The darkest corners: The case for a federal integrity commission

by Geoffrey Watson

There is a compelling case for a federal integrity commission: there is strong public support for such a body, and there is evidence that corruption is endemic in our federal public service, with 3000 cases being reported by the public service’s own survey.

State-based anti-corruption bodies have found corruption in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, and there is no reason it will not be found in Canberra once a federal integrity commission is established.

Australia has international obligations as a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. Article 36 of UNCAC obliges Australia to create and maintain an independent anti-corruption agency.

The multiplicity of our current agencies is not effective. There are gaps and some conduct is beyond examination by any federal agency. Different standards of conduct are being applied to different classes of federal public officials.

A federal integrity commission needs both direct and indirect jurisdiction to be effective. Indirect jurisdiction allows the commission to investigate a situation where a public official was acting innocently but was lured into making a bad decision by private interests acting corruptly, for example two businessmen colluding for personal gain in respect to a public contract.

A federal integrity commission needs to be completely independent of those persons and bodies who might come under investigation. Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales state governments have all intervened in the operation and resourcing of their state anti-corruption commissions.

Public sector corruption is an extraordinary crime and it is almost impossible to detect or expose it using ordinary investigative powers. A federal integrity commission needs the powers of a Royal Commission.

A federal integrity commission needs the power to hold public hearings in order to be effective. Direct experience has shown me that critical information arises through members of the public coming forward at public hearings. Public hearings also build public trust in the investigations.

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