Labor members support the recommendations in the Joint Committee on the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (committee) report. However, there are a number of matters that we would like to put on the record, and which warrant particular emphasis.
The need for an independent and powerful national anti-corruption commission
Most significantly, this inquiry has further highlighted the urgent need for a broad-based, independent and powerful national integrity commission to tackle corruption.
At present, the jurisdiction of the Australian Commission on Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) is too narrow to have any chance of investigating and rooting out corruption at Australia’s borders.
ACLEI provided this committee with a number of extraordinary examples of jurisdictional issues preventing it from conducting investigations into extremely serious allegations of corruption. For example, an allegation that an officer of the Department of Agriculture was facilitating drug importations and terrorism financing was deemed not to be within the jurisdiction of ACLEI. As was an allegation relating to the alleged acceptance of bribes to clear consignments by another officer of that department.
Clearly, the patchy nature of ACLEI’s jurisdiction is having far-reaching implications, including when it comes to the integrity and security of Australia’s border arrangements. And make no mistake: corruption at Australia’s borders is a national security risk.
As the committee’s report notes, the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General announced that the Government would expand ACLEI’s jurisdiction to include the entirety of the current Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE). That would ensure that ACLEI could investigate allegations like those referred to above.
The Government’s announcement of an expanded jurisdiction for ACLEI was made two years ago. Since then, the Government has shown no urgency—and, in fact, has cautioned against acting with urgency—to follow through on its commitment. In other words, the Government continues to allow an intolerable risk to Australia’s border security, and therefore to Australia’s biosecurity and national security, to remain unchecked.
Last month, the Government finally released an exposure draft of a bill to establish a Commonwealth Integrity Commission.
The proposed model includes two divisions.
One of those divisions would be responsible for investigating politicians and most Commonwealth public servants (the public sector division). The powers of the public sector division would be significantly weaker than those of ACLEI and it would operate entirely in secret. It would not be able to self‑initiate investigations into possible corruption—and, unlike ACLEI, it would not even be able to make findings of corruption.
The other division would be ACLEI, which would continue to operate as it currently operates—albeit with an expanded jurisdiction (e.g. to include the entirety of DAWE).
The Morrison Government’s preferred model for a 'Commonwealth Integrity Commission' has been widely criticised by legal and anti-corruption experts. Several senior legal figures have even suggested that, because the public sector division could not hold public hearings and would be subject to numerous other legislated constraints, the Government’s model is designed to cover up corruption—not expose it.
The impact of corruption is profound. As well as eroding public trust in governments and institutions and costing the taxpayer money that could be used to improve people’s lives, corruption can threaten the health, safety and security of all Australians.
It is incumbent on the Government to take the threat of corruption seriously and to take serious action to combat it.
In view of the above, Labor members would like to put on the public record our concerns about:
the lack of urgency shown by the current Government when it comes to investigating or tackling corruption, including at Australia’s borders; and
the Government’s proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission, which appears to fall well short of what is needed to investigate and tackle corruption.
Labor members would also like to record our concern about the conduct, and quality, of ACLEI’s investigation into allegations of corruption involving the Department of Home Affairs and Crown Casino (known as 'Operation Angove').
Over the course of this inquiry, Labor Senators asked detailed questions about Operation Angove. Those questions were prompted, in large part, by the poor quality of Investigation Report 08/2020 (being the Integrity Commissioner’s public report in relation to Operation Angove).
The allegations investigated by Operation Angove were incredibly serious. They related to:
possible corruption by Home Affairs staff in relation to the provision of Australian visas for Crown VIPs;
possible corruption by Australian Border Force (ABF) staff in relation to the clearing of those VIPs at the Australian border (e.g. baggage and other security checks); and
possible corruption by an individual ABF staff member who was employed by a VIP junket operator.
Those matters were referred to the former Integrity Commissioner, Mr Michael Griffin AM, by the Attorney-General following an explosive report by the 60 Minutes program and a series of articles in the Sydney Morning Herald. That reporting was based, in part, on comments made by a former Crown employee, turned whistle-blower.
After a 12-month investigation by ACLEI, the current Integrity Commissioner concluded that there was no evidence of corrupt conduct by Home Affairs or the ABF.
However, over the course of this inquiry, it became clear that ACLEI’s investigation of those three corruption issues was deficient in numerous respects. For example:
ACLEI did not interview a single employee, or former employee, of Crown;
ACLEI conducted only one formal interview over the course of Operation Angove;
ACLEI did not even attempt to contact the former Crown employee, turned whistleblower who spoke to the 60 Minutes program in relation to the provision of Australian visas for Crown VIPs;
ACLEI did not even attempt to contact any of the officials who were directly responsible for processing visa applications for Crown VIPs;
ACLEI did not even follow up when ABF officers ignored requests for information; and
the Integrity Commissioner’s report does not even refer to the—highly relevant—fact that the Crown junket operator who employed the serving ABF officer as an extraordinarily well-paid 'personal assistant' was suspected of committing a range of serious criminal offences.
The Integrity Commissioner’s conclusion—that there was no corrupt conduct by Home Affairs or ABF staff—appears to have been based principally on a desktop review of visa processing notes and other documentation (records which, according to the Commissioner’s own report, were seriously deficient in a number of respects).
Accordingly, Labor members are not satisfied that the Operation Angove investigation was sufficiently robust.
We do not make these comments lightly.
Investigations by ACLEI, or by any investigative body, necessarily require individuals to make difficult judgments on the basis of a complicated array of laws, facts and circumstances. However, following a careful review of Investigation Report 08/2020 and the Commissioner’s detailed responses to our questions, we believe that our concerns are warranted.
This committee has a duty to monitor and review the Integrity Commissioner’s performance of his or her functions. It is therefore important that committee members give voice to their concerns when, in their view, the Commissioner’s performance has fallen short of what the Australian community—and the Parliament—expects.
It is important to acknowledge that the current Integrity Commissioner assumed the role part way through the Operation Angove investigation. It is not necessary for us to apportion responsibility for the deficiencies in ACLEI’s investigation between the current and the former Commissioner, and nor are we in a position to do so.
We would like to stress that our comments above should in no way be interpreted as a criticism of individual investigators. Nor do they reflect a concern that Labor members have about the performance of ACLEI more generally, which has done—and continues to do—very important work to a commendably high standard. Our comments are confined to one particular investigation and report.
Finally, noting that the committee is not authorised to reconsider the Integrity Commissioner’s decisions or recommendations, we would also like to make it clear that we are in no way suggesting that the Integrity Commissioner’s conclusion—that there was no corrupt conduct by Home Affairs or ABF staff—was wrong. What we are suggesting is that the process that led the Commissioner to reach that conclusion was deficient.
Senator Catryna Bilyk