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Labor moves quickly on anti-corruption body — but who's watching the watchers?

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Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus is moving ahead with Labor's integrity commission initiative but the recruitment process has already raised questions (Screenshot via YouTube)

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has moved quickly to set up a task force to get Labor's federal anti-corruption body off the ground, although the staff selection process for his pilot taskforce raises some serious questions. Founder and publisher David Donovan reports.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL Mark Dreyfus leapt into action after Labor was elected at the 22 May Federal Election.

Under QC Dreyfus’ silky legal counsel in Opposition, Labor was firmly on the side of the angels, consistently pushing for the Morrison Government to establish an anti-corruption commission. Something Morrison and his motley band of caricature Batman villains resolutely resisted at every step. (Well-informed Independent Australia readers may have their own opinion about why that might have been the case, we couldn’t possibly comment.)

Labor went to the 2022 Election with the establishment of what they called a National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) as one of its key campaign promises.

Labor’s website reads:

‘Anti-corruption commissions serve the public by uncovering corruption and ensuring that members of a government, including politicians, are held to account if they engage in corrupt conduct.’

On that same website, Labor spelt out seven ‘design principles’ for their NACC, stating they had been

‘...working with Australia’s preeminent legal and integrity experts to develop design principles that will ensure the Commission is the most effective anti-corruption watchdog in the country.’

And they had.

According to one insider to this process, some of the experts the Dreyfus team consulted included former NSW Supreme Court judge and Law Reform Commissioner Anthony Whealy QC; the head of Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy's public integrity and anti-corruption research program, Professor AJ Brown; and key figures within Transparency International and the Centre for Public Integrity.

So far so good, one might think.

Post-election, in his first week or so after being appointed Attorney-General, Dreyfus continued prosecuting his anti-corruption pledges with almost injudicious haste.

On or around 1 June, a well-publicised national recruitment campaign for a National Anti-Corruption Commission Taskforce (NACCT) commenced. 

The job advertisement listed several roles from APS (Australian Public Service) Level 4 to Executive Level 2, with the design of the nascent NACC being listed as the primary objective of Taskforce staff.

The end date for applications for these positions was 6 June  ─  almost unseemly haste, one might suppose. Nevertheless, according to Human Resources at the Attorney-General’s Department (AGD), ‘the advertised NACC Taskforce positions attracted a strong pool of candidates’.

One candidate was Dr Vania Holt, who appeared to have strong claims for at least getting on the NACCT shortlist.

In a statement provided exclusively to IA, Dr Holt listed her qualifications as follows:

I applied for a position with the National Anti-Corruption Taskforce to be established by the Attorney-General’s Department. I have a PhD (Law) focusing specifically on corruption regulation in Australia, including an analysis of the various models proposed by different groups. I’m also a lawyer with a law firm now but was previously a prosecutor with the ODPP (NSW). The ODPP prosecutes corruption offences such as misconduct in public office.

Last week, on 13 July, Dr Holt received a cursory boilerplate reply to her application from Human Resources at the AGD:

Thank you for your interest in the National Anti-Corruption Commission Taskforce in the Attorney-General’s Department (AGD). The roles for the Taskforce have now been filled.

 

We expect future opportunities to work in the National Anti-Corruption Commission to become available in the next 12-18 months and will be advertised in APS Jobs.

Wait! No more jobs at the NACC within the next 12 months, at the earliest?

But Labor’s explicit election commitment was to legislate into existence an anti-corruption body within the next six months:

‘An Albanese Labor Government will legislate a powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission by the end of 2022.’

In her statement to IA, Dr Holt said the AGD refused to provide any transparency about the process:

‘I thought I would at least get an interview for the Taskforce. But I was told that all positions for the Taskforce were filled internally from members of staff from the APS. I was also told that no feedback would be offered to unsuccessful candidates.’

Dr Holt told IA that transparency in the establishment of an anti-corruption body is essential, lest it risked being subverted from the outset:

‘It is vital that there is complete transparency in these appointments. Staff from the APS would be subject to a future federal ICAC and its legislation. There needs to be independent, specialised and expert staff recruited to this commission from the outset, otherwise, the future federal “ICAC” risks being captured by such vested interests.’

So, what sort of people were better qualified than me, Dr Vania Holt asked the AGD via email:

‘Please advise what type of qualifications the people you hired had. I would like to appeal this decision. For transparency, integrity and accountability, you should make clear what type of people you hired.’

‘All the vacant positions were filled with highly experienced employees already at level within the APS,’  came the reply.

So, the Taskforce set to design the NACC will come from the same set of people the NACC will be tasked to investigate. With not even one person coming from outside the APS to provide a check or balance.

And forget about appealing, the AGP told Dr Holt, you can’t:

‘I note that you have requested to appeal the decisions regarding the appointments made to the NACC taskforce. As these appointments were transfers of current APS employees at their substantive levels, this is not an appealable process.’

It is probably worth noting that recruitment is not likely something attended to by the Minister, but rather by the public service. The secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department is Katherine Jones, one of three Morrison Government appointments of three key public service heads, made by Scott Morrison just under a year ago, on 22 July 2021. The appointments were not without controversy, all coming from former Australian Defence Force personnel.

Independent Australia is in no way suggesting Ms Jones has acted improperly in the recruitment process for the NACCT to attempt to stymie or impede Labor’s federal ICAC initiative.

In any case, it is not a good look for the new Attorney-General, as Dr Holt concluded:

‘The new Labor Government has an opportunity to improve integrity of our government and public officials by being accountable and transparent to the public. Disclose the experience and qualifications of the people who were successful for this recruitment.’

Convenor for political party Federal ICAC Now, Ross Jones, was even blunter:

It would be a slap in the face to all Australians for the National Anti-Corruption Taskforce to draw its staff exclusively from the existing public service. Much of Australia’s entrenched corruption has its roots in the public service so the potential for conflicted and compromised decisions should be obvious. 

 

Dreyfus is making a dreadful mistake and risks an anti-corruption body compromised from the off.

A spokesperson from the Attorney-General's Department responded to IA's questions on the establishment of the new Taskforce with the following statement:

The Government has committed to passing legislation to establish the National Anti-Corruption Commission before the end of 2022, with the aim of the body commencing its work in mid-to-late 2023.

 

To facilitate this, the Attorney-General’s Department has established a taskforce to support the development and passage of legislation and planning for the establishment of the NACC. The taskforce is also supporting the Attorney-General in consultations with external stakeholders. Suitably qualified and experienced staff have been identified, including through an externally advertised recruitment round, to undertake this work. 

 

Recruitment of staff for the NACC (that is, those who will carry out the NACC’s functions) will be undertaken separately — initially by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity which will become part of the NACC, and then by the NACC itself once it is established.

IA founder David G Donovan writes a regular weekly column on Tuesdays. Follow Dave on Twitter @davrosz. Also, follow Independent Australia on Twitter @independentaus, on Facebook HERE and on Instagram HERE.

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