Integrity commissioners find dominant behaviour a theme in recent corruption cases

(left to right) The Hon Peter Hall QC, Mr Alan MacSporran QC, Gill Callister,  Major-General Greg Melick AO RFD SC,  The Hon Bruce Lander QC, Mr Kenneth Fleming QC, The Hon Robert Redlich QC

Leaders from state and territory anti-corruption bodies addressed an integrity forum to close the Australian Public Sector Anti-Corruption Conference (APSACC) in Melbourne in October. These leaders were:

  • The Hon M F Adams QC
    Chief Commissioner, Law Enforcement Conduct Commission, New South Wales
  • Mr Kenneth Fleming QC
    Chief Commissioner, Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, Northern Territory
  • The Hon Peter Hall QC
    Chief Commissioner, NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption
  • The Hon Bruce Lander QC
    Commissioner,Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, South Australia
  • Mr Alan MacSporran QC
    Chairperson, Crime and Corruption Commission, Queensland
  • Major-General Greg Melick AO RFD SC
    Chief Commissioner, Integrity Commission, Tasmania
  • The Hon Robert Redlich QC
    Commissioner, Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, Victoria

The Commissioners shared their insights from a selection of case studies and discussed what can be learnt from the patterns of conduct seen in matters where organisational failings mask the identification and handling of corrupt conduct.

Corruption is not just crime or misconduct, it’s a breach of standards, IBAC Commissioner, The Honourable Robert Redlich QC, said during his introduction to the integrity leaders’ forum.

Mr Redlich said corruption is the term used to encapsulate deliberate non-compliance with processes set down within an organisation, including nepotism, conflicts of interest and inappropriate conduct in the workplace.

He said every session at APSACC had reinforced to him the behaviours found wherever there is corruption in the public sector.

Mr Redlich and the other leaders released a joint communiqué at the beginning of the conference that identified these common behaviours – in individuals, colleagues, supervisors, governance or complaints teams, and senior managers. The communiqué provided practical measures by which corruption may be detected, exposed and prevented.

An example of corrupt behaviour was outlined by ICAC Chief Commissioner, The Honourable Peter Hall QC. He said most people in the public sector work diligently and conscientiously but there are always cases of dysfunction, such as public officials who are deliberately dishonest and others who exercise public functions or powers with an ethical blind spot. Examples of the second group included recent cases of senior executives with a dominant and aggressive personality, which had been a common pattern in several corruption cases emerging in work by ICAC and other integrity organisations, particularly IBAC.

Typically, such executives were self-confident, accepted no opposition, cut corners and ignored processes to get results. They regarded their department or agency as their fiefdom, from which they often derived personal benefits.

'Those who work with this type of senior executive often feel there is no point in speaking up, and they can do nothing to change that person’s behaviour,' he said.

These examples reflected human nature, deficiencies of organisational corruption control processes and lack of training and emphasis on building a culture of integrity. They underlined the importance of reinforcing the processes and principles of whistleblower legislation and applying control systems as part of a culture to provide individuals with the support and confidence they need to take action.

'Encouraging people to step forward and report corrupt behaviour should be seen as a noble thing to do,' Mr Hall said.

'I'm optimistic that we are refocusing our techniques and approach to investigations and corruption prevention; we must do so because the forms of corruption are very different today, and will keep evolving and changing.'

According to Chief Commissioner of the Northern Territory ICAC, Mr Kenneth Fleming QC, when middle managers administering contracts are "on the take" – via kickbacks or favourable arrangements for particular contractors – they cease to make decisions in the public interest and instead only consider their personal financial gain. This results in a breakdown of confidence in their department and in government generally, as the same contractors continue to win projects.

Patterns of problematic behaviour can be established early, especially when organisations have inadequate processes to identify corrupt behaviours. In these circumstances, senior executives continue managing incompetently as the corrupt behaviour continues, but the choices made by staff can also facilitate corruption.

'For junior staff who see these corrupt behaviours, corruption continues if they ignore them, decide to leave the organisation or join in the corrupt activities,' Mr Fleming said. 'The worst result is corruption continues to flourish. There is no best result. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place.'

Mr Alan MacSporran QC, the Chairperson of Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission, discussed the example of improper conduct among senior officers of the Ipswich City Council, leading to the removal of the entire council last year and a crisis of confidence among ratepayers.

'The lesson is that 'tone at the top' needs to be reinforced daily and flow down to the newest employee on their first day so they understand and deliver the values expected of them,' he said.

Major-General Greg Melick AO RFD SC, the Chief Commissioner of Tasmania's Integrity Commission, said he was often surprised by leaders who did not seem to be aware that some of their actions are inappropriate.

He said councils and tertiary institutions had been problematic for the Commission at times, sometimes because senior managers felt they were somehow above the law.

Tasmania has 26 councils serving a population of 550,000 people, and many employees in government organisations were dealing with contracts and working with people they know.

Major-General Melick said: 'Part of our education program is about people understanding there will be conflicts, but to clear and manage them, rather than trying to hide them – because that’s where problems start.'

He said the Integrity Commission had recognised the need to make itself open and accessible to public sector organisations, which has resulted in more organisations coming forward and working cooperatively with the Commission.