was reported by the Herald and The Age in 2009. Even then, the RBA didn't immediately hand over a damning 2007 memo written by Mr Hood.

And, for the past five years, the RBA has chosen not to tell the public or Parliament about the 2007 briefings, even when the opportunity begged.

Instead, Mr Stevens has stuck to the line that the RBA was in the dark about the alleged bribery in its subsidiaries until the 2009 media expose´.

This week, the Herald and the ABC demolished that claim by publishing the contents of the 2007 briefings. The revelations expose a major corporate governance failure at the top of the RBA, as well as an inability to be open about this failure.

At the economics committee yesterday, the Liberal MP Tony Smith asked Mr Stevens when he'd read a 2007 corruption memo addressed to his then deputy, Mr Battellino.

Mr Stevens said that, according to his memory, he didn't read it in 2007 but may have later.

He thought Mr Battellino "may have been shown a copy at some point", despite the fact that the memo was addressed directly to him. But Mr Stevens said he couldn't be "certain of that." Despite the intense media pressure surrounding the issue earlier this week, Mr Stevens said he hadn't spoken to Mr Battellino in the last few days.

Mr Stevens couldn't recall if he was told about Mr Hood's 2007 meeting with Mr Battelino prior to it occurring. Asked if he had read the memo in the lead-up to his February committee appearance, Mr Stevens couldn't recall.

When asked by Mr Smith if it would have been in the "interests of openness" for Mr Battelino (who retired in February) to have told the committee during previous hearings about the explosive 2007 briefings, Mr Stevens answered: "I didn't myself feel that that particular event was of the importance that you seem to feel it is."

This was a remarkable answer: the "particular event" Mr Stevens felt was unimportant involved a senior company executive exposing details of the most serious scandal to hit corporate Australia in decades.

After just several minutes of questioning by Smith, Mr Stevens was thrown a Dorothy Dixer that would make any backbencher proud. Committee chair and Labor MP Julie Owens clumsily tried to give Mr Stevens an out by stating that his past claim that the RBA knew nothing about corruption prior to 2009 had been misrepresented.

Ms Owens claimed that because the RBA corruption briefings in 2007 dealt with Note Printing Australia and not Securency - and because Mr Stevens was responding to questions about Securency when claiming the RBA knew nothing - he was in the clear.

But Mr Hood's 2007 briefings to the RBA dealt with NPA and Securency. His memo clearly stated that both firms were using a potentially corrupt Malaysian middleman.

Mr Hood's briefings also stated that Graeme Thompson, the chairman of NPA, had authorised a payment to this middleman despite probity concerns. Mr Thompson was also the chairman of Securency. The 2007 briefings also accuse Chris Ogilvy, who was the chief executive of NPA and a director of Securency, of malfeasance.

But, instead of ensuring Mr Stevens faced appropriate oversight in her role as committee chair, Ms Owens went in to bat for him. In doing so, she appears to have followed the lead of the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, whose three-years-and-counting response to this growing scandal has been to say nothing and do nothing. By not confronting the unpleasant questions about the RBA and other government agencies that flow from this scandal, the Gillard government is rapidly becoming part of the cover-up.

The story Still in the dark, with governor on the defensive first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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