Empowering the public to prevent corruption

The Hon Stephen Charles AO QCThe Hon. Stephen Charles AO QC, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal, discusses IBAC’s community education campaign and the important role all Victorians can play in preventing corruption

Before IBAC was established in 2011, many Victorians were opposed to its creation, arguing that there was little or no evidence of corruption in this state, and that there was no need to enact a body with such powers. Since 2013, however, we have all become aware of serious corruption allegations in the Department of Education and Training (DET), in relation to the the Ultranet online platform (Operation Dunham) and the “banker schools” system (Operation Ord).

Similarly in the transport sector, where contracts for the supply of goods and services at Public Transport Victoria were awarded by some transport executives to firms owned by their families and associates (Operation Fitzroy). In the case of both departments, many millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money were spent corruptly and/or wasted.

Corruption is usually secret, well-hidden, and difficult to discover, expose and investigate. Even with IBAC’s skilled investigative staff and wide powers, the discovery and exposure of corrupt conduct remains a critical problem. For example, there is nothing on the face of large payments being made to legitimate “program coordinator schools”, apparently to administer funds for specific purposes, or when transport executives allocate and administer transport-related contracts to others, to suggest that in either case there is corruption or even impropriety involved. 

Many – if not most – IBAC investigations are commenced as a result of well-informed tip-offs from within or outside the public sector. Without such information, IBAC’s ability to assess and investigate possible instances of corruption by state or local government agencies, Members of Parliament, the judiciary and Victoria Police would be severely hampered.

The reality is while many people believe they could easily identify corruption, it is in practise much harder to do so, and, for members of the public without prior training, often impossible. This was one of the reasons for IBAC’s first community education campaign When something’s not right. Report it.

Launched in December last year, the advertisements include four examples of behaviour and invite readers to pick which of them is corrupt. The purpose is to build public awareness of potential corruption in the public sector and how Victorians could, and should, report it. Only thus can community vigilance of suspected corrupt conduct within the public sector become an important tool in ensuring that Victoria is clean and resistant to corruption.

A cornerstone of Victoria’s integrity regime is the protections that apply to individuals who report suspected improper or corrupt conduct. In this state, whistle-blowers who report public sector corruption and other types of improper conduct are afforded a number of protections under the Protected Disclosure Act 2012, including confidentiality protections and laws preventing detrimental action being taken against the person in reprisal for making the report.

IBAC has done well in protecting confidential sources of information. There are no reports of anyone having suffered in consequence of giving IBAC relevant information.

Operations Fitzroy, Ord, Dunham, and the later investigation of Ballarat police which commenced in March 2015 (Operation Ross), all included public hearings by IBAC. No issue has so far been taken with the fairness of IBAC’s procedures in any of its public inquiries. On the contrary, each of these public hearings has substantially justified IBAC’s argument that such hearings are vital to IBAC’s role and in fulfilling its primary function of exposing public sector corruption. Among the advantages of the public hearings, particularly into the Education Department, was a significant spike in the number of fresh allegations made to IBAC about corrupt or improper conduct, and the Department itself immediately developed a reform program designed to address the vulnerabilities identified in its systems by IBAC’s investigation.

Those who contemplate reporting suspected corruption or improper conduct to IBAC can therefore be confident that such reports to IBAC can lead to substantial action being taken both by IBAC and the public sector.

A community education campaign is just one, small component of IBAC’s efforts to prevent and expose public sector corruption. Along with its investigative functions, including the ability to hold public and private hearings, its research and strategic intelligence activities, and its community and public sector outreach, IBAC has established itself as an organisation capable of delivering strong results in the public interest. 

Following the early success of IBAC’s community campaign, I understand IBAC is about to release its second phase extending the campaign to a broader audience including people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. This is a welcome development. 

As one citizen interested in advocating for the important role anti-corruption regimes play in a modern democracy, I look forward to more campaigns of this nature to ensure we are all equipped to recognise corruption and do something about it.

Since its establishment in 2011, IBAC’s performance has been consistently commendable, and its successes have been notable, but IBAC cannot fight the war against corruption alone. To match IBAC’s excellent record, it is now up to the Victorian community to do its part, support IBAC’s community campaign and, when something’s not right, to report it.