The findings of a 2021 investigation into the conduct of ASIC’s deputy chair have become the subject of intense political debate, with accusations of a cover-up directed at the government.
Last week, the Senate ordered Treasury to hand over the full report of its inquiries into the behaviour of Australian Securities and Investments Commission deputy chair Karen Chester.
But Treasurer Jim Chalmers has made a public interest immunity claim based on privacy concerns to avoid releasing the document.
He said publishing the report would cause “undue prejudice to Ms Chester” and “unreasonably infringe the privacy of individuals”.
The Treasurer said information was provided to the review in confidence and by confidential informants.
“The confidential informants co-operated with the review in the expectation that their identities would remain confidential,” Dr Chalmers said in a letter to the Senate.
“A number of these informants continue to work in ASIC … There is the potential for those informants to experience additional prejudice should their identity as informants be made public.”
There was public interest, Dr Chalmers said, in preserving the “integrity of fact-finding investigations regarding an individual’s conduct” so that the “complainants continue to feel comfortable” raising allegations about possible misconduct.
According to an Australian Financial Review report, the government paid law firm Seyfarth Shaw about $180,000 to investigate Ms Chester’s conduct after complaints were made against her by ASIC officials.
Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg says the report should be released in full because so much taxpayer money was used on the investigation.
“We don’t need to know personal, sensitive information, but we deserve to know the findings,” he said.
“The Treasurer should have ended this embarrassing cover-up. Instead, Mr Chalmers is now a central player in the great ASIC cover-up.”
Complaints against Mr Chester related to allegations of “disrespectful and contemptuous” conduct towards both junior and senior ASIC staff, with accusations of regular door slamming and shouting.
The Senate had previously heard that the report found accusations against Ms Chester could be “wholly or partially substantiated as to the fact that specific things occurred” but that there was “insufficient basis” to remove her from office.
In a Senate estimates hearing, ASIC chair Joe Longo said the investigation had “mixed findings”, whereas Ms Chester told the same hearing there were “no adverse findings”.
Senator Bragg described the comments as ASIC leaders giving contradictory evidence.
He said the corporate watchdog’s reputation was now on the line.
“I am concerned that the two leading office holders at ASIC cannot agree on an internal matter,” Senator Bragg said.
“To me, it shows the culture of the organisation is troubled … I have asked ASIC how the ‘no adverse findings’ statement complies with the Senate Privilege Resolution 6(12), which provides that the giving of any evidence that a witness knows to be false or misleading may be treated by the Senate as a contempt.”
The Coalition joined the Greens and other crossbench senators to vote in favour of ordering Treasury to produce the report in full and will now decide the next step in light of Dr Chalmers’ written intervention.