Build questioning workplace cultures, says Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, the Honourable Anne Ferguson

Some people find integrity and corruption difficult concepts to relate to, according to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, The Honourable Anne Ferguson.

In her opening address at the 7th Australian Public Sector Anti-Corruption Conference in October, Chief Justice Ferguson said corruption can sound accusatory to some people and, to others, disproportionate.

"But it's often the small things that we cannot see that can grow and create a culture where integrity is no longer front of mind, fostering an environment for fraud and corruption to take hold," she said.

Chief Justice Ferguson, who was appointed in October 2017, told delegates they had a critical role in creating cultures where people ask 'why', look deeper at their own enquiries, keep their eyes and ears open and ‘question, question, question’.

"It's not enough to have policies and systems in place if no one knows about them or people refuse to think they apply to them, or if their managers and leaders ignore or flout them," she said.

Chief Justice Ferguson spoke about the need to create healthy and safe workplaces. Healthy workplaces include sound corporate governance, education, awareness and support programs; accountable, open and transparent practices; strong leadership and foster staff wellbeing. Safe workplaces have people who value honesty, report improper conduct, use power responsibly and strive to earn sustained trust.

"It doesn’t take much for people to disengage from their roles if they feel that their workplace lacks integrity or if they feel vulnerable or powerless in the face of corrupt practices," she said.

"It can happen within a team or can impact an entire organisation, undermining its standing in the community, eroding trust at every level, and making people want to leave. Going to work each day in an environment like this can be a very isolating and negative experience."

Chief Justice Ferguson was appointed a judge of the Trial Division of the Supreme Court in 2010, and to the Court of Appeal four years later.

She said the courts have a unique role in regard to trust and integrity, as the ultimate decision-maker on matters involving corruption that attract legal penalties or for which legal recourse is available.

Court Services Victoria, an independent statutory body that provides services and facilities to Victoria’s courts, tribunals and other bodies, developed the Integrity At Work program to help people understand what integrity means, and to shape and create a workplace culture of high ethical and professional standards.

Chief Justice Ferguson said it is easy to take the importance of integrity for granted and think that corruption does not exist in Australia, but building an integrity culture and keeping corruption in check requires constant vigilance and strong systems of accountability.

She described robust public institutions as the bedrock of our democracy. Public institutions must have, and be seen to have, integrity.

"If the community cannot rely on public institutions to be fair, impartial, transparent and free from corruption, community confidence in those institutions will collapse," she said.

"In recent years, community trust in public institutions has been shaken. We've seen Royal Commissions and heated public debate about the state of our public institutions. So it is imperative that as a community we directly address any practice or behaviours that fall below the standards required. That’s the only way to build and maintain trust."

A copy of Chief Justice Ferguson’s opening address to the 7thAustralian Public Sector Anti-Corruption Conference can be viewed on the Supreme Court of Victoria website.