Ibac frenzy exposes wide divide between Victorian and federal Liberals

Centre for Public Integrity

There was a wide divide exposed between the federal Coalition government and Victoria’s Liberal leadership that many people missed this week.

With integrity becoming a key issue in the federal campaign, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, was decrying the prospect of a “kangaroo court” where a premier could be grilled publicly without being accused of corruption.

Meanwhile, Victorian Liberals were angered that the premier, Daniel Andrews, was questioned as a witness – with no allegation of wrongdoing against him made – in two private hearings of the state’s corruption watchdog, the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (Ibac).

According to reports, the premier was interviewed as part of Ibac’s inquiry into an alleged cash-for-access scandal involving a property developer, local councillors and MPs, and another inquiry into alleged branch stacking in the Victorian Labor party and the misuse of public funds.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Andrews.

But it didn’t stop the opposition from trying and failing to pass a motion in parliament – described as a stunt – calling for the Labor leader to stand down.

Before the final vote on David Davis’s motion, opposition MPs and members of the crossbench, including the former Labor minister Adem Somyurek – who himself is being investigated by Ibac – accused the premier of lacking integrity.

“Why won’t he be upfront with Victorians? Because he has something to hide. Because he is a man who is steeped in deception and disingenuity and quite frankly does not believe in what integrity means to a decent society. I find it absolutely extraordinary,” the Liberal MP Georgie Crozier told parliament.

Davis told parliament: “Why can’t he be direct and just say, ‘Look, yes, I’ve been there. There was a matter under investigation, and it was on this date I spent an hour and a half’ – or 2 hours or 4 hours – ‘there under investigation’?”

The problem is, Andrews might well be unable to answer any of those questions without committing an offence.

According to the laws governing Ibac, witnesses can be issued with confidentiality notices, restricting them from speaking about an investigation. In some cases, witnesses are unable to say whether they are even subject to such a notice.

This is done to protect Ibac’s investigations, the safety or reputation of a person or the ability of a person who has been or may be charged with an offence to get a fair trial.

But what it also does, as it has in these circumstances, is allow for speculation to run rife.

Ibac is also hampered by the high bar it needs to meet to hold public hearings. Currently, the commission may only order a person to appear as a witness in a public hearing if it considers there are exceptional circumstances or when it is in the public interest to do so.

The risk of causing unreasonable damage to a person’s reputation, safety or wellbeing also has to be taken into account.

This contrasts with Australia’s oldest anti-corruption body – the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac), which can hold public inquiries, compulsory examinations or both.

Geoffrey Watson, a former counsel assisting for Icac and now the director of the Centre for Public Integrity, described Ibac as a “poor model”.

“Ibac is better than some, and not as good as it could’ve been. The original design was much closer to the NSW model, and Ibac is seriously hampered in its performance by the restrictions on it holding public hearings,” he told Guardian Australia.

The Ibac commissioner, Robert Redlich, told a parliamentary inquiry on Monday that public hearings were “still the most effective way of developing trust in institutions that have to investigate and expose corruption”.

“I don’t think there’s a doubt that by placing matters in the public domain one is best able to ensure that there is a public and executive government appetite to embrace reforms that are exposed when particular wrongdoing is revealed.”

Earlier this month, the Coalition opposition promised to boost both agencies’ funding, by $10m and $4m a year respectively, in a bid to rebuild a “system of integrity and honesty in government”. It also committed to give Ibac broader powers for public hearings.

More public hearings would undeniably stop speculation from running wild. How that balance can be achieved is a matter that Liberals must grapple with at both the state and federal levels.

Written by Benita Kovolos. Originally published by the Guardian on May 14 2022.

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