Integrity watchdog must have teeth

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Two years after it promised a new federal corruption watchdog and almost three years since it first planned one, the Coalition has finally released its draft laws for public discussion.

While the legislation runs to hundreds of pages, there appears little change to the basic tenets revealed in the discussion paper that initially outlined how the Coalition believes the new body called the Commonwealth Integrity Commission should operate. At the time, The Age had serious concerns about the constraints the government had placed on the new body. Those concerns are just as valid today.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has released the draft bill to establish a national anti-corruption body.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The crux of the problem lies with the two-tiered system of justice it envisages. The law enforcement integrity division, which already exists but will have its remit expanded and absorbed into the new commission, will oversee such bodies as the federal police and border control. It will have extensive powers to compel witnesses, tap phones, search people and seize property, and will have the ability to hold public hearings.

But it is the second division, which will focus on public sector integrity, that is raising most concerns. It will investigate public servants, politicians, ministers and their staff. While it will also have extensive investigative powers, the government has withheld the power to hold public hearings or issue public findings of corruption, criminal conduct or misconduct at large.

It has also set the investigative bar high, with it having to hold a "reasonable suspicion" of a criminal offence before launching an inquiry, which would rule out the ability to investigate breaches of codes of conduct such as the rorting of parliamentary perks. On top of that, it would not be able to hear from whistleblowers, or have the authority to instigate its own investigation, relying on other agencies to refer matters to it.

As the government sees it, those investigating our elected officials should do so only behind closed doors and then refer a matter to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, which would determine whether it should go to court.

The argument put forward by Attorney-General Christian Porter is that public hearings have the potential to turn the commission into a "showboat agency" that is used to publicly shame possibly innocent people, something he believes has occurred in his home state of Western Australia.

While there may have been some instances of overzealous investigations by state-based anti-corruption bodies, in Victoria recently there has been some powerful examples of the benefit to allowing investigations to take place in the public arena.

The most notable has been the inquiry into the bungled hotel quarantine program, which put some of the government's most senior public servants, ministers and the Premier on the stand to answer tough questions in full public view. While it did not involve corruption, it was a remarkable insight into how government operates and the vexed issue of accountability when things go wrong.

And Victoria's Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission's two most recent investigations have put on public display alleged corruption at the City of Casey, in Melbourne's south-east, and public transport departments Metro and V/Line.

In these instances, not only have they revealed details of alleged exchange of money for personal favours by public officials, but they have delivered a powerful warning to anyone who may wish to partake in such actions.

Canberra should take note. As is often said, justice should not only be done, but should be seen to be done. The new integrity commission's success should be scored not only by the number of prosecutions it wins, but by its ability to deter those who may be tempted to cross the line of legality.

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