With the Commonwealth Government owning nearly $40 billion worth of land and buildings, it is fair to say that taxpayers expect these assets to be managed in a way which is transparent and accountable.
Nonetheless, confidence in accountability regarding the federal government and Commonwealth agencies has been rocked over recent years by cases of misuse of public money, acceptance of Chinese donations and the latest tax office scandal.
Although these cases may not have involved allegations about actual corruption (or, in some cases, behaviour which is questionable but not illegal), the impact in terms of public trust should not be underestimated.
Adding to the angst is the fact whilst anti-corruption agencies are in place to monitor public sector behaviour at the local and state level, no such agency exists at the Commonwealth level.
Not surprisingly, calls for this to change are growing. In February, the Senate established a Senate Committee to enquire and report on the idea of establishing a national integrity commission.
For the property and construction sector, this matters. Of its $594.2 billion in total assets, the federal government held a total of $39.157 billion worth of land and buildings as at June 2016 - $27.779 billion worth of buildings and $11.378 billion worth of land. The billions spent on contracts to maintain this and construct new buildings is attractive for would-be crooks. So too is the $2.808 billion the Commonwealth spent on leasing of offices and equipment.
This raises questions as to whether or not Australia needs a new anti-corruption agency at the Commonwealth level.
According to Professor AJ Brown, program leader, Public Integrity & Anti-Corruption in the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University. the answer is yes. Whilst work remains in nutting out details about how a new body would work, Brown says there are clear gaps in current arrangements.
One such gap, he says, revolves around grey areas such as breaches of procurement guidelines and issues of serious misconduct. These, he says, might not necessarily have the necessary proof of corruption required to warrant the Australian Federal Police becoming involved but could nonetheless lead to corruption being committed.
In addition, whilst the AFP, the Auditor General and the Public Service Commission have investigative roles in various capacities, Brown says none of these agencies are in any way geared toward ensuring the Commonwealth Government overall has effective governance strategies in place and that these are being followed. A specific anti-corruption regulator, he said, could work proactively to ensure that suitable upstream practices are being followed to reduce the likelihood of corruption being able to occur.
Finally, there is reporting. At the state level, Brown says issues such as serious misconduct, conflict of interest, favouritism or nepotism which can potentially carry the danger of corruption have to be reported to the central anti-corruption body. At the Commonwealth level, Brown says this is largely not the case and agencies largely decide for themselves how best to handle corruption/malpractice issues with only limited oversight from the Public Service Commission. Had the recent tax office fraud not come out publicly, for example, Brown says how the ATO would have dealt with this internally is anyone’s guess.
Having a separate agency which would look into some of those grey areas, work with agencies to improve practices and serve as a point through which potential corruption or bad practices which could lead to corruption would be reported, he said, could address many of these gaps.
Flinders University Professor Adam Graycar disagrees. Whilst acknowledging that there are problems and stressing that he was not advocating a laissez-faire attitude, Graycar said there is little argument for setting up yet another agency. Indeed, before throwing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars at another new agency, he said, we first need to be clear about the problem we are trying to solve. Only then, he said, can we be in a position to determine the best way forward.
For a start, he says, much of what comes through to an anti-corruption watchdog is not actually about corruption at all but relates instead to issues such as bad behaviour, sloppy service or poor management. Take, for example, a case in South Australia where the anti-corruption agency launched a probe into the health department’s management of the Oakden mental health facility in Adelaide’s north-east regarding alleged maladministration and abuse of elderly dementia patients. In cases like this, Graycar said, there are potentially better ways to deal with this than through the special anti-corruption agency. If the Minister were incompetent, then the Premier should fire them. In respect of the patient abuse, the Ombudsman could handle that.
When it comes to construction, Graycar likewise acknowledges the scope for problems but questions whether or not a separate federal agency is needed. If there were bid rigging or poor bidding practices for public sector contracts, he said, the Auditor General should deal with that. Where issues such as bid rigging, phoenix companies, union bullying or ripping off customers were taking place, he said agencies such as the Auditor General, the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the Ombudsman should be able to handle things. Where allegations of serious criminal behaviour or organised crime were in play, you would expect the Australian Federal Police or the Crime and Intelligence Commission should be involved.
The idea of throwing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to establish, staff and resource yet another agency before it can be established that problems could not be dealt with through existing agencies, Graycar said, is yet to be supported by a strong case.
An alternative and less expensive way, Graycar said, would be to see corruption investigation units added to the Australian Federal Police, the Auditor General’s Office and the Australian Tax Office along with mechanisms for coordination and information sharing. These would be assisted not by a new agency with its own separate investigative powers but rather by an anti-corruption council which would act as a central point for receipt of complaints and direct traffic to the relevant agency as complaints came in.
“It’s not that I am saying that you shouldn’t have something,” Graycar said.
“The first question is what is the problem that you are trying to solve. We are not clear on the problem we are trying to solve. The real issue to me is what are the problems we are trying to solve. I’m not saying there aren’t any problems, just that we need to work out what they are and how to solve them in a systematic way.”
Brown acknowledges that there is much to be done in sorting out how an anti-corruption body would work and also acknowledges fears that creating another agency could lead to overreach and turf wars. But he says these issues can be addressed through the design of legislation. Arrangements whereby the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity provides oversight to the Federal Police, the Crime Intelligence Commission and a number of other agencies could provide an example of how this could work, he said.
Moreover, he says this is no reason to say that we don’t need an anti-corruption body. He says Australia should continue to work toward greater public accountability.
“Just because there are some complex questions to be resolved about how to do it, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it”, Brown said. “Business is getting more complex and competitive. Government is under more pressure to cut corners and deliver results faster.
“A lot of the pressures which are leading to increased corruption risk are growing rather than improving. That’s why we can’t afford to be complacent about it.
“Just because we have a lower level of corruption than some other countries, that’s all the more reason to ensure that we stay that way rather than take the risk of assuming that everything is OK.”