The National Anti-Corruption Commission: a damp squib

Jun 19, 2024
Sign of Centrelink and Medicare Office in Chatswood.SYD

In Australia, the demon of penal regulation clings in its stubbornness. Keeping government accountable and open to the suspicious eye of the public is a weary worn task that yields little by way of change. Secrecy remains addictive, even pathological. Reforms, to that end, remain cosmetic, patchy, and indeterminate. What is the public interest useful for but to frustrate the public?

Take the still green National Anti-Corruption Commission. A notable and noble idea. A body intended to peer into the pipeline of political sewerage and detect irregularities. According to its own purposes, the NACC “enhances integrity in the Commonwealth public sector by deterring, detecting and preventing corrupt conduct involving Commonwealth public officials.” This is achieved “through education, monitoring, investigation, reporting and referral.”

In such arid soil, establishing an Anti-Corruption Commission was always going to be more tease and substance. The Albanese government, while praising the merits of the commission, felt it appropriate to clip its wings on the issue of public hearings. Oddly enough, it resorted to mangled data from the New South Wales equivalent, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), noting that a mere 3.5% of all hearings had been conducted in public. The actual figure is closer to 50%.

On July 7, the NACC had a moment to shine. Instead, it handed the Australian public a damp squib. The matter concerned referrals regarding six public officials from the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme. The unlawful automated debt assessment and recovery scheme, which began as a pilot program in 2015 and was concluded in May 2020, had been shown to be grossly unreliable, using, in the words of the final report, “patently unreliable methodology as income averaging, without other evidence, to determine entitlement to benefit”.

Welfare recipients were harried by “Employment Income Confirmation” letters (some 925,000 were sent) informing them of disparities between reported income to the agency, Centrelink, and the income documented in their tax records. Recipients were accordingly directed to update their records within 28 days or face action.

Among the recipients hounded as part of the government’s automated system debt recovery scheme were some of the most vulnerable members of society, including those suffering from poor mental health, those experiencing domestic violence, and many facing homelessness. Public servants did the bidding of ministers in the hope of extracting budget savings, abandoning all pretence to objective fairness. There was “dishonesty” and “collusion” in the ranks to prevent the scheme’s illegality from being exposed. No Commonwealth organisation, from the Ombudsman’s office to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, seemed inclined to check the marauding nature of the program.

In a media release on June 6, the NACC was “conscious of the impact of the Robodebt Scheme on individuals and the public, the seniority of the officials involved, and the need to ensure that any corruption issue is fully investigated,” the commission explained in a statement. The bruising letdown duly followed. “However, the conduct of the six public officials in connection with the Robodebt Scheme has already been fully explored by the Robodebt Royal Commission and extensively discussed in its final report.”

On the train of such excusing reasoning comes the apologetic whimper. “After close consideration of the evidence that was available to the Royal Commission, the Commission concluded that it is unlikely it would obtain significant new evidence.”

In a sense, the members may be right of no “real likelihood” of “significant new evidence” arising from further investigation. The over 1,000-page horror show that makes up the Royal Commission Report is expansive and thorough. But what of the existing record? Having an anti-corruption commission comb through the detritus might well have been a form of thorough recapitulation, a reassurance to the Australian public that public officials responsible for formulating and carrying out such a hideous program would have to account for their behaviour.

The NACC did itself no favours in making such distancing claims as avoiding “duplicating work that has been or is being done by others”, including noting the remedial powers open to the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC). As an open declaration of impotence, the body declared that it had no powers to grant remedies or impose sanctions, even if it could identify instances of corrupt conduct. The central weakness of this anti-corruption body has been gravely exposed.

To this day, the blind faith executors of the Robodebt Scheme – the likes of former social services minister and prime minister Scott Morrison, for instance – have insisted that errors might have been made but were hardly illegal when pursued. Put another way, there has been no repentance, no true apology. Indeed, Morrison accused media coverage of his role in the calamity as “disproportionate”, and his opponents as hankering for a “political lynching”.

There is a sumptuous irony in the fact that the NACC, having refused to investigate the designated officials responsible for one of the most calamitous and cruel policies in a generation, has now become the subject of investigation. Gail Furness SC, the designated Inspector of the NACC, felt compelled to launch her own inquiry into the new body after noting something close to 900 complaints from the public alleging “corrupt conduct or maladministration by the NACC in making that decision.” She acknowledged that “much public commentary” had issued on the subject. “Accordingly, I have decided to inquire into that decision. I anticipate that I will make my findings public, in due course.”

When it comes to holding corrupt politicians and civil servants to the high bar, the Australian approach is lard tardy and predictably constipated. The dictates of the tribe, the calling of an archaic form of mateship, remain strong, swatting away efforts to expose and scrutinise poor conduct in public office. The NACC, it would seem, is finding it hard to escape the constraining orbit of tradition. It was itself a weak creation intended to change little. From the outset, it’s proving that very point.

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