No. 216

THE CASE FOR A FEDERAL ANTI-CORRUPTION COMMISSION

 

Stone the crows! A FAC (Fraud and Anti-Corruption) doth not an ICAC make.

 

The feds announced a fraud and anti-corruption centre the other day – run by the Australian Federal Police and including people from DFAT, the ATO and sundry other agencies.[i] The timing was predictable coming after news in a case connecting Australia with claimed corruption in other countries was suppressed by Victorian Supreme Court order.[ii]

But no matter how assiduous the AFP and associates, a FAC doth not an ICAC make. A super squad of coppers and departmental officials will not have the independence necessary to assure the community that that they hunt baddies in their own bureaucracies. Which makes the Crows wonder why the feds fail to establish a standing anti-corruption agency as exists in the states.

One argument against a national ICAC is that the level of scrutiny of the commonwealth government is much higher than in the states and that there are fewer honey pots to pilfer. To which the Crows just caw. According to the ABC, federal agencies reported 2000 cases of corruption between 2008 and 2011.[iii]

Then there are matters that end up before courts or inquiries, Peter Slipper and wineries, for example and wheat for oil, both of which could have been more assiduously pursued from the start by a standing agency. The Commonwealth also hands out enough cash to attract the avaricious. There were calls last year for an agency that could investigate possible fraud in the way Centrelink leased accommodation.[iv] Medicare fraud seems low level, 19 doctors were required to repay $1m between them in 2012-13, but with the Commonwealth spending $47bn on health surely opportunities abound. [v]

So it’s unsurprising that calls for a national anti-corruption commission are certainly not new, dating from the 1980s.[vi]  In 2005, Transparency International urged a federal accountability and anti-corruption agency, covering officials and MPs alike.[vii]

And the calls have continued. Some from significant sources. Like anti-corruption campaigner Bob Bottom and sometime independent MPs Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott as well as Senator Nick Xenophon. [viii]

But the Greens are also in on the act. Last November leader Christine Milne introduced the party’s third bill since 2010 for a national integrity commission, charged with “the investigation and prevention of misconduct and corruption in all Commonwealth departments, agencies, and federal parliamentarians and their staff; the investigation and prevention of corruption in the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crime Commission; and independent advice to ministers and parliamentarians on conduct, ethics and matters of propriety.” [ix]

Senator Milne’s second reading speech was full of ideology, allegations and a body of criticism against MPs she does not approve of.[x]

Which rather explains why the plan is unpopular – what minister of any party wants to give the Greens an opportunity to build a tower on the moral high ground they believe is theirs by right?

As John Faulkner (Labor, NSW) a long-time campaigner for electoral funding reform warned, any “new federal anticorruption commission must fully respect the rights of citizens. In particular, we must ensure that those who appear before such a commission only as witnesses do not have their reputations damaged or sullied because of such an appearance.” [xi]

But Barry O’Sullivan (LNP Queensland) nailed the substantial reason why an ICAC is not necessarily the answer to the question of corruption:

Adding additional levels of bureaucracy does not in and of itself indicate that there will be any reduction in corrupt activities. It has been suggested that the establishment of such an anticorruption body would be a political response to scandal and provide a mechanism for political leaders to reassure voters and reformists that action is being taken to bring corruption under control. The extent to which the objectives of a new agency reflect a desire for systemic change, as opposed to scoring political points, is rarely clear and is rarely intended to be clear.[xii]

It also occurs to the Crows that the Greens will always welcome a chance to impose an unelected agency on parliamentarians as a means of extending agendas that a majority of electors will never endorse, just as the party bangs on incessantly about domestic obligations imposed by UN agreements. [xiii]

But the risk is probably worth it. Ideologues like the Greens and populists like the PUPs prosper when the community loses confidence in Labor and the Coalition – what we are watching in Canberra with the budget stalled in the Senate is the antithesis of good government.

In any case, the scrutiny of federal politics is such that even minor wrongdoing (in terms of the amount of money involved) of the Slipper sort is surely uncommon. A federal ICAC would likely focus on the public service and if it found itself with not much to do – so much the better.

On Saturday, the Commonwealth advertised for a commissioner to lead the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity. The commission “is responsible for detecting and preventing corrupt conduct and investigating corruption issues,” in “Australian Government agencies with law enforcement functions.” The Commissioner has “a range of law enforcement and special investigative powers, including the power to hold coercive hearings”. [xiv]

Sounds like a standing anti-corruption commission to the Crows – so if it applies to coppers why not MPs and public servants?

 

 

Stephen4@hotkey.net.au

Opinions explained and cases made. Call Stephen Matchett 0417 469 093

 

 

ENDNOTES

 

[i] Dan Box, “AFP to lead government corruption pursuit,” The Australian July 31

[ii] Anne Hyland, “Corruption case gag order stifles public right to know,” Australian Financial Review, August 1

[iii] Linton Besser, Ges D’Souza and Mario Christodoilou, “National anti-corruption plan prepared by Attorney-General’s Department did not include independent watchdog,” ABC, Four Corners, June 23 @ http://goo.gl/pkfnX6 recovered on August 2

[iv] AAP, “Federal anti-corruption body needed,” The Australian, April 10 2013

[v] Sophie Scott and Alison Branley, “Australian Medicare fraud revealed in new figures: 1 160 tip-offs so far this financial year,” ABC News, March 7 @ http://goo.gl/9cEvoy recovered on August 2, Department of Health, “2014-15 Portfolio Budget Statements,” May 13 @ http://goo.gl/kZHXUA recovered on August 2

[vi] Cat Barker, “The latest proposal for a national integrity commission,” Flagpost: information and research from the Parliamentary Library, December 10 2013 @ http://goo.gl/xcmRw7 recovered on August 2

[vii] Transparency International and Griffith University, “Chaos or Coherence: strengths, opportunities and challenges for Australia’s integrity systems, “ December 2005 @ http://goo.gl/ThRCz7

[viii] Bob Bottom, “Lack of federal integrity commission a national scandal” The Australian, December 29 2012

[ix] Parliament of Australia, “National Integrity Commission Bill 2013,” nd @ http://goo.gl/JSTlq6 recovered on August 2

[x] Senator Milne, second reading speech, “National Integrity Commission Bill 2013, Senate, May 15 2014 http://goo.gl/kRMu7u recovered on August 2

[xi] Senator John Faulkner, second reading speech op cit

[xii] Senator Barry O’Sullivan, second reading speech op cit

[xiii] The Greens, “International law” @ http://goo.gl/MHqGnD recovered on August 2

[xiv] The Australian, August 2

'2012