PAUL AUSTINAugust 12, 2010
VICTORIA’S chief corruption fighter, Ombudsman George Brouwer, has warned that the state government’s promised anti-corruption commission may not be up to the task.
Mr Brouwer says Premier John Brumby’s proposed anti-corruption system is too complex and could result in corruption-busters running into legislative barriers.
In a forceful report to Parliament yesterday, the Ombudsman said the proposed Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission would be required to ”meet definitional thresholds of criminal or dismissal offences before investigations can commence”.
”This would establish artificial boundaries between conduct that is corrupt or not,” Mr Brouwer said.
”The extent and nature of issues are often not evident until investigations are under way: some investigations into administrative action turn out to be corrupt conduct, and vice-versa.
”In my experience, investigations require flexibility, not legislative barriers.”
As foreshadowed in The Age in June, Mr Brouwer used his annual report to suggest that a better and cheaper way to confront official corruption would be to bolster the power of existing agencies and ensure they were free to investigate ministers, other MPs, ministerial advisers and local councillors.
But Mr Brumby has accepted the recommendation of former senior public servant Elizabeth Proust that the Ombudsman be downgraded, with some of his powers stripped away and vested in the new anti-corruption commission.
Mr Brouwer warned yesterday that under the Proust model, due to be operating by the end of next year, corruption-busters may not be able to pursue the sort of corrupt conduct he had uncovered in Brimbank City Council last year.
He said his investigation of the Labor-dominated western suburbs council had exposed bullying and intimidation, improper use of power, misuse of funds and equipment, and the exercise by MPs of undue influence over council affairs.
”It remains to be seen how such a breadth of coverage and issues would be handled in a coordinated and comprehensive way under the proposed arrangements, especially as some issues were not uncovered until the investigation was well under way.
”Members of one interstate anti-corruption commission advised my staff that current limitations would preclude it from investigating and reporting on the broad range of issues, which I was able to deal with in the Brimbank report.”
Mr Brouwer took aim at Ms Proust’s review of integrity agencies, saying the former head of the Premier’s department had made ”factually inaccurate criticisms” of his office without giving him the chance to comment.
For example, Ms Proust had repeated an ”urban myth” that his officers conducted interviews with witnesses in a windowless room. In fact, the Ombudsman’s interview room had windows and was constantly monitored by closed-circuit TV. He had invited Ms Proust or members of her team to inspect the room but they had chosen not to do so.
Mr Brouwer said the behaviour of the Proust review team was particularly concerning given that one of its inaccurate criticisms was that his office did not provide natural justice.