The government could require real estate agents to report suspicious real estate purchases by foreign buyers as part of efforts to strengthen anti-money laundering protections.

Parliament’s joint public accounts and audit committee is considering deficiencies in data on the federal government’s crackdown on foreign property buyers.

On Wednesday Australian Taxation Office officials said they had conducted 4600 investigations into potential breaches of the rules on property ownership since 2015, identifying more than 1500 breaches.

Fines for foreign ownership of property in Australia have totalled more than $7 million.

The purchase of the $39 million Point Piper home Villa Del Mare was found to have breached foreign ownership rules.
The purchase of the $39 million Point Piper home Villa Del Mare was found to have breached foreign ownership rules.

Foreign investors are required to gain approval before buying real estate in Australia, with residential rules banning the purchase of existing properties but not new builds.

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ATO deputy commissioner Mark Konza told the committee formal disposal orders had been issued for 75 properties since 2015, worth a combined $135 million.

A further 156 properties around Australia have been sold in voluntary disposals by foreign investors, worth a combined $150 million.

The Australian National Audit Office found in June the crackdown, first announced by the Turnbull government in the 2015-16 budget, was still only “becoming effective” and the ATO faced considerable challenges in getting reliable data because of delays in collecting information by the states and territories.

Report suspicions

Mr Konza said the ATO was beefing up data matching techniques to improve strike rates in compliance within the foreign investor market.

Labor MP Julian Hill said real estate agents remained “cowboys” in Australia’s anti-money laundering regime, and were not required to report suspicions of possible breaches.

“The obligation falls on the purchaser, and [agents] owe professional obligations to their client to ensure that they don’t lead their client into breaking the law,” Mr Konza said.

Treasury’s principal adviser on foreign investment, Jessica Robinson, said penalties existed for intermediaries found to have facilitated breaches of the real estate rules.

“That is a specific component that was introduced in the 2015 reforms, to strengthen the regulation of real estate investment,” she said.

Mr Hill asked if new mandatory reporting rules were needed to help crack down on suspicious activity involving foreign buyers.

High-profile breaches 

Ms Robinson agreed under current rules agents were required to stop participation in any potential breach but not to make reports to authorities.

“I think that’s something that we could potentially look into,” she said.

“I think there are other agencies looking through the anti-money laundering regime, those types of obligations.

“We can take that on.”

The ATO took over responsibility for tracking foreign residential ownership from Treasury in 2015.

Among high-profile breaches of the rules was the $39 million Point Piper home, Villa Del Mare, owned by Chinese billionaire Xu Jiayin. It was subsequently disposed to an Australian citizen, Lola Wang Li.

Former treasurer Joe Hockey reported his neighbour, Chinese businessman Sam Guo, who owned a house in the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill.

Foreign Investment Review Board figures show proposed Chinese investment in Australian real estate has halved to $15.2 billion as domestic capital controls and increased taxes lower demand overseas.

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