14 December 2021

Corruption watchdog wants to cast wider net over ACT pollies

| Ian Bushnell
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ACT Legislative Assembly

The Legislative Assembly: MLA wrongdoing may go unscrutinised, says Integrity Commission. Photo: File.

The ACT Integrity Commission believes the Territory’s Ministers and Members of the Legislative Assembly can escape its attention for anything less than criminal behaviour, and is seeking to change the law so it can investigate other wrongdoing brought to its attention.

It is one of a list of amendments the Commission has compiled since it was established that it believes are necessary to do its job properly, including the power to tap phones.

The list was revealed in the Commission’s 2021 Annual Report.

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The Commission says that under the current legislation, ‘corrupt conduct’ must involve a criminal offence, a serious disciplinary offence or constitute reasonable grounds for dismissing, dispensing with the services of, or otherwise terminating the services of a public official.

“It is doubtful that the second and third of these criteria could apply to a Minister or Member of the Assembly, so that these officers can only come within the jurisdiction of the Commission where they may have committed a criminal offence,” the Commission says.

But it believes there is a wide range of serious misconduct constituting a breach of public trust that this does not cover.

The Commission says serious breaches of the applicable code of conduct would appear to fall into this category and has recommended that the definition be expanded.

But there would be a safeguard so the Commission was not sent on political adventures, with another suggested change to ensure that the Commission would only investigate if there was a claim of serious and substantial wrongdoing.

The Commission also wants the power to seek information from public servants other than just an agency head.

Michael Adams

Integrity Commissioner Michael Adams: Commission still developing. Photo: File.

At present, the Commission can only request information from the head of a public sector entity. It says this is unnecessarily narrow and prevents it from quizzing other public officials, including senior public servants and Senior Executives Responsible for Business Integrity Risk (SERBIRs).

“It also fails to account for possible circumstances where the head of the public sector entity is themselves the subject of a Commission preliminary inquiry or where making the request to them would have the possible effect of jeopardising a Commission preliminary inquiry,” the Commission says.

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It is also unclear whether the Commission can only ask for information known to any agency head or if the legislation obliges the head of service to go to other officials and, if so, to identify them.

“Clearly first-hand information is preferable to hearsay,” the Commission says.

The Commission says the lack of a wire-tapping power has already adversely impacted several investigations.

It says the integrity commissions of all the states have this function and the Northern Territory is taking steps to obtain it.

The Commission needs to be declared an eligible authority and a criminal law-enforcement agency under the Telecommunications Interception and Access Act after making a submission to the Minister for Home Affairs.

But first the ACT Legislative Assembly needs to pass legislation to ensure ‘law enforcement agencies’ within the ACT comply with certain requirements in the TIA Act.

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Integrity Commissioner Michael Adams says the Commission is still in the process of development and yet to achieve full capacity, but its workload is steadily increasing.

He says assessments, which involves triaging corruption reports, have increased by 48 per cent, investigations activity has increased by 200 per cent, and there have been more Corruption Prevention and Education presentations than in the previous year.

In October Mr Adams told the Legislative Assembly that the Commission had opened 10 full investigations and 12 preliminary investigations from well over 100 complaint assessments, but despite saying its first report was imminent, is yet to publish any.

The nine investigations listed in the Annual Report covered corrupt conduct, decision making and influence, unlawful activity, and collusion/maladministration.

The Annual Report listed 18 staff, but the October Budget provided extra funding for 19.8 positions.

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HiddenDragon8:45 pm 15 Dec 21

Sounds like we will need a Voices For candidate running in each ACT electorate at the next Territory election to get “real action” on integrity in this incestuous little realm……

Capital Retro8:38 am 15 Dec 21

Given that the current government has been continuously in power for 20 years can we assume that this article refers only to them?

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