A supine integrity agency is worse than useless; it is dangerous

Jun 20, 2024
Australian national flag on top of Parliament House in Canberra, Australia

An inactive integrity agency is not just a waste of money, it sits as another level of protection for public sector misconduct, writes Geoffrey Watson on the National Anti-Corruption Commission’s (NACC) decision not to hold those responsible for Robodebt to account.

We would all agree that there is little purpose to be served by an integrity agency which is neither effective nor efficient. It would be a waste of money.

But, in my view, it is worse, much worse, than that: an inactive integrity agency sits as another level of protection for public sector misconduct. Allegations of impropriety are easily batted away, politicians asserting – ‘well, the corruption watchdog didn’t say anything was wrong’. This is not fantasy: this is often heard in those parts of Australia where there are weak agencies.

In short, a supine integrity agency is worse than useless; it is dangerous.

This is why the early signs emerging from our (relatively) new federal agency, NACC, are concerning.

NACC opened a year ago. So far there is no evidence that it has done anything of positive importance. Sure, it is still early days and investigations take time to develop. By itself that may not be a worry – except there is already evidence of what it is it is declining to do. The only important statement by NACC so far is that NACC is declining to address the most serious instance of public corruption in decades – Robodebt.

It is hard to overstate the impact of Robodebt. This was not money at stake – lives were lost. Members of our community committed suicide when confronted with our government making false claims. Other lives were ruined. The government had been told the claims were illegal, but went ahead anyway.

Yet NACC has announced it will not examine the fallout of Robodebt and it will not obey the recommendations of the Royal Commissioner, Catherine Holmes.

And NACC has not given us good reasons why it refuses to do so.

Commissioner Holmes investigations led her to refer six persons to NACC ‘to hold those individuals to account’ thus ‘to reinforce the importance of public service officers acting with integrity’.
That sounds exactly like the kind of reason that NACC was created. In fact, that sounds like a mission statement for an integrity agency.

But NACC tells us it will not do a thing. NACC has rejected the recommendation. NACC has decided the six will not be held to account. Apparently NACC does not share Commissioner Holmes’ concern regarding the importance of integrity in the federal public sector.

And the scant reasons offered by NACC are at best specious, at worst worrying.

In its press release on 6 June NACC offered some thoughts on why it was not going to obey Commissioner Holmes. The most substantive reason was that there was no need to do so as the issues had already been thoroughly examined in the Royal Commission. But hold on – why then did Commissioner Holmes make the referral to NACC? It was because the issues could not be completed by the Royal Commission acting within its terms of reference. This assertion by NACC is wrong and baseless.

Another reason given by NACC is to tell us that instead we should ‘focus’ on ‘lessons learnt’. What does that even mean? Maybe the lesson is that if you are powerful and well-connected you will not have to suffer an investigation into your misconduct. Well, we already knew that. Maybe the ‘lesson’ is that the rest of us just need to get on and live with a lack of integrity in the public sector. I was hoping that was the kind of ‘lesson’ which NACC make us unlearn.

Then there is the odd reference in NACC’s press release to a ‘possible perception of a conflict of interest’. It is said that the decision whether to investigate the referrals was delegated to a Deputy Commissioner. What conflict of interest? We are entitled to some information so we can judge if the conflict was properly managed. Many conflicts are badly mismanaged when dealt with internally. There are insufficient details; we are left to speculate.

And the skimpy nature of NACC’s reasons leads to more speculation. We know six people were referred – Who were they? What role did they have? We know one is not a public servant – is it a politician? What is it that led Commissioner Holmes to make the referrals? Why can’t we know these things?

One of the ugliest reasons given by NACC for doing nothing was that an investigation would offer ‘no remedy or redress’. That is rubbish and it should never have been said. To hold those who engineered this disaster to account is a ‘remedy’; to see them called upon to answer for their actions is ‘redress’. To do nothing is a slap in the face to those who suffered under Robodebt and to the families of those who died.

This is why I say an inactive integrity agency is worse than useless. It is simply a way of covering for the maintenance of the status quo. A weak agency is an encouragement to bend the rules.

The sign off line for NACC in its press release is especially regrettable – ‘The Commission will not be making further comment’. Excuse me – why not? NACC should be leading the way on transparency and accountability. There is public concern about this matter: What makes NACC immune to public inquiry?

NACC’s decision here is not final; it should listen and engage with the public. NACC should heed public concern and reverse this absurd decision.

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