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Qld corruption watchdog needs a longer leash? Palaszczuk seeks advice

Queenslanders are being asked to reconsider the legislative boundaries around the state’s corruption watchdog but the government is already committed to widening its remit.

Only a few years ago the state government narrowed the range of matters the independent anti-corruption body could investigate, so it could focus its time and resources on the more serious end of the spectrum. The Western Australian government made a similar move midway through last year, leaving less serious matters to agencies themselves and the WA Public Service Commission.

The previous Queensland government did this by raising the legislative threshold for bad behaviour that could be investigated by the independent commission, in response to a review by former High Court Justice Ian Callinan and University of Queensland professor Nicholas Aroney.

At the same time it renamed it from the Crime and Misconduct Commission to the Crime and Corruption Commission, and set it after newly defined “corrupt conduct” rather than the “official misconduct” that was the CMC’s domain.

The current government claims an election mandate to turn back the other direction and “widen the definition” of corrupt conduct. It has released an issues paper to stimulate public comment by reminding Queenslanders of the past changes and their justifications, as well as objections that were raised at the time.

Department of Justice and Attorney-General head David Mackie is also writing to all public service bosses for their views on how the responsibilities for dealing with different kinds of bad behaviour should be divided up.

Currently the CCC can refer complaints to agencies or public sector business units and monitor how they are dealt with. It is expected to work co-operatively with the rest of the public sector in rooting our corruption. The issues paper explains:

“Where appropriate, actions to deal with corrupt conduct should generally happen within the unit of public administration, subject to the capacity of the unit of public administration to deal with the matter and public interest principles.

“The Public Service Commission has a role in reviewing the responses of public sector agencies to work performance matters that are outside of the definition of ‘corrupt conduct’ in the [legislation].”

Likewise, the police commissioner mainly deals with police misconduct that doesn’t meet the corruption threshold but can ask the CCC to assist. The watchdog can also look over the police commissioner’s shoulder and take over the investigation.

The discussion paper asks readers to consider if past objections to the narrowing of the CCC’s role still apply and if there is any evidence of them coming true in the intervening years. It points out:

“Prior to the 2014 amendments, the CCC analysed the 60 complaints that were used by Callinan and Aroney in their report and applied the new definition of ‘corrupt conduct’. The CCC determined that 22 out of the 60 complaints that were captured by the definition of ‘official misconduct’ would not fall within the definition of ‘corrupt conduct’ and therefore not be within the CCC’s jurisdiction.”

Behaviour that was no longer within the CCC’s remit included:

  • minor driving offences in a government vehicle;
  • minor maladministration — failure to act, improper use of discretion (where information suggests no misuse of powers/conduct is not engaged in for the person’s personal benefit);
  • accessing personal government records or patient/client records (own records or records of others but not disclosed or used by third parties);
  • bullying/harassment/unco-operative behaviour;
  • inappropriate behaviour (threatening) — peer-on-peer; and
  • misuse of computer (storage of legal pornographic images).

The paper also asks readers to consider any specific kinds of behaviour that should perhaps be considered corrupt, and whether Queensland should follow the approaches taken in other states.

While the new regime has only been in place for one full year, the paper reports that complaints from the public and agency notifications to the CCC have dropped markedly since the 2014 changes.

It’s not clear how much impact responses to the paper will have or if it is just a fig leaf of consultation with public servants and the public. CCC chair Alan MacSporran supports going back to a wider remit and Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath made the government’s view very clear last year, commenting on a different set of amendments to the CCC’s legislation that have since become law:

“After the upheaval of the Newman years and the undermining of important integrity measures across government, we are delivering on our commitment to restore accountability and integrity.

“The government was supported by Queenslanders to restore respect for important public institutions, including the judiciary, an independent public service and, crucially, a strong and independent public watchdog.

“These changes will help the CCC see some stability after recent turbulence and will allow the good people who dedicate their lives to stamping out crime and corruption in this state to get on with their important job.”

Those amendments prevent the commission’s CEO from also being a commissioner, require bipartisan support for the appointment of the CEO from the Parliamentary Crime and Corruption Committee, and limit temporary appointments of commissioners, the chair and the CEO to three months in the absence of bipartisan support.

The bill also reinstated the CCC’s corruption prevention and independent research roles, and allowed complaints to be made anonymously once again.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.