Victoria

Daniel Andrews' IBAC revamp doesn't go far enough, integrity experts warn

Daniel Andrews' plan to ravamp Victoria's top corruption-busting agency has been dealt a blow amid revelations the changes could make it easy for suspects to obstruct investigations and destroy evidence.

With parliament set to debate new laws designed to strengthen the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, integrity experts have also warned that the reforms do not go far enough and would still to leave the watchdog "in a much weaker position" than ICAC in NSW.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews' proposed reforms don't go far enough, integrity experts say.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews' proposed reforms don't go far enough, integrity experts say. Photo: Joe Armao

Under the proposed laws, IBAC will be given the authority to investigate public servants, politicians and the judiciary for misconduct in public office – a new "catch all" offence that broadens the type of corruption it tackles.

The bill will also reduce the amount of evidence IBAC must gather before an investigation can formally begin, and will authorise the agency to compel department heads to produce information for preliminary inquiries.

But former Supreme Court Judge Stephen Charles – who has urged successive governments to improve Victoria's integrity framework for years – said that while the reforms were "a good start," the definition of corrupt conduct would still be too narrow.

IBAC would continue to be restricted from embarking on a full-scale inquiry until it suspected on reasonable grounds that one's actions "constitutes corrupt conduct", and the legislation could also enable suspects to destroy evidence or thwart an investigation in the long term.

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"The consequence is that the amending bill sets up a new threshold: the point at which IBAC may proceed from a preliminary to a full investigation," Mr Charles writes in today's Sunday Age.

"In the preliminary phase, IBAC will have difficulty framing a request for information to a department head, or identifying documents to seek from individuals. As soon as a suspect becomes aware of a preliminary inquiry or an investigation, the suspect may seek a court order to stop IBAC's inquiries, and IBAC will then be forced to place before the court – and the suspect – all of the information it has obtained and its grounds for seeking to investigate. And the suspect will achieve delay, precise knowledge of what IBAC is doing, and the opportunity to hide or destroy evidence."

The changes to the anti-corruption watchdog form part of a broader shake-up of Victoria's integrity system, which is often viewed as one of the weakest in the country. In other developments:

* The Auditor-General, who will be granted "follow-the-dollar" powers to properly scrutinise public private partnerships, welcomed the changes relating to his office, but pointed out they were "only a small part of the reforms called for by successive auditors general and a 2010 Parliamentary inquiry".

* Ombudsman Deborah Glass, who will have greater discretion over whistleblower complaints (rather than being required to examine them even when it is not warranted), said she was "broadly content" with the amendments but added: "I will still be unable to refer protected disclosure complaints elsewhere so I have no reason to believe that the number of protected disclosure complaints handled by my office will decrease."

The legislation will be debated when parliament resumes on February 9. It comes after busy period for IBAC, which last year held its first public inquiries, including into the so-called "banker schools" scandal (whereby education department officials were caught rorting school funds) and the investigation into the transport department (which revealed large contracts had been improperly awarded by staff to companies they had set up).

However it also comes as ICAC in NSW fell under renewed criticism last week amid reports that it had dropped allegations against federal Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos​, whose career was derailed when he was embroiled in an investigation by the agency in 2014.

"We wouldn't want to see that kind of circus happen here," a Liberal MP said last week.

Mr Charles, who chaired the expert panel that advised the former Coalition government on IBAC, said it was up to parliament to consider "how many other areas of corrupt behaviour exist in this state and will continue to fester unless IBAC is given full powers and discretion to investigate".