Submission: Giving Our Watchdog Teeth
Tasmania’s Integrity Commission is weak and is losing public trust. It has never held a public hearing. It cannot investigate politicians’ conduct during election campaigns, nor can it investigate corrupt conduct of third parties seeking to influence public administration. It has the second lowest per capita budget of a state/territory commission. It has only ever referred two people for prosecution, the lowest number for any state. Tasmania’s Commission needs public hearings, more publicly released reports and more funding. Its jurisdiction needs to expand to include Members of Parliament during election periods, corrupt conduct of third parties and matters covered by Parliamentary privilege.
The Tasmanian Integrity Commission (the Commission) was established in 2009 with the aim of improving the standard of conduct by public authorities in lutruwita/Tasmania, as well as giving the public confidence that where misconduct occurs that it will be dealt with. Five years after it began operating, there was an independent review into the Commission, conducted by former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Cox AC. Now, six years on from the release of the Review, only six of the 55 recommendations have been implemented, despite commitments from the Government to implement the majority of remaining recommendations.
In this context, the Australia Institute Tasmania (the Institute) welcomes the Tasmanian Government’s commitment to implementing a number of the recommendations from the Cox Review Report in the next stage of legislative reform. The remaining recommendations which are the subject of Tasmanian Government’s Integrity Commission Act 2009 (the Act) – Legislative Reform Discussion Paper should also be included in this tranche of amendments. The Institute commends the Government for also committing to implementing solutions to issues raised since the Cox Review Report, including disclosure of official secrets and unauthorised access to computer offences.
Whilst these changes are a welcome improvement, they alone will not make the Commission the watchdog with teeth that the Tasmanian public want and deserve. Australia Institute research found that nearly one in two (48.5%) Tasmanians distrust the Commission’s ability to uncover and prevent misconduct in public administration.
And is it any wonder? Australia Institute research found the Commission’s limited jurisdiction has seen it unable to investigate the Tasmanian Premier, third parties or conduct covered by Parliamentary privilege. The Commission has never held a public inquiry, unlike its interstate counterparts. More than half of the Commission’s reports have not been released to the public. It is currently the second lowest funded integrity body in the nation.
The Act’s definition of misconduct limits the people and circumstances that can be investigated by the Commission. Its definition of misconduct does not currently include ‘corrupt conduct’ of third parties seeking to influence public administration.
To give the Commission the strength it needs, the Australia Institute Tasmania recommends that:
- the majority of the Cox Review Report recommendations be legislated as a matter of priority. At the same time, the issues raised since the Cox Review Report, including disclosure of official secrets and unauthorised access to computer offences, should be addressed.
- the jurisdiction of the Commission be expanded to include members of Parliament during an election period and all others exercising statutory functions or powers of public officers.
- an expanded definition of corrupt conduct be legislated, to allow the Commission to investigate corrupt conduct of people beyond public officers.
- the jurisdiction of the Commission be expanded by removing references to Parliamentary privilege from the Integrity Commission Act 2009 (the Act).
- the Act require that the Board must turn its mind to holding an inquiry or releasing a report publicly, and consider a number of factors when doing so, including the benefit to the investigation, public interest and reputational damage. Barriers to releasing investigation reports publicly should also be removed.
- the funding of the Commission be increased in the next state budgets so that it can keep pace with its interstate counterparts.