‘Sham’ CIC slammed for protecting public servants

Public servants would give evidence to the government’s proposed federal integrity body in secret, leading to charges it’s a sham designed to cover up corruption.

Christian Porter

Attorney General Christian Porter on Monday released long-awaited draft legislation for the $147 million Commonwealth  Integrity Commission (CIC), saying it would enhance the integrity framework of the Commonwealth public service and ensure it remains corruption free.

But not everyone agrees.

The commission would have two divisions, one to deal with law enforcement officials and the other for politicians and public servants with different definitions of corrupt conduct.

The public sector integrity division would only investigate criminal offences and would not make any findings of corruption, which the government says should be left to the courts.

The draft legislation also says hearings and evidence relating to public sector corruption must be held in private.

A hearing for the purpose of investigating a corruption issue must be held in private to the extent that the hearing is dealing with a public sector corruption issue.

Draft CIC legislation

“A hearing for the purpose of investigating a corruption issue must be held in private to the extent that the hearing is dealing with a public sector corruption issue,” it says.

“A hearing for a corruption inquiry must also be held in private if it is dealing with corruption by public sector agencies.

“…There may be no findings of corrupt conduct for parliamentarians or public servants in any final report.”

Protecting reputations

Mr Porter said this was designed to avoid “unjust and irreparable harm to the reputations of innocent people”, as has sometimes occurred in  the case of state-based corruption bodies.

“The public equally expects that those who come under scrutiny are not denied procedural fairness and are not subjected to trial by allegation,” he said.

The Centre for Public Integrity said the proposed body was not fit for purpose and the distinction between law enforcement and public sector was “unfortunate and unwarranted”.

As well as expressing concern about public sector corruption hearings being held in private, the centre says the definition of corrupt conduct is too narrow and the referral threshold too high.

“This is not a corruption commission, it is designed to protect parliamentarians and senior public servants from investigation,” the centre’s director, retired Victorian Supreme Court judge Stephen Charles QC said.

Fellow director,  Geoffrey Watson SC described it as a sham.

“It is designed to cover up corruption, not expose it,” he said.

Commenting ahead of the release of the draft legislation, Dr Mark Rolfe from the UNSW School of Social Sciences, said the CIC wouldn’t be looking at politicians or at the relations of ministers and departments.

“I don’t think (Prime Minister Scott) Morrison wants a federal ICAC looking under all the rocks and stones and discovering things under there that might damage his government,” he said.

Consultation period

The proposed CIC will be led by an Integrity Commissioner and two deputy commissioners who will head the watchdog’s separate law enforcement and public sector integrity divisions.

Mr Porter said the CIC would have greater investigatory powers than a royal commission and would be able to compel witnesses to give sworn evidence at hearings, and provide documents.

It will also be able to tap phones and use surveillance devices during investigations and confiscate passports by court order.

The new CIC, will eventually subsume the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI).

Consultation on the draft Bills will run until March 2021 with submissions closing on February 12.

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