Moore / Corruption watchdog will need real teeth

“After nearly three decades, a proper process has been established to consider the appropriateness and style for the ACT anti-corruption commission,” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE

AN ACT Anti-Corruption and Integrity Commission is finally set to become a reality. An Assembly select committee chaired by Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury has tabled a landmark report to deal with “serious” or “systemic” corruption.

Michael Moore

The majority report makes it difficult for the government to water down legislation or fail to provide appropriate funding in the Budget.

The corruption issue is not new for the ACT Assembly. Bernard Collaery, the leader of the Residents’ Rally, put the issue on the agenda even before the first sitting in May, 1989. By the 13th sitting day on July 6, 1989, the Follett Labor government provided unlimited time without interruption for Collaery to provide evidence to substantiate his accusations of corruption.

The idea was a “put-up-or-shut-up” motion. In that pressure cooker of the early Assembly Collaery failed to “put up”. However, the issue has never gone away with suspicions being raised again and again since that first year. After nearly three decades, a proper process has been established to consider the appropriateness and style for the ACT commission.

The committee has demonstrated just how effective Assembly committees can be by tabling such a substantial report. The 300+-page report carries nearly 80 recommendations not only identifying the need for such an ACIC, but also examining in detail how it should deal with corruption

The remit is very wide. The ACIC will cover all public officials and parties delivering contracted work or services on behalf of government. It will include oversight of police working for the ACT. It will also include all MLAs, their staff and judicial officers.

The select committee suggests the ACT legislation use a definition of “corrupt conduct” based on that used by the NSW ICAC, which has now been in operation for decades. Additionally, they have made it clear that they want the ACIC to provide disincentives for corruption by being “visible” and “accessible”. The ACIC should also be open to “all citizens and public servants” to make complaints, report corruption concerns and require people in positions of power to report such concerns.

As with the NSW ICAC, this body is not a court. It should be able to carry out examinations in public or in private. On the public/private issue, MLAs Chris Steel and Bec Cody considered the appropriate model would be to follow the Victorian test for fairness. Findings of innocence or guilt are appropriately dealt with in the courts. In this regard, the ACIC role is to identify the issues and refer concerns over breaches of legislation through judicial processes.

The real question is – will it really have teeth? An ACIC will only be as powerful as its investigative capacity. This will be the key issue for the legislation. On the one hand, the committee has not supported “coercive powers”. On the other, they have agreed that the ACIC may have other powers. It should be able to require attendance by witnesses and compel answers to questions.

The ACIC should also be able to search properties and seize evidence as well as engaging in “covert tactics – including [the use of] listening devices and optical surveillance”.

A number of those who submitted to the committee commented on the “inevitable tension that exists between civil liberties/personal rights and an anti-corruption type body’s use of investigative and coercive powers”. Appropriately, these latter powers ought to be subject to an appropriate warrant secured at arms-length from the ACIC.

The committee report has set the ground rules. It is now time for the recommendations to be turned into laws and to comply with the committee’s generous timeframe for establishment by the end of 2018.

The committee was not satisfied that the government would draw up legislation in complete compliance with the report. It was explicit in demanding that the legislation itself be the subject matter of yet another Assembly committee. Rightly so. Too often bureaucratic processes have watered down political intention. This cannot be allowed to happen with the ACIC.

Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.

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