Qld's new integrity commissioner brings a scholarly perspective on ethics

By Stephen Easton

July 3, 2017

From now on, Queensland’s senior public servants, statutory officers and parliamentarians will get their confidential probity advice from medical ethics expert Nikola Stepanov, who became the state’s new integrity commissioner over the weekend.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced Stepanov had been selected through “a national search and merit-based recruitment process” on Thursday, just one day before Richard Bingham’s three-year term came to an end.

Nikola Stepanov

Unlike Bingham, who came to the position from previous public sector roles as South Australian Ombudsman, chair of the Tasmanian Electoral Commission and secretary of the Tasmanian Department of Justice, the new integrity commissioner has an academic background and holds five roles concurrently.

Stepanov is director of the Centre for Health Ethics, Law and Education in the Tropics, chair of the Townsville Health and Hospital Service Human Research Ethics Committee, an adjunct associate professor with the division of Tropical Health and Medicine at James Cook University, a member of the Central West Hospital and Health Service board and associate editor of the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry.

“She has a background in resolving complex and contentious ethics conflicts,” said the premier, listing similar previous positions at the University of Queensland and her PhD, Master of Education and Bachelor of Nursing qualifications.

Palaszczuk said she had consulted the parliamentary Finance and Administration Committee on Stepanov’s proposed appointment as required by the legislation, and thanked Bingham for his service.

“Mr Bingham has served as the integrity commissioner for three years in the highest regard, and discharged his functions in a considered and impartial manner,” she said.

Created in 1999, the role is fairly unique to the Queensland system. “The integrity commissioner is an officer of the Queensland Parliament, with responsibility for providing advice on integrity and ethics issues to members of the Legislative Assembly, statutory office holders and senior public servants,” Palaszczuk explained.

“This independent role also oversees the maintenance of the Register of Queensland Lobbyists.”

The integrity commissioner’s advice is available to public service chief executives and senior executives, senior officers in government entities and other nominated officers, as well as to any MP, minister or parliamentary secretary. It cannot be relied upon as legal advice but it can cover a wide breadth of ethics and integrity matters, the commissioner’s website explains:

“Under the Integrity Act 2009, an ethics or integrity issue is an issue concerning ethics or integrity and includes a conflict of interest issue.

“The interest could be that they or their friends or relatives may benefit from a decision if it is made in a particular way. The interest may conflict with the public interest.

“Public officials who have such an interest in a matter should declare their interest and remove themselves from the decision making process.”

The commissioner’s advice is exempt from the Right to Information Act but the recipient is allowed to disclose it to anyone including the public if they choose.

As such, Stepanov’s office functions in a similar way to the federal government’s new Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, which also begins operating independently this week.

Both aim to support people who are trying to do the right thing in the public sector. But not everyone does; some set out to milk the government right from the start, as demonstrated in a new report from Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission.

The CCC audited several agencies on their responses to allegations of nepotism and corrupt conduct in recruitment, and its findings highlight some areas for improvement among “generally sound” processes.

In one case, a serial fraudster got into a public service job using fake academic qualifications and dodgy references, despite having done similar things interstate in the past. Basic checks about the claims on his CV were not done.

If the agency had questioned why he didn’t provide a reference for his second-last job, the CCC reports it would have found out he was “dismissed from that organisation due to suspicions he was awarding contracts to companies connected to people he had associations with” — a definite red flag.

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