Give IBAC funding and tools it needs to do proper job against corruption

In the lead-up to this year’s federal election, a survey conducted as part of the Resolve Political Monitor for The Age found that support for a federal integrity commission was high across the electorate, with 71 per cent of Coalition voters and 69 per cent of Labor voters backing its creation. The “teal” independents who ousted the Coalition from a clutch of marquee seats also campaigned hard on the issue. The Albanese government has now promised to legislate such a commission by the end of this year.

In November, Victorians will go to the polls in the state election and the issue of corruption will also be highly significant for voters, even if they are not aware of it. That’s because one result of the branch-stacking scandal unveiled by this newspaper in 2020 is that power over candidate preselections is likely to be in the hands of Labor’s national executive rather than Victorian party members.

Since 2012 Victoria has had its own integrity watchdog, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, but from its establishment until today it has been beset by questions over its funding and powers. The latter were in the spotlight again this week when Commissioner Robert Redlich, QC, told The Age that IBAC’s most important job was to examine “how the government of the day is expending the public purse”. He said it should be given more powers to conduct preliminary investigations and act on suspicions of corruption. He also called for greater protection for whistleblowers and a better definition of what constitutes misconduct in public office.

It is to be noted that Redlich supports IBAC’s relatively conservative approach to public hearings, which are far less common here than in NSW. He also emphasised witness welfare, which is of particular note after the suicide of former Casey councillor Amanda Stapledon, who was questioned before IBAC and presented with draft findings shortly before her death, and whose family has criticised IBAC for its treatment of her.

IBAC was conceived out of political trench warfare and has been a football between the Liberal and Labor parties ever since. The opposition is now calling for greater funding for its work, as well as more public hearings. But when it emerged this month that Redlich had written to Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes and the opposition calling for laws to prevent his findings being delayed by court actions, Premier Daniel Andrews was dismissive: “The parliament makes the laws, and if I weren’t satisfied with those laws, I’d be standing here today announcing changes … and I’m not.” Months out from an election, this cannot and should not be the government’s final word on the subject.

We know that the Premier has been questioned privately in connection with the extent of Victorian Labor branch stacking (IBAC’s Operation Watts) and what role if any the state government had in allegedly corrupt land deals in the City of Casey (Operation Sandon). The character of Andrews’ dealings with the United Firefighters Union has also come under scrutiny in Operation Richmond.

Incumbent politicians are always likely to argue, as Scott Morrison did before his defeat, that corruption allegations can become an end in themselves, disrupting the business of government and ruining individuals’ reputations regardless of the outcome. A litmus test of the Andrews government’s bona fides would be to make sure that future IBAC investigations have the tools and funding to ensure, in the commission’s words, “that unethical practices will be exposed and eradicated”.

Moving to ensure IBAC can do its work without fear or favour would be the perfect answer to the criticisms levelled by former Labor MPs such as Adem Somyurek, and Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, but more importantly it would show that the government isn’t taking voters for granted. The alternative, as Reason Party leader Fiona Patten noted during a debate last year over IBAC funding, is that “it may seem that we are starving the body that is … keeping us honest”. This year has already shown us what can happen to a government when the perception takes hold that it is dodging scrutiny on allegations of corruption.

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