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It’s time to fill the gaps and set up a federal ICAC

The NSW anti-corruption watchdog, NSW ICAC, has revealed over 100 cases of systemic corruption and misconduct involving local and state public servants and politicians.
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One of these investigations resulted in former politicians and ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian MacDonald being found guilty of misconduct in public office through their involvement in lucrative coal licencing deals.

Recent charges of tax fraud in the ATO show that such issues do not stop at the NSW border and our federal systems are equally vulnerable.

The reason more cases have been revealed in NSW is that there is an effective anti-corruption watchdog operating in NSW, but not one operating federally.

Despite the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull,assuring us that the government has zero tolerance for fraud and misconduct, readers will be surprised to find out that in fact half the public sector and the entire parliament are not covered by any anti-corruption watchdog.

Why? Because we don’t have a federal ICAC.

Instead we have a cobbled together and largely uncoordinated assortment of organisations responsible for oversight of different parts of the public sector. The Australia Federal Police, the Ombudsman, the Auditor General, the Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity and the Public Service Commission all have roles, but with many jurisdictions, there are gaps.

The AFP pursue only criminal matters, which means that unless it is clear from the start that laws have been broken, many corruption allegations will not be investigated.The Ombudsman and the Auditor General are restricted to responding to complaints about administrative decisions and financial reporting.The Commission for Law Enforcement can only investigate cases of misconduct within law enforcement bodies like the AFP.The Public Service Commission cannot investigate politicians, and has only limited inquiry functions. In addition, Australian Public Service agencies only account for approximately half of the total Commonwealth public sector activity and agencies.None of the above have the jurisdiction to investigate ministers or the wide investigative powers needed to effectively pursue individual corruption allegations.

Transparency International describes how this system came about in a 2012 submission to the national anti-corruption plan discussion paper, which found: “The Commonwealth’s present arrangements are the result of decades of largely uncoordinated developments in administrative law, criminal law and public sector management, together with political accident.”

This reality seems to contradict Mr Turnbull’s statements in his response to the recent ATO tax fraud case. “You cannot be ever complacent about any aspect of integrity in public life or in government. So we have a relentless pursuit of corruption, malpractice, abuse of office.”

A Prime Minister who wanted a ‘relentless pursuit of corruption’ would fill the gaps and set up a Federal ICAC to investigate and expose corruption across the public sector and federal government. And Mr Turnbull would do well to learn from the success of NSW ICAC model.

Obeid and MacDonald: By following seemingly weak trails, the NSW ICAC has uncovered complex webs of corruption and misconduct.

Hannah Aulby is theAccountability and the Law Conferencedirector at The Australia Institute