In an article for The Age, published July 11, 2014 Adjunct professor Colleen Lewis argues that the Victorian IBAC lacks teeth and cannot investigate matters that fall within the ambit of misconduct in public office. She calls for a clear promise from any party before the November 2014 State election, to implement the legislative changes needed to give Victorians the kind of anti-corruption body that has operated so effectively in NSW.


IBAC, Victoria’s anti-corruption body, cannot investigate corruption in public office

Colleen Lewis
Published: July 11, 2014 – 3:23PM

For at least the past 10 years, successive Victorian governments of both political persuasions have been  paying lip service to establishing an effective anti-corruption body. A brief overview of the history that led to the creation of the latest version, the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC), is instructive as it shows clearly that for too long this important public policy area has been shrouded in symbolic politics.

In early 2004, Victoria’s (public sector) anti-corruption regime consisted of the ombudsman and, within that office, a deputy ombudsman (police complaints). With a meagre budget of $3.3 million, it could only employ 27 people to investigate complaints against the state’s appointed public servants, including the police. No independent body had the power to scrutinise the behaviour of elected public servants – our members of parliament.

At that time, the Bracks Labor government’s reaction to concerns raised about this unacceptable state of affairs was to say that giving the ombudsman’s office an extra $1 million and increasing its compulsion powers would suffice.

It is worth recalling that in 2004, Victoria was in the grip of what is commonly referred to as the ”gangland wars”, and criticism of the government’s $1 million policy approach to anti-corruption was strident.

Consequently, some two months later, the government announced that the ombudsman’s office would receive an additional $10 million and more powers, including the power to tap phones.

Unfortunately, it seemingly failed to check with the federal attorney-general to see if he would grant such intrusive powers to an ombudsman’s office. It came as no surprise to those involved in anti-corruption matters that he would not.

In August 2004, there was yet another policy change. The recently appointed police ombudsman, a position created only 12 weeks earlier, was disbanded and replaced with a director of police integrity in an Office of Police Integrity (OPI).

With this change, anti-corruption policy moved from being totally inadequate to farcical, as the government appointed the same person to be director of the Office of Police Integrity and ombudsman.

The Labor government’s decision to make this unique and questionable style of appointment invited considerable ridicule and, to an extent, undermined the credibility of the OPI. I hasten to add that the criticisms were not directed at the individual who had been given both roles but to the policy.

Victorians were assured that the two offices, headed by the same person, would be completely independent of each other.

This dual style of appointment continued for approximately three years, and during that time, Victoria still had no independent anti-corruption commission. Nor did the community ever receive a rational explanation from the Labor government as to why it appointed the same person to fulfil the two independent roles, or why it would not establish an effective anti-corruption body.

Rather than adopt a strategic methodology to the then growing corruption and accountability problems besetting Victoria, the government chose to respond with a ”policy on the run” approach that was destined to produce flawed outcomes.

Criticism of the government’s response to calls for a powerful, independent anti-corruption commission continued, and public disquiet grew to the point where, for electoral reasons, the Brumby Labor government could no longer afford to stonewall the establishment of an anti-corruption commission.

The premier ”requested that the public sector standards commissioner and a special commissioner review the efficiency and effectiveness of the state’s anti-corruption system”.

In line with its previous policy responses, the next iteration in what was becoming an anti-corruption policy saga was the recommendation from the review to establish the Victorian Integrity Anti-Corruption Commission. The proposed model was so complex, and in several areas so inadequate, that it received virtually no support.

The establishment of an effective anti-corruption body became a contested political issue in the 2010 state election, with the then Liberal-National opposition promising an anti-corruption model for Victoria that would, in effect, mirror NSW’s ICAC. The reality was far from the pre-election rhetoric. Instead, Victorians were given the IBAC, which, in its present form, is a far cry from ICAC.

IBAC is constrained by a very narrow base, one that tightly confines it to ”serious corrupt conduct”. In addition, it cannot act unless it has evidence that ”a proscribed indictable offence might have been committed”.

Most worryingly, it has been denied the ability to investigate misconduct in public office. These restraints mean the IBAC is unable to commence the type of investigations that led to the Obeid case in NSW.

The commissioner of IBAC has recently asked for its legislation to be amended so it can, among other things, investigate matters that fall within the ambit of misconduct in public office. This is a very reasonable request.

Regrettably, all we are hearing from the Napthine Liberal-National government is that it will be responding positively to the IBAC’s request. There is no mention of when this will happen and what the nature of any amendments will be.

The time has come for the symbolic politics that continually swirl around anti-corruption policy in this state to cease. It is in the power of the Liberal-National government and the Labor opposition to implement the legislative changes needed to give Victorians an anti-corruption body that is not operating with one hand tied behind its back and the other in a sling.

In four months, Victorians go to the polls to elect a new government. Which party will give a core, solemn, non-negotiable promise to give this state the type of anti-corruption body that operates in New South Wales, and to do so within six months of being elected to power?

We do not need any more excuses as we have heard them all before. What we do need is a clear statement from both major parties on this important policy matter, and we need it well before the election.

Colleen Lewis is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Arts, Monash University.

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