Anti-corruption bodies to face exacting checks
VICTORIA'S anti-corruption bodies face tough scrutiny to prevent abuse of interrogation and phone tap powers, under a recasting of Victoria's integrity system to be unveiled Tuesday.
Long-overdue new laws needed to bring the government's anti-corruption commission to life will also replace the Whistleblower Protection Act – which served to protect people making complaints against public office holders – with a "streamlined" protected disclosure system.
As revealed in The Age this month, the Ombudsman will no longer act as the key clearing house for determining whether corruption complaints against public office holders warrant further investigation.
This role will be taken over by the new Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, which will be charged with investigating the most serious corruption allegations.
The Ombudsman's office, which has in recent years filled a void in the integrity system by investigating serious corruption allegations, will instead act as a second-tier complaints body.
The changes follow concerns in the legal community that Victoria's whistleblower protection powers were potentially open to abuse, with claims the laws could shield those making malicious or politically motivated allegations while denying the accused natural justice.
Crime Prevention Minister Andrew McIntosh said the new legislation would fix glaring problems, fill gaps between integrity bodies and dramatically improve procedural fairness.
"These are the most significant integrity reforms in the history of this state," Mr McIntosh said. "With these bills the Coalition government is completing its suite of significant and extensive reforms, giving Victorians a significantly strengthened and robust integrity regime, which Labor steadfastly refused to do for 11 long years."
A new Victorian inspectorate will in effect act as a watchdog to guard the watchdogs, with tough powers to prevent the abuse of covert and coercive powers by the Ombudsman and the anti-corruption commission.
That means the new inspectorate will have the ability to carry out "real time" oversight of the commission, including the right to observe secret interrogations.
The inspectorate, which will also monitor the Auditor-General, will be given powers to directly report concerns to Parliament, including the failure of the anti-corruption commissioner to respond to recommendations.
The Age revealed that the introduction of the final legislation, believed to be more than 500 pages, caused a split in the senior ranks of the Baillieu government, leading to the delay, with one cabinet minister questioning the need for the overhaul, given it would be unlikely to result in significant extra votes.
There have also been concerns that crimping the Ombudsman's jurisdiction could be politically difficult, particularly if it is seen to hark back to the Kennett era. The commission, now almost 18 months overdue, was a key part of the Coalition's 2010 election pitch.
Under the changes, two new parliamentary committees will be created to add even more oversight to the integrity system.
A parliamentary committee overseeing IBAC will review its reports to Parliament and monitor and review its functions and the use of its extensive powers.
A separate accountability and oversight committee will monitor Victoria's other integrity bodies, including the Ombudsman and the Freedom of Information Commissioner.
The Ombudsman's office – which had in recent years taken on responsibility for more serious corruption allegations and had previously reported to Parliament – had not been subject to oversight by a parliamentary committee.