Anti-corruption commissions - a last line of defence before royal commissions

IBAC Deputy Commissioner Katie Miller

By IBAC Deputy Commissioner Katie Miller

This article is based on a speech given by IBAC Deputy Commissioner Katie Miller at the 2019 Australian Public Sector Anti-Corruption Conference (APSACC). APSACC is the leading anti-corruption event in Australia and focuses on preventing, exposing and responding to corrupt conduct and corruption risks in public institutions.

When a royal commission is announced, it usually means something significantly troubling has happened that ordinary institutions of government are unable to deal with. Royal commissions help our society understand how and why something troubling has happened, and what can be done to avoid that occurring again. Royal commissions should be rare and used only to respond to crises. And no one wants a crisis. So, how do we avoid the crisis and subsequent need for a future royal commission?

Where the crisis concerns corruption in the public sector, anti-corruption commissions are arguably the last line of defense. Sophisticated technologies and investigative tools have increased our ability to detect and expose corruption earlier. However, these methods deal with the problem rather than the cause. If we want to avoid the problem or crisis leading to a royal commission, we must look to prevention as well as cure.

Prevention seeks to address underlying causes. Systems, structures and culture are common targets for prevention activities and are commonly recommended by both royal and anti-corruption commissions. Yet despite the clear need for cultural reform, efforts tend to focus on systems and structures. Fix the system, fix the problem, right?

Take the recent Banking Royal Commission as an example. No sooner had the 1133 pages of the report landed on the desk of the Commonwealth Treasurer than commentators and experts began prophesising the next banking royal commission. This pessimistic outlook was in many ways a reflection of the commission’s recommendations regarding systems and processes, which while sensible, failed to tackle the cultural drivers dooming systems and processes to failure.

Successful commissions – whether royal or anti-corruption – not only change systems and processes, they change cultures. When I look back at past royal commissions, three in particular stand out: the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse and the Fitzgerald Royal Commission. These commissions not only changed policy and public administration, they changed how our society viewed the dark stains of family violence, child sex abuse and corruption in government. They changed how we identified the problems and our collective lack of tolerance for heinous behavior; no longer will blind eyes be turned.

Cultural change is never linear; it requires constant engagement and commitment. And this takes time. Time to understand the extent and nature of a problem, to move beyond the shock and awe of tragic case studies, and to engage in conversations that shift community expectations. Anti-corruption commissions are not bound to the same expiry dates as royal commissions. They have the time to trial, test, fail and adapt different approaches.

To avoid the next royal commission, anti-corruption commissions need to be in it for the long game and understand that the game is not just about systems and processes. The game is culture. As the banking industry continues to show, processes and systems don’t determine outcomes. Culture does.  

Is cultural change within the realm of anti-corruption commissions? I believe it is.

If we, as anti-corruption commissions, fail to engage with the culture of agencies, then we will repeat the tedious cycle of banking royal commissions; expose, recommend, repeat. Agencies must remain responsible and accountable for their own cultures; it is not something an external agency can deliver. However, just as we support agencies in their policies and procedures, we can also support them in their efforts to change their cultures. This requires careful thought and planning as culture is not something that can be reduced to a recommendation; it requires regular, ongoing acts.

Every contact and communication with the agencies we have oversight for is an opportunity to influence culture. In order to meaningfully increase our influence, our communication needs to be regular and two-way.

The recent review by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) into sexual discrimination and harassment in Victoria Police demonstrates the sort of cultural change that can occur when an oversight agency sustains focused engagement with an agency over many years. We see the change in the frequency and nature of complaints and notifications made to IBAC – conduct previously tolerated within Victoria Police is now deemed unacceptable by members across genders and ranks.

Meaningful, continued engagement involves contributions across functions, roles and projects within an oversight body. Engagement also requires understanding the different roles that an anti-corruption commission plays. Thirty years after the Fitzgerald Inquiry and the introduction of NSW's Independent Commission Against Corruption, ICAC, an anti-corruption commission’s role as investigator, auditor and reviewer is understood. There is an opportunity for us to develop our understanding of how anti-corruption commissions can be a critical friend while maintaining independence.

VEOHRC's engagement with Victoria Police illustrates it can be done through consideration and discussion. At IBAC, we engage regularly with Victoria Police and other public sector agencies as part of our prevention activities. We seek to support public sector agencies to understand how they can treat and prevent corruption vulnerabilities.

We can't stop bad things happening. Crises will continue and royal commissions will be needed. But, by using engagement as a tool to influence and shape cultures, we can reduce the need for royal commissions about corruption in government and police misconduct. Royal Commissions can then be reserved for the things that are truly intractable.