Shortcuts / 07 October 2021

Anti-corruption commissions

In a shock to many, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian not only resigned but bowed out of state politics completely last Friday. If you’re confused about why she decided to go, you’re not alone… In this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we explain what anti-corruption commissions do, what a federal integrity commission looks like, and what happened with Gladys Berejiklian.

Let’s get the ball rolling – why is it important to sniff out bad behaviour?
Checks and balances are all part of a functioning democracy. That means that politicians, bureaucrats and anyone benefiting from public funding can be subject to questions about their conduct. 

What do you mean when you say ‘corruption’?
When it comes to the public sector, corruption is generally considered to be the dishonest or biased conduct of a public official’s function or duties, often for personal benefit or gain. It includes things like bribery, fraud, forgery, embezzlement, theft or misappropriation of assets. 

So where does integrity come into it? 
That covers the scope of behaviour or conduct by public officials which might be considered inappropriate but which might also be considered to be less serious or of lower risk than corruption. And yes, many people have lost their jobs over questions of integrity.

So how are those things dealt with?
We have anti-corruption laws, investigative bodies, and commissions dedicated to the task. And in fact, every state and territory has some sort of anti-corruption or integrity commission. 

But they’re not one and the same…
Like so many things in our federation, there’s no one rule for all… It’s too much to go through each state and territory, but to generalise, they have jurisdiction over the public but not the private sector. They also all have coercive powers similar to those of Royal Commissions, which is the ability to force people to appear and give evidence. They are overseen by a Parliamentary committee – and they have investigative, preventive and educational functions. 

How does it work?
Let’s use NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) as an example. Firstly, a report is made to the commission – that could come from anyone, such as an anonymous tip from the public, an elected official, or a bureaucrat. ICAC then starts making inquiries and interviewing people.

And if there’s something worth looking at?
Then a hearing is held involving the relevant people in private first to help with the information gathering. If they believe there’s something to answer, they’ll move onto a public hearing. 

And that’s where someone can be found guilty of corruption?
No. It’s really important to note that anti-corruption commissions can’t deliver legal penalties like in a court. Rather, public hearings are used by anti-corruption commissions as a tool to air things out in the open and increase the public’s confidence in the integrity of investigations.

So they’ve had the public hearing – what’s next?
They make factual findings. They might say that a person has engaged in corrupt conduct, or that there’s nothing to see here. If it’s the former, it’s up to the state’s prosecutors to pick that up – or not. And if it’s the latter, critics say the process stinks because the target has been dragged through a lot for nothing. 

So what about the Commonwealth?
It’s going to form one, and the legislation covering it should be in the parliament before the end of the year. 

So why hasn’t one been established?
In the past, the government of the day has argued that existing arrangements at the federal level are effective at addressing integrity and corruption issues in the Commonwealth public sector and therefore the creation of a national integrity commission is not needed. To bolster that, critics say there are 26 agencies within the federal government that monitor for corruption, investigate and take action when required.

What do those in favour say?
That those existing agencies don’t adequately do the job. Those agencies do their work behind the scenes – so there’s no big public hearings to watch. And so those in favour of a federal integrity commission say it’s important to have a body where politicians and public servants can be called to answer for their conduct if substantial claims are made against them. 

What’s the federal one called?
The Commonwealth Integrity Commission, or the CIC for short. And the proposal for what it will cover has been around for a while. 

So how’s that been received?
It really depends on what side of the debate you are on… If you really want a tough CIC, what’s been proposed is not tough enough. If you’re not a fan of a CIC, it’s too much.

What do the critics say?
That the definition of corruption is too narrow and the threshold for referral to the commission too high. Critics say that like the state and territory commissions, anyone should be able to report issues to the CIC. As it currently stands it will need to come from the inside of politics or bureaucracy. 

Any other issues?
There have also been disagreements over the CIC not being able to launch its own investigations, hold public hearings, issue public findings or examine breaches of ministerial standards. So with little agreement, a lot is still up in the air… 

And what does Labor have to say about it?
Labor says it’s committed to “a national anti-corruption commission, one with teeth, one that operates independently of government, [and] is able to conduct its own inquiries.”

To take a trip down memory lane… Is corruption a thing in our governments?
It has been. And probably the biggest example in living memory was Queensland’s government under Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen between the late 60s to the mid 1980s. 

What happened?
The Fitzgerald Inquiry found that there was a deep and systematic web of corruption that implicated those at the highest levels of Queensland’s government. It looked into police corruption and how they were used to prop up his government. The inquiry’s findings ultimately ended Bjelke-Petersen’s reign as the state’s longest serving premier. 

Any other names to call out?
Yep, one larger than life character was Russ Hinze – they called him the ‘Minister for Everything’. Hinze denied that owning 167 racehorses while he was the Minister for Racing and having interests in gravel companies while Minister for Main Roads constituted conflicts of interest. He said rather they were “a convergence of interests”…

That makes Barry O’Farrell’s bottle of wine seem very tame…
It sure does. He was the Premier of NSW until he left the job in 2014 when it came to light that he’d accepted a $3,000 bottle of 1959 Penfolds Grange from businessman Nick Di Girolamo.  

Why is that a problem?
Well, O’Farrell failed to disclose the bottle of wine, which is required. And he told ICAC he hadn’t received it in hearings into a company Di Girolamo was working for. And when his memory was jogged thanks to a thank you note he wrote, he resigned. That was because he’d misled ICAC – he wasn’t being investigated himself. 

But he wasn’t the first NSW Premier to resign due to ICAC…
No he wasn’t. The first was Nick Greiner in 1992 who ironically was the man who brought in ICAC. 

And then of course, there’s Gladys Berejiklian… What happened there?
At the centre of ICAC’s investigation into her are 2 grants awarded to organisations in Wagga while she was Treasurer – that’s where her then secret love interest Daryl Maguire lived and represented as the state MP. The first was $5.5 million to the clay target club – and Maguire is accused of trying to profit from the fit-out. The 2nd is $20 million for Wagga’s conservatorium of music. She is accused of intervening to personally approve the funds, and has denied the allegations.

So if she hasn’t been found guilty of anything, why did she quit? 
There’s a few things. Firstly, ICAC investigations can take a long time. Like years… And as Premier, Berejiklian brought in new standards that said a minister being investigated by ICAC should stand aside from their post. For her part, she said that wasn’t possible for her because of the critical time the state is at in the COVID crisis. So to give the state certainty and not be a distraction to the government, she resigned.  

And there’s been a bit of talk about the timing of ICAC’s announcement…
There certainly has. So to go back to what we know about how commissions operate – ICAC has been investigating Berejiklian behind closed doors for a while. It would have pulled her in for one of those private hearings before going public last Friday with the announcement that she will front public hearings in the coming weeks. 

What do ICAC’s critics say?
Plenty of supporters and legal experts have said that given the COVID crisis, ICAC should have waited because the claims against her aren’t serious enough to interrupt the public health response. 

And its supporters?
That Berejiklian was the premier and the ICAC has to do its work unimpeded.

So where does the investigation go from here?
As we said earlier, ICAC is notoriously slow to settle matters so jump on board for the ride… But in the short term, public hearings start on 18 October. That’s when we’ll hear Berejiklian’s defence, so stay tuned for that… 

Alright, to finish up, how is corruption in Oz compared to the rest of the world?
Corruption in Australia is actually relatively uncommon when compared to other nations worldwide. We rank 11th place out of 180 countries for transparency. 

I guess that’s something…
It sure is. 

Squiz recommends:

ABC’s Four Corners – Moonlight State

Wag the Dog – available on Netflix

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