ACT opposition ups the integrity ante with ICAC promise

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday August 30, 2016

Male Judge Writing On Paper In Courtroom

The ACT opposition has added the establishment of an Independent Commission Against Corruption to its election platform, matching the Greens, but the government believes its new independent public sector standards commissioner is all the little jurisdiction needs.

Perhaps the local Liberals decided their previous policy to strengthen integrity — more funding for the auditor-general and a “fully independent” public service commissioner — was too similar to the government’s public sector legislative reforms, which finally made it through the Legislative Assembly this month.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr chided the opposition for copying his party’s policy with its integrity package; now it appears they have upped the ante with an ICAC, which could be said to have been copied from the Greens’ platform.

Opposition leader Jeremy Hanson this week repeated his claim that Canberrans are increasing concerned about the “ethical conduct” of Labor and the Greens, who have governed together in various combinations since 2008.

“Recently there have been a number of issues of concern, particularly around property deals, referred for investigation to the Auditor-General, and the ‘Brumbies’ property issues which are currently being investigated by the AFP,” said Hanson.

“Restoring integrity in government is a key priority for the Canberra Liberals and our extended integrity package will act as a strong deterrent to corruption in our community and government.”

On the other hand, Labor supporters have their own suspicions about why the Canberra Liberals get donations from property developers that don’t have any business in the ACT, but do across the border in New South Wales where such donations are banned.

The minority Labor government’s Greens offsider Shane Rattenbury has already suggested an ICAC style body is necessary to combat exactly these kinds of “rumours and innuendo that go around town” and undermine public confidence in the assembly, the government and the public service.

He also wants a new freedom-of-information system, and is open to negotiations with other MLAs about what form the integrity body would take.

“We see some key principles,” Rattenbury told The Mandarin. “The commission must be independent from government. We think it could absorb some of the functions of the public service commissioner and the Commissioner for Standards at the assembly, because there would be some overlap there and so you don’t want to have duplication.”

“Obviously the investigative powers are important, so that the organisation does have the strength to do the job that needs to be done. And the other one is that strong focus on prevention, because we think that is as important and perhaps even more effective than catching up with people afterwards.”

If the ACT did commit to establish an ICAC of some kind — even if that means outsourcing it from another jurisdiction — it would isolate the Commonwealth even more as the only jurisdiction that hasn’t done so. The Northern Territory government made the decision to establish its own ICAC-style body — probably a close replica of South Australia’s — before it was demolished in its own poll in recent days.

With more electorates and more seats in the assembly this year, the ACT election in October is likely to throw out a very different combination of representatives. Hanson’s team smells electoral blood in the water as Canberrans think about whether they personally will benefit from the $800 million light rail project that the Labor and the Greens have locked in.

Hanson’s deputy Alistair Coe oddly suggests that the government’s decision to pursue light rail over a system of rapid bus transit lanes is the kind of matter an ICAC would investigate.

Various reports have suggested the economic cost-benefit ratio of the tramline is inferior to the rapid bus transit option. It has now been revealed that a 2013 internal discussion paper from the Chief Minister’s directorate made the same point. Even so, executive government making executive decisions doesn’t sound like the kind of ICAC story that would make the front pages.

“Today’s revelation demonstrates that Mr Barr is willing to spend over $1 billion on a political decision that he was explicitly advised against by his own government,” said Coe, who is also shadow minister for transport.

“Issues such as this highlight why an ICAC is needed, so that rampant political decision making at taxpayers’ expense can be stamped out.”

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