Latest IBAC incarnation is still not roadworthy

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The Age: Latest IBAC incarnation is still not roadworthy. September 24, 2014. Colleen Lewis

Imagine, if for some time, you had received a firm promise of a new bicycle for your birthday – one that had all the bits and pieces needed to ensure you would experience smooth, efficient and effective rides.

When your birthday arrives, with great expectation, you unwrap your present, only to find you have received a bicycle with only one wheel. After repeatedly complaining about the deficiencies inherent in such a model, and being supported in your complaints by experts in the bicycle field, you are promised the shortcomings will be rectified. Some six months later, you are presented with a remodelled bicycle. You eagerly unwrap the parcel, feeling confident it will now be equipped with all the parts required to achieve peak bicycle performance.

But, alas, the commitment to remedy the faulty model has not been fully honoured. While you are given a bicycle with two wheels, only one is round; the other is square.

This is how many Victorians felt about the original Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) version of an anti-corruption commission. After IBAC itself pointed out that its legislation prevented it from fulfilling its role effectively – a position supported by experts in the anti-corruption area – the government promised to amend the act so Victorians would, at long last, be given a model that would work.

The government has tabled a bill in Parliament to amend the IBAC Act, but it has delivered a bicycle with a seriously faulty wheel.

While there are positive elements to the IBAC amendments, not the least being that (if the legislation passes Parliament) they will allow the anti-corruption body to investigate “misconduct in public office”. However, it is unable to use coercive powers in preliminary investigations. This means it is going to wobble along doing the best it can with its faulty design.

One of the explanations governments give for not granting anti-corruption bodies the powers they need to be effective is that such bodies are too often used for political purposes.

Are Victorians, and citizens in many other Australian states, to be denied a truly effective anti-corruption body because our politicians cannot trust themselves? If this is the case, then surely the problem that needs addressing is the behaviour of individual politicians and the parties to which they belong. Perhaps we need legislation that specifically addresses that issue. But how can we achieve such an outcome, given that those who politicise the process are the same people who have to pass legislation designed to overcome such practices.

To return to the bicycle metaphor, perhaps even more concerning than the redesigned but still deficient bicycle is the growing lack of trust in the people who delivered the two faulty models. After receiving the one-wheel bicycle, you experienced doubts about their commitment to providing a workable bicycle, designed to do what bicycles are meant to do. Despite your growing concerns, you decided to give them the benefit of the doubt, as you truly believed the promise to remedy the problems associated with a one-wheel bicycle would be kept.

However, after receiving the bicycle with one square wheel you no longer trust these people and find yourself searching for another potential bicycle designer. But, again, trust becomes an issue, as the only other bicycle designer took the extraordinary step years ago of arguing that there was no need for people to even have bicycles. You recall that after strident criticism over such a bizarre approach, they too designed a bicycle, but it was so complicated that many were not interested in even trying the model the designer had named Victorian Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission bicycle.

The inadequacies that still surround IBAC’s legislation raise concerns about how many other wobbly and wonky bicycles we have in our accountability shed.

How effective is Protected Disclosures (Whistleblowers) legislation? What is the situation with political funding rules in Victoria? Do they mirror best practice? Do all of our accountability institutions have the powers and resources needed to be effective? Are ministerial advisers sufficiently accountable for their actions? Should we scrutinise the history of the Privileges Committee’s decisions, given that it is a system whereby Caesar judges Caesar? Would our Freedom of Information Act be better titled a Freedom from Information? What is our position in relation to political lobbying laws?

The answers to these and other accountability-related questions could be answered through an independent accountability review: a Commission of Audit. Clearly, such an audit could not be undertaken before the forthcoming election. But Victorians have a right to know which parties and independent candidates are prepared to commit to such an audit, when it would be established and its reporting time line. This would enable people to be confident they do not spend the next four years riding along on wonky accountability bicycles or, worse still, some that only have one wheel.

Colleen Lewis is an adjunct professor with the National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University.

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