New ICAC, old problem: NT corruption watchdog at full capacity after just 100 days

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday March 19, 2019

The Northern Territory’s new Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, Ken Fleming, is investigating serious allegations that already have the office working at full capacity, and he wants more sources to come forward if they can give him a lead on potential wrongdoing.

The commissioner has learned of multiple “serious matters that require investigation and hearing” among more than 100 concerning reports that have all his staff members fully occupied. The government has just put in place a staffing cap but said Cabinet could approve special allocations, and Fleming has hinted he might give it a try.

“The recent NT Government staffing cap is noted,” he writes in a report on the office’s first 100 days. “However, the Office of the ICAC is an election promise, a front-line service and responsible for generational change.”

Ken Fleming QC

The commissioner’s report, published last Thursday, points out the most serious investigations take months at least, often several years. He doubts the flow of reports will slow down anytime soon, but for obvious reasons, would still prefer anyone with a tale of corruption or misconduct, based on a reasonable suspicion or their own involvement, did not wait to come forward and tell it.

“The powers of the ICAC are broad and our reach is very deep, and not coming forward could have serious consequences for those involved in, or aware of, improper conduct,” Fleming warns.

In the commissioner’s view, public administration is no less susceptible to corruption in the NT than anywhere else, based on the allegations he has received so far.

“I have received reports of serious corruption and I intend to investigate these matters to the full extent of my powers to bring those responsible to account,” said Fleming.

“I will use the powers of this position carefully, and I may exonerate people accused of improper conduct where there is no basis for allegations.”

Most NT ICAC staff are employed under public service legislation but also go through a swearing-in process—adapted from those used by similar agencies elsewhere—and follow additional guidelines on certain topics including independence, conflicts of interest, acting as an authorised ICAC officer, privacy, confidentiality and whistleblower protections.

“The swearing in process is just one measure to protect the privacy of those people who report improper conduct to the ICAC,” explains its report.

“There are strict protections in place for persons who make a report, also known as a ‘protected communication’. Persons who make a protected communication incur no civil or criminal liability and do not become subject to disciplinary action (or other adverse administrative action) for doing so. The making of a report is deemed a protected action, and a protected communication remains privileged, even in an action for defamation.”

As well as special rules for his support staff, Fleming has issued official guidelines and directions on whistleblower protections and mandatory reporting obligations for public officials, public bodies and the general public.

Services and resources to help agencies resist corruption

The commissioner will only comment publicly on specific cases in “exceptional circumstances, and when it is in the public interest to do so” but, the report adds, he is keen to make sure NT public servants are well aware of his role and the new legislation.

Training, services and resources are all on the way to support the proactive task of building integrity, and the ICAC has established a prevention unit focusing on building awareness, encouraging whistleblowers and alerting NT public administrators to corruption risks.

“In the first 100 days, the ICAC has met with hundreds of public officers from more than a dozen public sector agencies to increase their understanding of their roles and responsibilities under the Act. This work will continue and a formal training regime will commence in coming months.

“One of the ICAC’s important functions is providing risk-based forecasting and analysis to public administration to improve the public sector’s capacity to actively resist corruption. Over coming weeks and months, the Office of the ICAC will begin publishing intelligence products including case studies, guidelines and toolkits, to help identify and mitigate corruption risks.”

The office is also busy establishing working relationships with other integrity bodies and other organs of the wider public sector, according to the report, and found the time to come up with a business case for a new specialised IT system, designed for securely managing confidential investigations.

A quarter of allegations Fleming has received to date fell into the most serious category, corruption, according to the report. Just under half were described as claims of misconduct, the second-most serious, and another 10.8% alleged behaviour that was merely unsatisfactory.

The majority—60.8%—related to government agencies, while 17.5% concerned the police. Both councils and the courts each contributed 5% of the total, a further 3.3% related to organisations outside the NT government, and 8.4% were outside the ICAC’s jurisdiction.

Exactly a third were listed as general dishonesty. Inappropriate performance of functions and misuse of resources were the next most common types of misconduct, at 11.7% each – equal to the “other” category.

There were also equal numbers of complaints about potential conflicts of interest, breaches of public trust and misuse of official information; each made up a 7.5% slice of the total.

Dishonesty specifically “related to employment” was alleged in 5% of reports — double the number that described “anti-democratic behaviour” —while complaints of retribution and reprisals were the least common, amounting to only 1.6% of the caseload.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals