Politics

Lights go out over the Moonlight State

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(Image via the australian.com.au)

The Queensland Government is about the use its numbers to nobble the State’s corruption watchdog and slowly but surely rekindle the days of Joh, writes barrister Alex McKean.

THE LIGHTS WILL NOT GO OUT the day after the Queensland Government passes legislation to nobble the Crime and Misconduct Commission.

A switch will not be thrown plunging the entire State into darkness. The revenant of Sir Joh will not arise from the grave and walk down George Street arm-in-arm with Sir Terence to remove the pretenders to the throne.

No such dramatic scenes are likely to occur.

The change will creep. Standards will slip.

People in places where a lack of integrity really matters will know the era of the watchdog is over.

Newman and his mates will order up champagne, knowing the prospects of their ever being held to account for their excesses have been drastically reduced.

The changes to the CMC will not turn out the lights, but it will mean a light can no longer be shone into some of the dark corners where corruption flourishes. It will create the conditions where a slide back into the swamp of political and police corruption, with all of its attendant miseries, is inevitable.

Tony Fitzgerald QC, in his submission to the Parliamentary Committee considering the Bill, concluded that the changes would mean partisan appointments would be made to the new body, the Crime and Corruption Commission (‘CCC’). As a result, Government politicians will not have to worry about their own conduct and can use the CCC as a tool against political opponents.

Mr Fitzgerald QC concluded the Bill was the last step needed to

"... remove the Commission’s independence entirely and bring it completely under Government control."

This article is intended to delve into some of the detail of the Bill to demonstrate how this objective will be achieved, by exploring how the new beast the government intends to create ‒ the CCC ‒ will operate in practice.

The primary purpose of the CCC will be to fight major and organized crime.

Fighting corruption is relegated to a secondary purpose of the body. The CCC will no longer have the function of preventing official misconduct. Funding would presumably follow these priorities, with the crime-fighting arm beefed up and the corruption-fighting arm starved of resources.

The premier, as leader of the party in government, would have, in his sole discretion, the power to appoint the upper echelons of the CCC. These would include a chairman, a deputy chair, and two part-time Commissioners. The premier would also have the power to appoint a CEO.

The Opposition and the Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee (PCMC) would have no input into these appointments.

The appointments would be for an extended period of time, up from five to ten years. This is despite the Callinan/Aroney review expressing concerns about the length of tenure of senior CMC employees and recommending they be truncated, to avoid possible corruption.

The chairman would still be required to be legally qualified. There would be no stipulations as to qualifications of the other office holders. In particular, the pesky requirements that the Commissioners be from: civil liberties, social science and community services backgrounds ‒ and that one of the Commissioners be a woman ‒ will be swept away.

Indeed, there appears little prospect that any woman might be in line for any senior role, where the Bill eschews gender-neutral language and refers to a ‘Chairman’ being at the helm.

There can be no doubt whatsoever as to who will be Chairman — where the Bill legislatively guarantees the incumbent ‒ Acting Chair Dr Ken Levy ‒ will hold that position until 31 October 2014. This is despite the fact that a Select Committee on Ethics has yet to report on its investigation into Dr Levy’s having misled the PCMC in November 2013.

It may be that the drafters of the Bill know something about the outcome of that investigation others do not.

The new structure will therefore see a tame Chairman and CEO, appointed by the government of the day. This pair will be able to control the agenda and there will be less need for input from the part-time Commissioners, who will no longer reflect diversity of community experience, and will also be selected by the Government.

Staff of the CCC will be subject to discipline from the newly created position of the CEO. There is no avenue to appeal those decisions.

The CEO will also be able to issue a directive telling staff of the CCC which cases are to be dealt with as ‘serious corruption’. This will override the duties of CCC staff who are police officers to exercise their own independent discretion as constables.

The CCC will not be able to decide into what areas it conducts research. Any research plan will have to be approved by the Attorney-General.

The CCC will be able to deter complaints it may not wish to investigate.

It will be an offence to make a complaint which is found to be:

  • vexatious;
  • not in good faith;
  • made for a mischievous purpose;
  • made recklessly; or
  • made maliciously.

Warnings to this effect will operate to prevent many whistleblowers from coming forward, for fear of prosecution.

The agenda of the Government is clear: the CCC will be a creature which is, by turns, toothless when called upon to investigate government and its cronies, and savage when used as a political weapon by government against its perceived enemies.

Corruption will be allowed to flourish.

The old days of patronage will return.

It seems somehow tragic that the sacrifices of those brave people who stood up and faced terrifying consequences by opening the lid on corruption in this State is being squandered ‒ so freely ‒ 25 years later.

There seems little understanding in the public that CMC exists to protect all of us from the far-reaching consequences of official corruption.

Will the last one out of Queensland please turn out the lights.

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