Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers has had a few tough words to say of late about the PricewaterhouseCoopers scandal, but no one should expect to see any real sanctions meted out to the giant accountancy firm.
PwC is too close to the government and to Chalmers himself for there to be any serious consequences for what was an appalling breach of trust against the Australian people and parliament.
What PwC Australia did demonstrated unethical behaviour of the highest degree and there should be a penalty commensurate to the offence.
But let’s not hold our breath.
Calls for a federal police investigation are being led by the Greens.
They even have independent legal advice saying the AFP should investigate if and/or how the criminal code and the Proceeds of Crime Act might apply to what went down.
What went down was a PwC partner, who was meant to be giving expert advice to Treasury over ways to improve tax laws, was, in fact, sharing confidential information to help the firm’s own clients get ahead of the game.
The information leak in 2016 was extensive, involving dozens of PwC partners and staff who, in turn, passed it on to at least 14 of the firm’s clients.
It was PwC telling multinational companies how to avoid paying millions of dollars in Australian taxes.
This was more than outrageous. It was treacherous behaviour.
But that doesn’t mean the government is going to call in the police.
The Treasurer has used strong enough language – “shocking breach of trust”, “completely inappropriate”, “deeply, deeply troubling” and “inexcusable, frankly” – and just yesterday (22 May) he promised that he will “have more to say about PwC and the Treasury” and that he is working “almost literally right now” on further steps to take.
Now is the time for a very firm step away from any behaviour that could be construed as the Treasurer himself being too close to PwC for him to take any real action.
On 21 November last year, Dr Chalmers was the guest of honour at an event billed as a “Boardroom Dinner with the Hon Jim Chalmers MP”, an ALP fundraiser charging guests up to $5000 each to attend.
The boardroom where it took place was the Canberra offices of PwC on Sydney Avenue, Forrest.
Dr Chalmers was seated at the head of the table with barely 15 others in the room.
To his immediate left sat Sean Gregory, who until very recently, was PwC’s chief strategy and reputation officer.
Gregory went to great lengths at the meeting to tell those in attendance how close he was to the Treasurer and how he had spent many hours (on planes and in airport lounges) discussing policy and being all-around social – which the Treasurer acknowledged.
Gregory is one of three senior PwC executives to have stepped aside from their leadership roles in the wake of the scandal – a list that includes financial advisory head Pete Calleja and the former chief executive Tom Seymour.
The partner who initially distributed the confidential information, Peter-John Collins, left the firm in October last year before a Tax Practitioners Board investigation found him guilty of integrity breaches and deregistered him as a tax agent.
But the Treasurer, at the time of a TPB investigation into the breach, was breaking bread on the ground floor of PwC’s Canberra offices with the firm’s highest executives because PwC was sponsoring and hosting the Labor fundraiser.
Treasurers do things like that and cosy up to corporate giants to help the party coffers.
Allianz’s chief corporate affairs officer Nicholas Schofield was there, as was QBE’s Asia Pacific chief executive officer Sue Houghton.
But there’s little reputational risk for such business leaders in attending big-dollar fundraisers like that.
There is no suggestion any of the guests in attendance would have even been aware of the PwC incident at the time.
But the Federal Treasurer should have known – the TPB investigation was completed a week earlier.
Dr Chalmers has been asked about his attendance at the fundraiser, only to dismiss it as an event “organised by the party organisation” and stressing that he has “taken a really hard position against” the PwC breach of trust.
Just how hard that position ultimately is, we will hopefully find out soon enough.
But no one should be expecting the Federal Treasurer or the Albanese Federal Government to be going too hard against one of their corporate mates.