The case for a federal ICAC: QCs versus the service commissioner

Senior officials are pushing back against the idea of a federal ICAC, as a parliamentary committee decides whether to expand the powers of the integrity commission.

QCs lined up to push for a federal corruption watchdog this week, but senior officials are pushing back against the idea of independent oversight. Public service commissioner Stephen Sedgwick was among those quick to defend the Australian public service culture as a goldfish bowl of transparency, resilient to the problems seen at recent state commissions and declaring “the reward is not worth the cost” of changing the current system.

A parliamentary committee is deciding whether to expand the powers of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity to encompass the entire federal bureaucracy — for cases like the Australian Wheat Board oil-for-wheat scandal. Currently ACLEI has jurisdiction over just six agencies officially designated responsible for law enforcement functions — and in some cases only over specific staff within those agencies — while an official sitting at the next desk is immune.

However, the inquiry keeps coming back to the idea of creating a new federal anti-corruption commission that is independent of law enforcement agencies, government or the Parliament.

Former court of appeal judge Stephen Charles QC said the current system requires the voluntary co-operation of a large group of government bodies, but as nobody has ultimate responsibility, it was easy for resource-strapped agencies to assume nothing was going wrong because somebody else was paying attention. Pushing for a new independent commission on behalf of the Accountability Round Table — an advocacy body of retired judges, journalists and parliamentary officers — Charles said ACLEI was not a body that stands alone:

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  • Peter Timmins

    The pushback has launched successfully with the government convinced by someone somewhere in the system that the way to ‘ease the burden on FOI applicants’ is to abolish the office of the information commissioner. Irony of irony, the bill was introduced in the House on Thursday by Scott Morrison, minister for ‘tone at the top’ when it comes to transparency.

    Allan Hawke concluded in a review undertaken in 2012-13 that the establishment of the OAIC “has been a very valuable and positive development in oversight and promotion of the FOI Act.” There were plenty of other options to fix problems at the OAIC ( resources, powers for example) rather than removing from the scene the independent monitor of FOI performance and leader of the ever so slow shift towards a pro disclosure culture.