A poorly thought-out federal ICAC could be a band-aid on a bullet wound

Momentum is gathering for the establishment of a federal anti-corruption commission. What structure and powers would it need to be effective? Public sector law expert John Wilson says the wrong kind of federal ICAC could be counterproductive.

Amid numerous recent findings of corruption and misconduct by public officials, the public service and federal politicians are under increasing pressure to maintain the confidence of the public they collectively serve. It is not surprising, then, that the call for a federal anti-corruption commission (ICAC) is becoming louder and louder. The tone of an event organised by The Australia Institute earlier this year was telling – the question was no longer whether, but how.

That does not mean there is consensus. Professor Adam Graycar told a parliamentary committee last year that the proponents of a federal ICAC were not even sure of the problems they were trying to solve, let alone how to solve them. What, then, is necessary to ensure such an institution can effectively curb corruption in the political and bureaucratic spheres?

Three main areas of concern have been identified, which will be considered here in turn:

  1. The incompatibility of a federal ICAC with existing regulatory bodies;
  2. the likely misuse of a misconduct register to discriminate against prospective employees; and
  3. fairness and justice considerations.

Scope of jurisdiction

Firstly, the boundaries of the federal ICAC’s jurisdiction must be clear to ensure the definition of corruption is not brought into question. In the 2015 case of ICAC v Cunneen, NSW Deputy Senior Crown Prosecutor Margaret Cunneen was accused of perverting the course of justice. The High Court ruled that her actions did not constitute “corrupt conduct”, nor did it adversely affect the police investigators’ ability to exercise their official functions, as those terms are defined in the NSW legislation. The bench concluded that applying this narrow interpretation would allow the ICAC Act to operate as it was intended to, and avoid overtly criminal acts falling within the scope of the NSW ICAC’s investigative powers.

However, a narrow interpretation may prove more problematic in a federal setting, where crimes such as tax evasion may not be construed as an attempt to pervert the course of justice, and would therefore not fall within reach of the federal ICAC. Establishing such an institution without causing conflict with already-existing regulatory bodies would require “a genius in legislative artistry.”

A misconduct register

Secondly, it has been proposed that the federal ICAC would be supplemented by a misconduct register, modelled on the one being established in South Australia. In that state, the register forms a repository for the findings of the SA ICAC, with a database on public officers who have been dismissed from public employment. The repository will also include allegations that never advanced to investigation, to ensure that records are created on those who resign before investigations commence.

But there are concerns about misuse of such a register. Misconduct findings are administrative, not judicial decisions, and for a range of reasons many never proceed beyond the initial decision. The 2016/17 APSC Annual Report indicated that only 93 of the 223 cases brought to the Merit Protection Commissioner as a second tier of review ended up being reconsidered. It may be, therefore, that these findings are ultimately given unjustifiable weight in future employment decisions as a result of the register.

Former Senator Zhenya Wang, prior Chair of the Select Committee into the Establishment of a National Integrity Commission, has voiced similar concerns. “A dedicated [federal ICAC] would threaten the legal rights of individuals, as well as potentially unfairly tarnish the reputation of individuals investigated, even when they are later found not to have engaged in corrupt conduct,” said Wang. Elevating the weight of an internal administrative finding to a permanent stain on someone’s record has troubling implications.

Fairness

Finally, the Rule of Law Institute of Australia has argued that introducing a federal ICAC may create a new system of justice without the legal safeguards entrenched in the existing one. The risk has been articulated as that of a “parallel system of justice to the traditional criminal court system initially with all the credibility of a court, but without any of the protections that have been built up around the court system over many generations.” Principles such as the presumption of innocence, the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt and the privilege against self-incrimination may not be embedded in this new system.

Yet none of these flaws are fatal. With proper design and a nuanced appreciation of need to balance institutional concerns with personal liberty issues, a federal ICAC can effectively address corruption and misfeasance at the Commonwealth level without unduly imposing on the rights of affected individuals. That is not to understate the challenging task facing the creators of such a body; rather, it is to accept that these concerns are real and deserve consideration, but do not represent overwhelming obstacles.

A band-aid?

It may be, as detractors are quick to point out, that the risk of corruption is already lowered at the federal level. There are more pre-existing mechanisms for transparency and accountability, and the spheres administered by federal public servants are potentially less susceptible to the development-related corruption exposed in NSW.

But there are many benefits to restoring public confidence in the federal bureaucracy through a nationwide anti-corruption commission. Like the common response to climate-change deniers (what is the detriment of a cleaner planet in any event?), if politics and administration at a federal-level are indeed free from corruption, then what harm would the added-level of accountability brought by a federal ICAC do?

Yet the creation of such an institution is attended by risks. The establishment and subsequent failure of a federal ICAC may even prove counterproductive in the fight against corruption. Unless its implementation is carefully considered and thoughtfully executed, we may end up patching a bullet wound with a band-aid.

John Wilson is the managing legal director at Bradley Allen Love Lawyers and an accredited specialist in industrial relations and employment law. His colleague Zoe Zhang assisted in preparing this article. 

First published in The Mandarin.