Timeline: Federal Anti-Corruption Watchdog Overdue

The Australia Institute has today published a timeline which highlights key milestones and moments on the road towards a federal anti-corruption watchdog, including a log of claims from the Attorney General that such legislation was forthcoming.

“A federal anti-corruption watchdog won’t fix democracy but it is a prerequisite to a healthy functioning one,” said Ben Oquist, executive director of the Australia Institute.

“Every time one of these scandals emerges, it builds public pressure for a federal anti-corruption watchdog but conversely, it makes a Federal Government more wary of having one.

“A federal integrity body doesn’t just work to weed out the bad apples, but crucially, helps protect the vast majority of politicians who do the right thing. An anti-corruption watchdog helps safeguard our democracy by giving the community confidence that the majority are doing the right thing.

“If the Commonwealth Integrity Commission legislation was ‘ready to go’ before the pandemic, the Attorney General could have chosen to release it as an exposure draft for public consultation. There are certainly many critics of the current model, but whatever your view, having a good debate on the model and the finer details certainly has merit even if the Parliament is running out of time to legislate,” Mr Oquist said.

The Australia Institute’s National Integrity Committee of former judges has designed a blueprint of design principles to advise policymakers on the best model for a federal anti-corruption watchdog. (see here: https://www.tai.org.au/content/corruption-fighters-and-former-judges-design-national-corruption-watchdog )

The National Integrity Committee’s Principles for Designing a National Integrity Commission are:

  1. That the Commission is an independent statutory body that is provided with the required resourcing to enable it to promote integrity and accountability and to enable it to prevent, investigate and expose corruption.
  2. That the Commission has a broad jurisdiction, including the ability to investigate any conduct of any person that adversely affects or could adversely affect, directly or indirectly, the honest or impartial exercise of public administration, if the Commissioner deems the conduct to be serious or systemic.
  3. That the Commission be granted the investigative powers of a Royal Commission to undertake its work, to be executed at the discretion of the Commissioner.
  4. That the Commission may hold a public inquiry providing it is satisfied that opening the inquiry to the public will make the investigation to which the inquiry relates more effective, and would be in the public interest.
  5. That the Commission be governed by one Chief Commissioner and two Deputy Commissioners, appointed by the Minister on recommendations from a bipartisan Parliamentary committee. The Chief Commissioner is to be appointed for fixed non-renewable 5 year terms, and must be a judge or a retired judge or be qualified for appointment as a judge.
  6. That the Commission be empowered to make findings of fact, to be referred to a well-resourced and specialised unit within the DPP for consideration for prosecution.

While the Australia Institute would refer to our Principles for Designing a National Integrity Commission as the blueprint for the best model for a federal anti-corruption watchdog, there are many lessons learned from state corruption commissions (Full Australia Institute briefing note of comparison and key differences here , problems with Tas IC here )

Most notably

  • NSW ICAC is the only state corruption commission that regularly holds hearings as part of investigations, and the only one that can make findings of corrupt conduct
  • NSW ICAC has greater powers and capacity than other state’s agencies
  • For example:
    • SA ICAC cannot open corruption investigations to the public and is not properly resourced;
    • Victoria’s IBAC can only investigate if there is reasonable suspicion of a criminal offence;
    • QLD Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) cannot make findings of corrupt conduct
    • Tas IC has never held a full inquiry using all of its investigative powers, has to conduct a long process of assessments, reports, minor investigations and reports to the Board before it can begin a full inquiry; requirement that complaints be made in writing in an approved form means that had the NSW ICAC investigation into Eddie Obeid occurred in Tasmania it would not have ever got started, as it began with an anonymous phone call.

The Commonwealth Integrity Commission timeline is available for download here.

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