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Face-off: An anti-corruption watchdog for Canberra?

By Charlotte Harper - 6 August 2016 11

ACT Legislative Assembly

ACT Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson says there is a “bad smell” around the ACT Government due to its handling of dealings with property developers and unions, citing the Memorandum of Understanding on procurement between the Government and Unions ACT, the controversial redevelopment of the Brumbies HQ at Griffith and the rugby club’s move to UC, and proposals to redevelop the Manuka childcare centre and Manuka Oval as examples.

The Government argues that it has always operated with integrity, and there is no doubt its actions are in line with its well-articulated vision for Canberra.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr and his Labor colleagues are well aware, though, that there has been strong community criticism of its handling of these matters. So much so that yesterday it announced that it has rejected the GWS/Grocon unsolicited bid to redevelop Manuka Oval only weeks after backing down on long-held plans to force the Manuka Childcare Centre to move from its Flinders Street site.

It is also aware that an Australian Federal Police evaluation of the circumstances surrounding the 2013 sale of the Brumbies’ Griffith Oval headquarters and its move to the University of Canberra is ongoing.

Greens Leader Shane Rattenbury acknowledges that there are concerns in the community about such matters, and has announced that his party would legislate for an anti-corruption watchdog in the territory.

“You do hear rumours around town,” he said at his party’s campaign launch last Sunday (as reported in The Canberra Times).

“We want a proper place for that to be investigated, not for the rumours to dominate. It does no one any favours when there’s a lack of confidence based on rumour or innuendo.”

“Either it will be proven not to be the case, or wrongdoing will be rooted out.”

The Opposition made its own announcement on integrity on Wednesday, saying if elected it would boost funding and resources for the Auditor-General to conduct performance audits and public interest disclosures as well as establish a fully independent Public Service Commissioner (the Government had already announced it would establish an independent office of the Public Sector Standards Commissioner, and legislated accordingly this week).

We’re wondering what you think, RiotACT readers. All other Australian states have integrity watchdogs. Should the ACT have its own independent NSW ICAC-style integrity/anti-corruption commission?

We put that question to Mr Rattenbury, Mr Hanson and Mr Barr via email this week for Face-off. Their responses appear below, along with video of Mr Rattenbury and Mr Hanson discussing the issue (Mr Barr was unavailable for the video component).

Greens Leader and ACT Minister for Corrections, Minister for Education, Minister for Justice and Community Affairs and Minister for Road Safety

The ACT is one of the only states or territories without an independent integrity body with investigative powers. The ACT Greens believe it’s time for this to change. If we want the community to put their trust in us, then we must be able to shine a spotlight into the dark corners. That’s why this week the ACT Greens called for an Independent Integrity Commission.

The Integrity Commission would allow for independent investigations into allegations of misconduct. It would also provide advice and support for agencies to improve their standards.

The Greens have always advocated for transparency and integrity in government. We pushed for a Standards Commissioner, an Independent Arbiter, and we’ve introduced nation-leading Freedom of Information laws into the Assembly. We’ve always campaigned for clean elections and for banning donations from corporations to political parties – changes that are essential to restoring public trust in government.

These are the fundamental differences between the Greens and the other parties.

The Canberra Liberals’ proposed plan is weak. It has no capacity to deal with misconduct or corruption because neither the Auditor-General nor Commissioner for Public Administration have criminal investigative skills or functions. We’re calling on the Canberra Liberals to back our calls for an Integrity Commission with real teeth and investigative powers.

Jeremy Hanson, ACT Opposition Leader, Shadow Minister for Police, Shadow Minister for Gaming & Racing, Shadow Minister for Health, Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

The Canberra Liberals believe in strong local government integrity which is why we’ve been on the front foot committing to how we will strengthen and enhance it, to restore faith in local government. It’s also why we’ve been proactive in prosecuting integrity issues with the current Barr Labor government.

