Corruption scandals falling through the cracks of ‘hopeless’ federal system

No agency has the necessary jurisdiction or investigative powers to properly expose corruption in the federal government or public service and a strong federal anti-corruption watchdog is needed to fill the gaps, research has found.

The Australian Institute think tank has examined all the functions and powers of the seven key agencies responsible for maintaining integrity in the federal system, and has found none has the scope or reach of the state-based corruption bodies.

Ahead of a major conference in Canberra on Thursday designed to build momentum for a federal anti-corruption body similar to the NSW ICAC or Victorian IBAC, the report finds the current system is inadequate to stop misconduct.

The main federal bodies responsible for integrity – the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Australian Federal Police, the Auditor General, the Australian Crime Commission, the Australian Public Service Commission, and the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority – do not co-ordinate.

None has the core function of exposing corruption and misconduct and most cannot investigate MPs, ministers, ministerial staff or the judiciary. None hold regular public hearings, meaning corruption is not properly exposed to the public.

Even the AFP’s strong investigative powers can only be used to investigate corruption when it is considered a federal crime, meaning many forms of dishonest and dodgy misconduct covered by state commissions are not pursued.

NSW corruption fighter Geoffrey Watson, SC, says while many federal agencies do a good job within their remit, the overall system is hopelessly “piecemeal”. 

“They’re applying different standards of conduct, they’re applying different rules, they’ve got different methods and techniques, and they’ve got different powers as to what they can and can’t do,” he told Fairfax Media. “That alone makes the case for something unified.”

Mr Watson, the NSW ICAC’s star barrister, says many scandals are escaping proper attention, pointing to the recent Fairfax Media revelations of corruption in the Australian Border Force and the influence of Chinese donors on the major political parties. 

He also points to the ABC claims of Murray Darling Basin water rorts, which are difficult for state bodies to investigate because the issue crosses state lines.

Anti-corruption commissions exist in every state in Australia, operating alongside the police, auditors, ombudsmen and other integrity commissions. 

The report, authored by the institute’s Hannah Aulby, says a federal anti-corruption body must have extensive powers to compel witnesses and evidence, hold public and private hearings, enter and search premises, and use surveillance devices and phone intercepts.

“The establishment of an anti-corruption commission would contribute to restoring people’s confidence by sending an unambiguous signal that government takes corruption and accountability seriously,” the report says.

To ensure its sweeping powers are not used irresponsibly, the commission should be overseen by a parliamentary committee and a special inspector. But it should also have strong statutory independence to prevent government interference. 

Australia Institute executive director Ben Oquist said polling consistently showed that 80 per cent of people want a federal anti-corruption commission.

“The types of corruption being revealed in NSW ICAC are currently falling through the gaps of our federal anti-corruption measures,” he said. “Corruption doesn’t stop at the border, and a federal [anti-corruption body] is needed to make sure it is investigated and exposed.”

Calls for a federal anti-corruption body has broad support within the legal profession, including from the Law Council of Australia and prominent barristers such as Tony Fitzgerald, David Harper, Nicholas Cowdery and Paul Stein.