10 January 2019 — Sydney Morning Herald
Why it matters
• One of the federal government’s anti-corruption agencies reported its highest-ever caseload.
• Trends reported by other integrity bodies present a question for supporters of an agency.
• Law enforcement integrity commission conducted more inquiries – but received fewer new cases.
The federal anti-corruption agency policing law enforcement agencies had its largest caseload on record last year as it reported a backlog of investigations and detected deeper levels of misconduct.
Australia’s commission for law enforcement integrity has also flagged it doesn’t yet know how the creation of the Home Affairs Department will affect its work monitoring agencies, as another 1000 staff come into its jurisdiction.
Inquiries into Australia’s border officials and federal police ended in convictions last year after the commission caught them acting criminally on the job.
Integrity Commissioner Michael Griffin reported the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity reached its highest ever level of operational tempo in its 12-year history as slow-burn corruption probes reached an end, the number of staff it oversaw grew, and agencies it monitored found it easier to detect possible misconduct and more deeply entrenched corruption.
“Deeper levels of corruption are being found, with sophisticated criminal groups sometimes targeting a number of staff in different law enforcement agencies,” he said in an annual report.
The commission reported a spike in new cases in 2015 after the then-Department of immigration and border protection came under its watch, creating a backload of work carried into last year. It received fewer referrals in 2017, and officials identified cases to close.
A reshuffle of Australia’s national security agencies last year could raise its workload again.
“The creation of the Department of Home Affairs in late December 2017, bringing into jurisdiction an additional 1000 staff, many of whom perform potentially high corruption risk functions, is yet to be fully determined,” Mr Griffin said.
The commission conducted 280 investigations last year, up from 240 in 2016 and 45 in 2013. New cases fell from 107 to 55 between 2016 and 2017.
Advocates for a new, over-arching federal anti-corruption agency could seize on the commission’s figures, but face a challenge in conflicting data about government misconduct emerging from the existing patchwork of integrity watchdogs.
The figures don’t undercut a campaign for a new corruption-busting agency, newly-energised by a crossbench that has won more influence since the Morrison government lost its majority. They also present a question for supporters of a new National Integrity Commission in a debate scant on statistics.
New misconduct and maladministration investigations are falling in other agencies tasked with detecting corruption in the bureaucracy.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman, monitoring integrity in non-law enforcement agencies, reported the number of probes finalised fell from 365 to 313. Reports of wrongdoing grew from 684 to 737, continuing a trend in recent years, but many appear to have emerged mistakenly from members of the public through Australia Post.
“Australia Post has strong processes in place for publicising the scheme on its public-facing website, which results in a higher proportion of members of the public, who are not public officials, seeking to access the scheme,” the ombudsman said.
Two hundred disclosures to Australia Post did not meet the threshold needed to investigate as the discloser was not a public servant. Investigation numbers fell at the Department of Defence, but increased at the Tax Office, Home Affairs, and the Commonwealth Ombudsman.
Monash University senior lecturer in law specialising in government integrity, Yee-Fui Ng, said the figures gave only an incomplete picture of corruption in the federal bureaucracy.
The mosaic of federal watchdogs was not “all encompassing” and was not focused on systemic corruption.
“It’s a bit naive to think that it’s confined to the state level, and the federal level is pristine,” she said.
“The point of an anti-corruption commission is it will try to have a systemic look at what might potentially be corrupt. That’s the reason why we want an overarching body to look at all the actions of the agencies and look at a system level.”
The public service commission has previously argued against a new integrity agency, saying misconduct levels were low, current anti-corruption efforts already worked, and the federal government was less exposed to high corruption-risk work – including planning and mining licences – than state governments. Dr Ng said a new integrity commission could investigate federal agencies and politicians dealing in procurement and government grants, among other matters.
In January the public service commission said the number of bureaucrats witnessing corruption had risen to 5 per cent, although fewer code of conduct inquiries were conducted. Australia has slid from ninth to 13th in global anti-corruption body Transparency International’s rankings for perceived government integrity since 2013.
Another watchdog, the Australian National Audit Office, revealed last week the Home Affairs Department and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission were the first agencies to ever flag they could try suppressing parts of its investigations into their projects and spending.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten has promised to work with crossbenchers to establish a National Integrity Commission, and independent MP Cathy McGowan on Monday is expected to introduce legislation in parliament creating the watchdog. Attorney-General Christian Porter is considering how to strengthen Australia’s patchwork integrity regime, but the Coalition is yet to determine where it stands on a new commission.