Where to now for Victoria’s revamped integrity system?

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday June 21, 2016

Choice and choosing a direction in life or business using the rooad metaphore and highway sign with a fork shaped traffic lane showing the concept of dilema and selecting the right option.

It seems the only constant in the Victorian integrity system is change, as the government considers the next round of reform just weeks after passage of the last.

In March, three months after introducing a bill to strengthen the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office, Victorian Ombudsman and Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission, the government began asking for input on what comes next for the three agencies. Submissions closed again in May, shortly before the bill became law, giving the auditor-general follow-the-dollar powers and IBAC a lower threshold to launch investigations.

The overlap meant interested parties and the entities themselves were able to comment on what might come after the recent reforms, a few months before they took effect.

VAGO still wants its remit widened, to include administration handled directly by the courts and parliament, for example. The A-G also argues the new legislation does not confer the “unfettered” follow-the-dollar powers the government promised before it was elected, among a substantial list of other desired reforms.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass points to gaps and inconsistencies she finds “illogical” as well as confusing for the public in a complaints handling system she describes as fragmented. She asks for sweeping new powers, guaranteed funding and more discretion in how to handle complaints, within a much wider remit.

Like IBAC, her Commonwealth counterpart and the Victorian Inspectorate, Glass wants coercive powers to force witnesses to answer questions and the right to look at Cabinet documents. She argues this would mean “management of protected disclosures is the same regardless of which agency investigates” and calls for the option to refer complaints about public disclosures to other agencies.

The most contested part of the discussion revolves around balancing IBAC’s need for such strong powers to expose public sector corruption, with the rights of those it investigates, as with the debate over whether the federal level needs an equivalent.

The commission mounts a strong defence of its ability to hold public inquiries and the safeguards in place, noting it only conducted three of 35 investigations publicly and arguing these all demonstrated their value in exposing systemic issues to public scrutiny.

IBAC says it is doubtful that reports to parliament alone would have sustained the same level of public interest or catalysed such swift organisational and sector-wide reforms as did the public exposure of corruption like that found inside the Department of Education and Training.

Submissions concerning IBAC were also received from the Office of the Chief Examiner, another integrity body with coercive powers that works only in secret to create a “hostile environment for organised crime” and the Victorian Inspectorate, the oversight body that watches all these watchdogs.

A coherent system

The three separate discussion papers that kicked off the consultation period also elicited a joint submission from the three bodies, about aligning their work more effectively “as elements of a coherent system” that would beef up the Ombudsman’s powers most of all.

First, they argue that “all public bodies, all bodies controlled by the State and all services funded by public money” should be covered by a consistent legislative definition of “public sector” they can all share:

“These definitions vary considerably, generating significant gaps in accountability to Parliament and the community and constraining our agencies from operating effectively together.”

Next, all agree they should have both “greater consistency and capacity” in terms of their ability to gather information:

“Although the necessary tools and powers vary, there should be a consistent set of principles that apply to our capacities to obtain documents, call witnesses, enter premises, access privileged information, operate confidentially and offer procedural fairness. In a coherent integrity system, all three bodies should also be able to share information consistently and without unnecessary restrictions, as well as to disclose information in the public interest.”

They also call for consistency in the arrangements that make them completely independent of the executive, as independent officers of the parliament:

“We propose consistency in provisions governing the appointment, tenure, immunity, removal and remuneration of our roles and seek to maximise the involvement of the Parliament rather than the Executive in these areas. This is particularly important for the process for allocating budgets: the Parliament, not the Government, should determine funding and other resources for independent officers.”

Following on from that, the three main agents of Victorian public sector integrity believe they should be accountable directly to the parliament and that its oversight should be, as always, efficient, effective and proportionate to the risk they present.

Who sets the standard, who teaches, who follows

The Victorian Public Sector Commission weighed in on the educative functions that it, as a fellow body with a legislated interest in supporting high standards of integrity, would like to see. Neither VO nor A-G have legislated educative functions like IBAC and the VPSC. While the VPSC does see the potential for all four agencies to have an education role, for example A-G’s publicising of its audit work, it cautions that the boundary between educational and standard-setting functions should not be crossed.

While public reporting from the above officers of the parliament has an impact on integrity education across the executive arm, VPSC asks at what point do educative activities that go beyond just awareness raising to instead articulate prevention advice risk blurring the distinction between the legislative and executive arms of government. In other words, does defining “best practice” in effect set policy?

The VPSC shares the concern identified in DPC’s paper that the setting of standards by the A-G is inconsistent with its core audit function. But if education functions were added to VO, that could in fact be complementary in nature, with the VO being well placed to support prevention of complaints through education and training.

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