I recently announced a Canberra Liberals commitment to boosting the resources of the Auditor-General to the tune of $3 million to enhance its capacity to conduct performance audits and work with regards to public interest disclosures. The Auditor-General is well placed to continue its good work in scrutinising government. We have also committed $900,000 to make the Public Service Commissioner fully independent. These are both existing effective bodies in enhancing integrity and complicating the system with a new structure would be unnecessary.

It’s interesting that the Greens Minister in the Labor government which has been the subject of integrity issues has called for the establishment of and ICAC-style commission.

Our reforms are necessary because over the past year, there’s been a perception of a lack of integrity and probity issues surrounding Andrew Barr’s government. Various land deals which are still under investigation, including the lease variation waiver for the Brumbies has raised the ire of many. There’s also been significant commentary in the local media about these issues. We believe our commitments will help existing authorities shed further light on integrity issues.

Protecting government integrity is essential and with a fresh start under a Canberra Liberals government, we’ll be committed to that. The best way to ensure integrity in local government is to change the government in October.

Andrew Barr

Andrew Barr, ACT Chief Minister, Treasurer, Minister for Economic Development, Minister for Urban Renewal, Minister for Tourism and Events

The ACT Government and the Legislative Assembly have, over the past two decades, developed and maintained a number of checks and balances that ensure the integrity and transparency of government decision making.

They include the ongoing role of the ACT Ombudsman, an independent and impartial body that has the power to investigate the administrative actions and decisions of ACT Government agencies to see if they are wrong, unjust, unlawful or discriminatory.

There is also the ACT Auditor-General who has a role in identifying practices that may be conducive to corruption and improving the integrity of the ACT’s public sector.

The ACT Government has this week passed further amendments to the Public Sector Management Act, which among other things establishes an independent office of the Public Sector Standards Commissioner, to enhance and promote public sector values, principles and conduct. To promote the independence of the role, the Bill prohibits the occupier of the office of the Public Sector Standards Commissioner from also being an ACT public servant.

Any evidence of corruption or fraud is provided to ACT Police for further investigation of criminal behaviour.

In the extremely rare occasions where there have been cases of corruption involving ACT officials, these offences were detected and prosecuted.

What’s Your opinion?


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11 Responses to
Face-off: An anti-corruption watchdog for Canberra?
1
Mordd 9:53 pm
06 Aug 16
#

Well as the police and politicians are so fond of saying to us: “If you’ve done nothing wrong, then you’ve got nothing to hide, so what are you worried about? It’s for your own good, we’re just looking out for you.”

Good for the goose, good for the gander I say. Bring on the anti corruption watchdog. Or do you pollies have something to hide after all?

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2
dungfungus 8:36 pm
07 Aug 16
#

Unless such a body has the power to investigate the Federal Public service as well as our local council it will be a waste of time and money.

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3
bigred 7:32 am
08 Aug 16
#

It is rather unbelievable that the major parties have expressed oppositio to a proposal designed to provide the community with a degree of assurance that the local systems are free of corruption. I guess it is a fear of finding out about the “unknown unknowns” though I suspect there may well be some “unknown knowns” that may have some bite in them. Examples could be favourable granting of relatively low value consultancies or reviews without competitive processes to the same provider time and again, use of Territory equipment for private purposes or cash handling risks.

I notice that the Green’s proposal also contains an educative role. This is something an Auditor would struggle to do while maintaining arms length separation.

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4
dungfungus 12:17 pm
08 Aug 16
#

It is rather unbelievable that the major parties have expressed oppositio to a proposal designed to provide the community with a degree of assurance that the local systems are free of corruption. I guess it is a fear of finding out about the “unknown unknowns” though I suspect there may well be some “unknown knowns” that may have some bite in them. Examples could be favourable granting of relatively low value consultancies or reviews without competitive processes to the same provider time and again, use of Territory equipment for private purposes or cash handling risks.

