From today, Canberrans should be able to make complaints to the new ACT Integrity Commission, although as of Sunday, December 1, the how-to was not immediately obvious.
The commission was to be operating, with a website up and running, by December 1. Perhaps that will happen on Monday. And we will begin to see just how effectively and openly the new organisation, designed to investigation corruption in the government and public service, operates.
There are good signs, including the appointment of former federal court judge Dennis Cowdroy as commissioner and John Hoitink as chief - his background is with the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, a notoriously toothy organisation. Neither seem likely to be share the vague confusion about right and wrong that seems to have sporadically taken hold in parts of the ACT public service.
However, early indications are that the commission will not be jumping easily into public hearings, reluctant to become an entertaining spectacle for the residents of Canberra. If investigations are held entirely, or even largely, in private that would be a concern, and not because we're all waiting to break out the popcorn.
When secrecy is the default, in justice or in government, is it easy for distrust to flourish - and for things to go wrong. If you doubt, ask yourself, who is Alan Johns. Well, he isn't Alan Johns and that's about as much as anyone will tell you, except that he spent a year in the ACT prison on charges that remain secret, even to prison authorities. This was a commonwealth case and has nothing to do with the ACT commission, but is a timely warning of what goes wrong.
There is also the question of trust - or rather the breakdown in trust, which has seen conspiracy flourish, the redefinition of the concept of "fact", and intense anger about the concentration of power and wealth. In this environment, the powerful must do all they can to operate as openly as possible. This isn't the time for need to know, or leave it to me. It is a time for radical transparency in our public affairs.
Does 'systemic' mean anything involving more than one person, or two. Or is it a higher threshold of generalised corruption?
This is not to dismiss the significant problems with reputational damage in the internet age; bluntly, privacy has been trashed in the past two decades with devastating consequences. But the answer is not to cast a cone of silence over the justice system. The big answer is to tackle the internet giants - and yes, media groups - with "right to be forgotten" and similar laws. The more immediate answer is for the commission to make use of suppression orders, which can limit publication of names, or aspects of a case, even large swathes of a case, while still conducting it in public.
The ACT Integrity Commission's rules about private and public hearings are less than prescriptive. The law says it must take into account the public interest and whether a public hearing could be held "without unreasonably infringing a person's human rights". In considering the public interest the commission is asked to consider whether the corruption is "related to an individual and ... an isolated incident or systemic in nature", the public benefit, and the seriousness. So it will be a judgment call. The criteria for public hearings have echoes in the NSW commission, which also requires the risk of reputational damage to be considered. The NSW legislation does not include the question of whether an issue is isolated or systemic, and this is not a simple one to ponder. Does "systemic" mean anything involving more than one person, or two. Or is it a higher threshold of generalised corruption. What of an "isolated" incident raised internally but not properly handled?
There is oversight on this question, in the appointment of an "inspector" to which the commission must report - the Commonwealth ombudsman for now. The legislation is written so as to require the commission to justify a decision to hold a public hearing - it must tell the inspector in writing, with reasons, at least seven days ahead. The commission will also report monthly on its activities to the inspector.