A government senator has called for more heads to roll inside consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers over the sharing of confidential policy information while on contract to the Australian Public Service.
The call follows the resignation this week of PwC’s chief executive officer Tom Seymour over the fallout from a highly publicised scandal involving a former PwC partner.
Former partner Peter-John Collins lost his tax agent registration for two years after a Tax Practitioners Board investigation found him guilty of integrity breaches.
The investigation began shortly after Mr Collins left PwC in October last year.
It revealed that while a partner of PwC, Mr Collins was part of a confidential Treasury consultation about improving tax laws to stop multinational tax avoidance.
The TPB found Mr Collins made unauthorised disclosures of this confidential law reform information and, in so doing, failed to act with integrity, as required under his professional, ethical and legal obligations.
The incident sparked an ongoing Senate inquiry into the integrity of consultants to the federal government and has placed a spotlight on the big contracting firms.
In the Senate chamber on Wednesday (10 May), Labor Senator Deborah O’Neill delivered a brutal assessment of the incident, saying it was a “major cancer” and a “deception of the Australian parliament, the Australian people and a betrayal of the ethical and professional standards they should be upholding”.
She suggested more resignations might be necessary, as many PwC executives received the confidential information, which could have been used to boost their profits.
“This is a major cancer on the way that information that is vital to the national interest is being undertaken by those at PwC,” Senator O’Neill said.
“We have had a resignation from Seymour as a chief executive. He remains a partner.
“There are many more questions than answers, and I will not let this go, in the interests of the nation.”
The senator suggested PwC and other consultancy firms could have engaged in numerous breaches without them being uncovered.
But she did not go as far as calling for PwC to be banned from future government contracts.
Greens Senator Barbara Pocock, who spearheaded the Senate inquiry, called for consultancy firms that break the rules to be banned.
She said breaches were not just the fault of one maverick individual, but that companies as a whole should pay a price.
Last week before hearings of the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee scrutinising integrity in consulting services, the Australia Institute think tank joined the call for harsh penalties.
The institute’s democracy and accountability director Bill Browne gave evidence suggesting consultants to the government are often a law unto themselves and that examples must be made to stamp out corruption.
“Consulting firms charge through the roof for advice that is often simplistic, flawed or self-interested – or has been specifically commissioned to further the government’s preconceived agenda,” he said.
“Consultants seem to have no moral qualms about taking public money to deliver advice that is against the public interest.
“At their worst, consulting firms have leaked confidential government information to drum up business and potentially help their multinational clients avoid paying millions of dollars in tax.
“PricewaterhouseCoopers has abused the public’s trust by leaking government tax plans, and a proportionate response would be a ban on PwC receiving government contracts or confidential information until it has earned back that trust.”