I notice that the Green’s proposal also contains an educative role. This is something an Auditor would struggle to do while maintaining arms length separation.

Let’s face it, facilitation payments and legal political donations have become an integral part of most supply and infrastructure contracts with government these days that it is expected.
It’s like drugs in sport.

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5
devils_advocate 12:28 pm
08 Aug 16
#

Pretty galling to see the liberals trying to conflate the role of the ACT Auditor-General with the role of an independent corruption watchdog.
Auditing is concerned with the quality and efficiency of public administration, and generally relies on the cooperation of directorates (as is appropriate). Its ultimate goal is improving administration, not uncovering wrongdoing as such. Yes, there is some overlap but It is carried out in relation to a set program and involves a different set of skills and approach to work than a corruption investigator.

The ACT needs an independent corruption watchdog that can act on tipoffs and initiate criminal investigations where necessary.

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6
HiddenDragon 5:10 pm
08 Aug 16
#

Yes, the ACT should have an ICAC-style body, with the details of its role and powers to be determined with the benefit of learning from the experience in other jurisdictions.

Preferably, the Commissioner would be someone from outside the ACT, with appointment to be for a fixed term, with no scope for reappointment or for subsequent appointment to any other position within the gift of the ACT Government, and the appointment should be subject to agreement between the Chief Minister and the Opposition Leader.

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7
Mordd 10:10 pm
08 Aug 16
#

Dondon said :

Pretty galling to see the liberals trying to conflate the role of the ACT Auditor-General with the role of an independent corruption watchdog.
Auditing is concerned with the quality and efficiency of public administration, and generally relies on the cooperation of directorates (as is appropriate). Its ultimate goal is improving administration, not uncovering wrongdoing as such. Yes, there is some overlap but It is carried out in relation to a set program and involves a different set of skills and approach to work than a corruption investigator.

The ACT needs an independent corruption watchdog that can act on tipoffs and initiate criminal investigations where necessary.

Good point. So we need an Auditor and an Investigator both then. Bring it on!

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8
Arthur Davies 3:12 pm
09 Aug 16
#

YES we should have such a body!

However I agree with the comment that we also need such a body for Federal activities. For instance such a local investigator would not be able to look into the activities of the police, as they are a Federal body. I think I am right in saying that all the state police forces have had Royal Commission or similar investigations into their activities in the past, but never the Feds.

The auditor, as has been noted above, can only check whether the “books” have been properly kept after the event, when it is generally far too late. The auditor has no power to penalise govt officers or politicians for poor decision making, or even corrupt behaviour. They are Govt employees reporting to the Govt, which can choose to act or to ignore its advice.

The Assembly makes its laws/regulations to suit its own political ends. I for one do NOT believe that political donations to political parties or independents should be legal, disclosure over a year later with no penalties for wrongdoing is of no use at all. Most particularly real estate/developer payments should be a criminal offence, it is totally a conflict of interest.

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9
Arthur Davies 4:33 pm
11 Aug 16
#

I thought that there were some previous comments on this article, were they lost in the change to the new format?

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10
Charlotte Harper 5:19 pm
11 Aug 16
#

Arthur Davies said :

I thought that there were some previous comments on this article, were they lost in the change to the new format?

Hi @Arthur, yes, they are temporarily MIA, but will be back once the full transfer of data is complete. Should be only a few more hours.

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11
Skyring 2:25 pm
26 Aug 16
#

Local government here isn’t about more freedom and democracy for the residents. It is and always has been about giving political parties more power and more perks.

We spend a fortune on local government, on salaries, allowances, accommodation, staff, cars etc. and realistically, all we are is a city with the need for a city council.

Local government around Australia is the place to find corruption, and it occurs when property developers see a huge profit, and local government wants a chunk in return for a green light.

Look around at the neverending construction.

I’d love to see an independent corruption watchdog. I want the Liberals to champion it loud and long now in opposition, and I’d like to see Labor keep them to their pledge after the election.

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