25 August 2007

More good arguments for anti-corruption commissions

An editorial in today's Australian "Opposing the obvious" makes its point trenchantly:

If the first sign a premier has been in office too long is a statement that independent oversight of the government is unnecessary, it is time for Labor MPs in South Australia to start thinking about a successor for Mike Rann. Last week, Mr Rann suggested South Australia does not need an independent corruption commission because in other states such agencies spend a lot of money on lawyers. At best, this unforced error means Mr Rann is so unconcerned by what voters think that he now says the first thing that comes into his head.

At worst, it demonstrates that he is comfortable in power and so convinced of the probity of his ministers and mandarins that he genuinely does not see the need for independent investigators, including lawyers whose job it is to ask politicians and public servants hard questions.

But whatever Mr Rann thinks, from the wretched regime of Joh Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland a generation ago to the recent influence-peddling of Brian Burke in Western Australia, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of well-resourced corruption commissions. Certainly such agencies are a pain in the neck for ministers who have no case to answer. In NSW a few years back, Craig Knowles was hauled before the Independent Commission Against Corruption as part of a complex inquiry taht took a great deal of time and cost him political capital before finding him innocent of any wrongdoing. His boss, premier Bob Carr, got into strife with ICAC for saying he thought his minister had received a rough go.

Set against such irritations are the achievements of corruption commissions around the country. ICAC and the similar agency that oversees the police help keep corruption in NSW under control. In 1987, the Fitzgerald inquiry in Queensland began the process that saw four state ministers go to prison and unmasked the police commissioner as a crook. Some 20 years later we have seen three ministers in Western Australia resign over their relationships with Mr Burke.

Perhaps Mr Rann can explain what it is about Adelaide that makes politicians and public servants so pure there is no need for a corruption commission there. And perhaps John Brumby, the new premier of Victoria, who agrees with Mr Rann, can do the same, although evidence of police corruption in his state will make it a tough task.

Unless they are game to claim all is pure on their patches, both men must provide a sensible answer to a simple question: if they will not establish anti-corruption agencies, why not?

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