Australia starts anti-corruption commission

According to Commissioner Paul Brereton, by 5 p.m. on Sunday, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Nacc) had already received 44 online referrals.

Brereton pledged, “We will listen to you” at the commission’s inauguration ceremony in Canberra on Monday, referencing that “anyone can refer corruption issues to the commission” and its authority to launch investigations on its initiative.

These are contrasts number two to the integrity commission that the Coalition government suggested but never legislated.

The NACC, according to Brereton, is “clearly aware of a number of matters which have been mentioned in the media and elsewhere as potential subjects for investigation.”

The Green Party announced on Sunday that they had referred the PwC tax leak case for investigation as one of 10 objectives on their wishlist.

According to Brereton, the Nacc bases its decision to investigate on two main criteria: “whether a corruption investigation by the commission would add value in the public interest, especially in light of any other inquiries or investigations that are happening, and whether there is any real prospect of a finding of corrupt conduct.”

According to him, the Nacc will “more likely be interested in investigating matters that have current, practical relevance” rather than “historical relevance.”

With regard to robodebt, which the royal commission will report on on Friday, and the Morrison multiple ministry scandal, which former high court justice Virginia Bell has previously looked at, some of the Greens’ requests seem unlikely to be granted.

It also casts doubt on other issues that have already been investigated by the Australian National Audit Office, including the sports rorts scandal, the land sale near the Leppington Triangle airport in western Sydney, and the Hunter class frigate project.

The Greens’ other wish list items, including MTC’s Nauru contracts, an acquisition of a water license from Eastern Australia Agriculture, and illegal land removal by Angus Taylor’s family-owned company Jam Land, have not been subjected to the same level of examination.

Barnaby Joyce, the shadow minister for veterans’ affairs, claimed on Monday that the Green Party had politicized the commission, but Linda Reynolds, a senator for the Coalition, has indicated that she may submit the Commonwealth’s settlement with Brittany Higgins, a former employee, to the NACC.

Bill Shorten, the minister of government services, is consulting Services Australia regarding a statement made to a parliamentary committee that Synergy 360 suggested a structure that would allow Stuart Robert, a former Coalition minister, to benefit from government contracts he helped secure for the company’s clients.

Robert has denied the claim “in the strongest terms possible,” claimed that the proposal contains “zero evidence,” and stated that he has never lobbied on behalf of a firm or accepted paid for doing so.

Brereton cautioned that only a “very small proportion” of cases would warrant a thorough probe despite the commission’s broad latitude in its investigative choices.

A past MP or minister’s actions, for instance, can be brushed aside as “historic” or seen as exposing a flaw in the system that others could take advantage of.

Brereton added that the commission “may decide to investigate some of these matters in order to clear the air, even if there does not appear to be a significant prospect of a finding of corrupt conduct”.

What exactly is corruption? Brereton explained that under the Nacc’s guidelines, “conduct can be corrupt without being criminal,” in contrast to Victoria, where only behaviour that would constitute a criminal offence counts.

As a result, the NACC is more comparable to Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales, which found Gladys Berejiklian in violation of the ministerial code but concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support a criminal conviction.

Brereton weighed in on this discussion in an indirect way by asserting that “the commission’s work can be most important in enhancing integrity by investigating and exposing corrupt conduct precisely in the area where it may not be possible to establish criminal conduct to the high criminal standard of proof.”

Brereton forewarned that he would take advantage of his ability to speak publicly to denounce any referrals that were “inappropriate” or intended to “weaponize the commission.”

Brereton pledged that public hearings will take place (in some cases), but only “when the circumstances and the public interest justify an exception to the general rule that they be held in private.”

By design, the legislation will keep some aspects of the Nacc’s work secret. A “protected information report” (basically the sealed part) contains “sensitive information” that is protected by a two-year prison sentence for disclosure.

The attorney general has the authority to issue certificates stating that publication of specific material is contrary to the public interest, providing them with numerous (though not all-inclusive) justifications to compel the production of evidence at private hearings.

The Nacc could conduct an investigation for many months utilizing its coercive and occasionally covert capabilities (such as wiretaps), with the goal of concluding 90% of cases within a year.

The Nacc’s conclusions will eventually be revealed in open investigative reports.

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