Unfinished business

What is the point of a National Anti-Corruption Commission that won’t investigate corruption?

In the lead up the 2022 election, the Australian Labor Party made much of its commitment to creating a new federal anti-corruption agency.

The later years of the Coalition government were not noted for their commitment to probity or good governance. A string of dubious decisions were made by a range of cabinet ministers, most notoriously Scott Morrison’s decision to grant himself “secret ministries”, later found by High Court judge Virginia Bell to be “corrosive of trust in government.”

So, for anyone interested in the transparency and integrity of Australia’s government, the creation of a National Anti-Corruption Agency (NACC) seemed like a good idea. “The Albanese Government is restoring integrity, honesty and accountability to government with the commencement of the National Anti-Corruption Commission,” Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus claimed when the NACC commenced operations last year.

A year on, the NACC has failed its first key test. It has passed on investigating any of the perpetrators of Robodebt, the federal government’s cruel and unlawful program to levy fake debts on hundreds of thousands of vulnerable welfare recipients.

In her three-volume report of the Royal Commission into Robodebt, Commissioner Catherine Holmes found that the scheme “unlawfully [took] money from social security recipients on a massive scale.”

Holmes also found that a number of senior public servants were deeply implicated in the scheme. Robodebt wasn’t just a bungle. It was a careful and potentially criminal cover-up, in which critical legal advice was actively hidden by departmental officials from an investigation by the Commonwealth Ombudsman. In a sealed chapter, Holmes referred a number of unnamed individuals “for civil action or criminal prosecution” – including to the NACC.

A year on, the NACC has squibbed its opportunity. Almost unbelievably, the reason it gives “not to commence a corruption investigation” is that “it would not add value in the public interest.”

A mealy-mouthed media release was sent out, with some vague nostrums that it wanted to “ensure that those lessons are learnt, and to hold public officials to account.” But public officials are not being held to account: the NACC has made an explicit decision not to even try.

What is the point of a federal anti-corruption body if it won’t investigate corruption? The purpose of the NACC is “to prevent corrupt conduct” – it’s there in black in white in section 3 of the NACC’s legislation.  Surely one of the most important ways it can prevent corruption in the future is to use its powers to investigate in the present.

In its doleful media release, the NACC also referred to the Australian Public Service Commission, stating that “the Commission cannot grant a remedy or impose a sanction (as the APSC can).” This doesn’t make much sense. The NACC’s own website says that the definition of corrupt conduct includes “an improper act or omission”, giving the example of a public official who “breaches an applicable policy in their agency, the APS Code of Conduct, or another applicable rule.”

We know that a number of federal bureaucrats have been found to the have breached the APS Code of Conduct, according to Senate Estimates testimony given by Gordon de Brouwer. So why isn’t the NACC investigating whether these breaches of the APS Code are corrupt conduct?

As a result of this decision, it’s now increasingly clear that the principal decision makers behind Robodebt will get away, scot-free. The key officer responsible for the scheme, hard-charging bureaucrat Kathryn Campbell, was suspended on gardening leave and ended up resigning. But Campbell has faced no further consequences or sanctions – certainly not a corruption investigation about whether she breached the public trust while earning more than $700,000 a year as Australia’s top welfare bureaucrat.

Astonishingly, several public officials found to have breached the APS Code of Conduct are still working in the Australian Public Service. We don’t even know who they are, because the Public Service Commission won’t tell us. Surely it is finally time to release Holmes’ sealed chapter, as Paul Karp has argued.

Asher Wolf, who helped to bring Robodebt to public attention and worked for years with victims, pointed out on Twitter last week that “the only people to have been prosecuted over Robodebt are welfare recipients.”

There is no justice here for the loved-ones of victims like Rhys Cauzzo, who took his own life while being hounded by the federal government for a debt he had not accrued. Nor any for any of the hundreds of thousands of other victims of this dishonest and unlawful welfare crack-down.

On the other hand, Campbell retains her Order of Australia, awarded in 2019 for “distinguished service to public administration.”

Ben Eltham is a writer, journalist, researcher and unionist.

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