The Attorney-General’s Department and the Australian Federal Police have opened the batting for the government at the Senate Select Committee on the establishment of a National Integrity Commission, or a federal ICAC as it is more popularly known.
“The Australian government does not support a national integrity commission,” confirmed Leanne Close, the AGD’s deputy secretary for criminal justice and a former deputy commissioner of the AFP, who led the government’s delegation.
“The Australian Government’s approach to dealing with corruption is integrated and multi faceted. We work to get the standards and training right, assess risk, detect, investigate and respond to corruption.”
There is strong support outside government for a national integrity commission that could investigate everything from corruption in government agencies and ministerial offices to the banks and unions the major parties are respectively targeting.
On the other hand, support for a powerful nationally focused corruption watchdog is non-existent in the government, weak in the opposition and if it exists in the upper echelons of the public service, you’re unlikely to hear about it.
The inquiry provides an opportunity for representatives of both views to re-state their arguments on the public record and keep the public conversation alive, but until one of the two major parties gets behind the idea, it will never happen.
Bureaucrats focus on culture
“The Australian government is not complacent about the threat of corruption,” Close asserted. “We consider experiences in other countries and jurisdictions and learn from their innovation.”
As an example of an innovation copied from overseas, she pointed to a discussion paper prepared by the AGD and published last month about deferred prosecution schemes like those in the United Kingdom and United States.
Close said a scheme like that “would give law enforcement an innovative new tool to incentivise whistleblowers or co-operating companies to come forward to report bribery or other wrongdoing”.
Close fell back on textbook style arguments that Australia’s democratic system and constitutional separation of powers mean that an independent judiciary and parliamentary oversight along with “a free media and an active civil society” provide an effective base for scrutiny of what goes on behind closed doors.
Underpinned by our fine liberal democratic traditions, “the Australian government has a comprehensive integrity framework, supported by strong institutions with specialised anti-corruption, integrity and audit functions,” she added.
Close argued the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act “provides the framework for use of public funds” combined with the “independent assurance” of the auditor-general. The AFP investigate serious crimes, she pointed out, and to police the police, there is the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity.” … that’s part of the DNA, that they know what is the right way to behave.”
For public servants, the “core” and the “starting point” is a strong culture of integrity inculcated in staff by the public service standards and code of conduct, according to her colleague, first assistant secretary Catherine Hawkins.
“So at a low level when there is any sense of wrongdoing, we want to promote a culture in agencies where people in teams will speak up, that they will elevate it, that they will know that the kind of conduct they see is not part of the APS values,” said Hawkins. “That’s part of the DNA, that they know what is the right way to behave.”
When more serious wrongdoing is noticed, she said the APS had a “properly tiered set of ways” to identify and respond to it.
Labor Senator Jacinta Collins asked the government representatives if they accepted there were “concerns … that there are jurisdictional cracks, that the integrity isn’t what we might want it to be [and] that there are instances of conflicts of interest within agencies participating directly in processes that might relate to their own activities”.
AFP deputy commissioner of operations Ian McCartney responded that the new Fraud and Anti-Corruption Centre had improved “collaboration and cooperation” between the Commonwealth’s disparate integrity mechanisms by bringing together 11 agencies in a taskforce-style arrangement.
The collaborative arrangement had significant “cultural” as well as practical benefits that helped it look into matters like serious fraud against the Commonwealth, corruption by Commonwealth employees and foreign bribery.
He said a good example was last year’s successful prosecution of two people, one of whom worked at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, for insider trading using leaked information.
“It was a seamless approach working with ASIC,” McCartney said, based on ASIC’s “knowledge of the share market and technical expertise” combined with police capabilities like listening devices and phone taps.
“What happened before [was] we had to reach out and engage with these agencies.”
But a lot of suspected cases of corruption and malfeasance related to government are not directed to the FAC Centre, the deputy commissioner admitted. There is also a separate “special references” group which “sits outside” the new collaborative taskforce.
“It focuses on what we deem to be politically sensitive matters,” McCartney explained.
He later said the AFP was “extremely committed” to following through and prosecuting offenders wherever there is an opportunity to do so. Former members of the AFP taskforce set up to investigate who knew what about the Australian Wheat Board’s illegal payments to the former government of Iraq might disagree.