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ASIC 'shameful' in its conduct towards farmers

A parliamentary committee has heard how the corporate regulator failed to investigate multiple allegations of banking misconduct against Australian farmers.



The country's corporate regulator acted "shamefully" in its failure to investigate dozens of complaints of banking misconduct against farmers, an inquiry has been told.


A Senate committee examining the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) was told the body had declined to look into systemic complaints against banks in the case of farms being repossessed.


Niall Coburn, a lawyer who represented 63 farmers in similar circumstances, said allegations of predatory lending by banks towards farmers had been ignored.


"This alleged misconduct involves all of the major banks in Australia," he said.


"It is a shameful situation that nothing has been done.


"Combined complaints reveal a primary pattern of systemic predatory lending or asset-based lending where loans are being provided on the value of the asset rather than the ability to pay the debt. 


"This conduct has been, is, and was illegal in Australia."


Mr Coburn said the repossession of properties by the banks, which had often been in farming families for generations, had caused "financial and emotional devastation" and had driven some farmers to suicide.


He said lessons taken from the royal commission into the banking sector had failed to be addressed.


"They are still asleep at the wheel ... there are serious, systemic issues in relation to a very important part of Australian society," he said.


"Farmers produce everything for the way that we live.


"They deserve a regulator that fights in their corner and does not allow the banks to do what they would like to do."


ASIC has also come under fire from all sides of politics after it was accused of obstructing parliamentary investigations.


The regulator made public interest immunity claims in response to some of the questions asked by the Senate committee, arguing the disclosure might harm its investigations, damage the reputations of people involved, and prejudice future prosecutions.


The committee has rejected most of those claims.


The committee's chair, Liberal senator Andrew Bragg, said ASIC was going backward in its investigations.


Figures released by the committee from the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecution found the number of referrals made by ASIC had plummeted from 86 in 2018/19 to 41 in 2022/23.


"These figures signal that ASIC has made Australia a haven for white-collar crime," he said.


"ASIC has given up on their sole obligation to enforce corporate law.


"Moreover, the CDPP disclosed that during the same period, the rate of prosecutions initiated from ASIC referrals plummeted from 75 per cent to 19 per cent. 


"These are ugly statistics."


A report will be handed down by June next year.


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