Canberra's answer to ICAC takes shape

By Stephen Easton

July 27, 2018

The ACT government has drawn up legislation to establish a powerful anti-corruption commission with broad powers to investigate allegations against public servants and Members of the Legislative Assembly.

It will also be able to investigate police officers if the territory government gets its way, but chief minister Andrew Barr has acknowledged that would require the agreement of the larger parliament across the lake.

He said the federal act that gave the ACT its own government from 1989 “heavily restricts the ability of the Territory parliament to make laws in this regard” in comments reported by the ABC.

ACT policing is part of the Australian Federal Police, led by a chief police officer who sits at deputy commissioner level in the AFP structure, although its funding comes from territory taxpayers and it reports to an ACT minister.

The AFP argued against this as it is already subject to investigation by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, so it is possible federal parliamentarians will take its side. The bipartisan ACT Legislative Assembly committee that proposed a blueprint for the new integrity commission took a different view, recommending that ACLEI be required to refer investigations into local Canberra officers to the new anti-corruption body.

Based on news reports this week, it appears the government’s bill reflects key aspects of the committee’s gold-standard proposal.

A few elements of the bill have been reported on the ABC website and in The Canberra Times, along with comments from Barr. (Update: An exposure draft has been published on the ACT legislative assembly website, and will reportedly be tabled next week, but no public announcement had been made at time of writing.)

The newspaper reports “politicians, staffers and public sector heads must notify the commission if they have reasonable grounds to suspect someone of serious or systemic corruption”, but there won’t be any penalty if they don’t, contrary to one of the committee’s many recommendations.

The government’s spokesperson told the Times this would be in line with other jurisdictions, and reportedly argued extra penalties were unnecessary because “wilfully neglecting to address corruption would also make an official subject to disciplinary action or investigation themselves”.

“The commission’s definition of corruption will be modelled on the NSW ICAC,” according to the ABC reporter, while the Times reports this will actually be “a narrower definition of corruption” than in NSW, because it won’t cover alleged code-of-conduct breaches.

Mostly, the newspaper scribes focus on the proposed powers for the agency allowing it to use undercover investigators and plant surveillance devices, and to hold public hearings subject to a public interest test.

It will be led by a single commissioner appointed by the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and will have the power to launch own-motion investigations, according to the ABC.

Judicial officers won’t be covered and it will be restricted from raking over allegations that have already been investigated by another similar body in the past and from looking into matters before self-government.

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