Fears of anti-corruption watchdog being muzzled

By Greg Ansley

Campbell Newman.  Photo / Dale Napier
Campbell Newman. Photo / Dale Napier

A new leash is being prepared for Queensland's anti-corruption watchdog as the state Government digests the recommendations of a review of an "overly sensitive, overly bureaucratic" body that resented the intrusion into its business.

The review found that the Crime and Misconduct Commission was open to misuse and manipulation for political ends and, in framing the release of the inquiry's report, the Government felt itself under threat.

Premier Campbell Newman said the Government had made public only the executive summary of the report by former High Court judge Ian Callinan after being warned off the release of the full document.

"I read it that way," he told reporters. "You're the one who said it, but I certainly read it that way."

The commission replied in a statement that it had asked only that sensitive information, such as ongoing investigations and operational areas including witness protection, be withheld.

It made no other comment on the review's report.

The commission was one of the key outcomes of the 1980s Fitzgerald inquiry into police corruption that led to the jailing of a former police commissioner and three ministers and the downfall of New Zealand-born Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, ending 32 years of ultra-conservative National Party rule.

Its main tasks are the investigation of major crime and complaints of misconduct in the public service.

But while the Callinan review was scathing of the commission's operations in a number of areas, its recommendations have disturbed the Opposition and civil rights groups who fear the body will be brought to the Government's heel.

Key among concerns are proposals to prosecute people who make "vexatious and baseless" complaints and others who reveal publicly they have made a complaint, and to subject commission research to approval by the Attorney-General.

The commission's research has led to a number of significant reforms, including the establishment of a register of political lobbyists.

Opposition leader Annastacia Palaszczuk said the commission's independence would be eroded by the proposals, and would discourage the reporting of alleged corruption by whistleblowers."We are seeing a muzzle put on the independent watchdog," she said.

Queensland Council of Civil Liberties president Terry O'Gorman told AAP he feared whistleblowers could be charged for making what were considered to be baseless complaints.

"History has shown us that people who have had valid complaints don't make them for fear of prosecution," he said.

O'Gorman also said the recommendation that commission research require the Attorney-General's approval was a dangerous proposal "subject to political dictation of the day".

The review's proposal to clamp down on complaints was motivated by the commission's huge workload, dominated by "trivial, vexatious or misdirected complaints".

As well as punishing the trivial, the commission recommended it should be an offence for any person, including a commission officer, to disclose that a complaint has been made.

This resonated with the Government. Newman survived five well-publicised references to the commission during last year's election campaign, although he had used similar tactics during his bid to become Brisbane's Lord Mayor in 2003.

"It is no secret that the Government has had concerns about how the commission was used and abused by the previous Labor Government and the public manner in which complaints were being made and dealt with," Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie said.

The commission had similar concerns: "There is reason to believe that people do on occasions seek to use complaints to the commission and publicity about them for their own purposes, causing reputations to be traduced and the victims without a certain or expeditious remedy in defamation."

Other recommendations include proposals banning government departments from giving reasons for refusing information for up to nine months to keep potential investigations confidential, and that no reason be given for the refusal to release documents to the public.

The review also recommended ethical standards units in government agencies "disappear or be greatly reduced".

It complained the commission had embraced bureaucracy too eagerly, was overly sensitive to criticism and acted "petulantly" towards the review: it would have preferred to provide questions it was willing to answer rather than the questions the review wanted to ask.

The review's report will now be handed to an implementation panel.

- NZ Herald

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