Necessary, but not sufficient: Australia’s new Fraud and Anti-Corruption Centre
Money is All Powerful

While most of the attention on national security has focused on this Tuesday’s announcement of limited new counter-terrorism measures, last week’s news that a Fraud and Anti-Corruption Centre is to be established within the Australian Federal Police has been overlooked. The Centre will evaluate serious fraud, foreign bribery and corruption complaints and refer them on to state-based investigation teams. They will also assist in training Commonwealth agencies in fraud prevention.

The Centre will have federal police working with officials from the Australian Taxation Office, Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, Department of Human Services, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Department of Defence, and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Importantly, the Centre will also leverage the intelligence capabilities of the Australian Crime Commission. The Centre will have out-posted officers in many state capital cities.

Issues relating to national government integrity and anti-corruption go directly to the public interest: to see money used to the public’s best interests, to ensure transparency and accountability, and to retain a high level of trust in public decision-making. A national anti-corruption plan prepared by the previous Labor government last year stated: ‘Corrupt practices have the potential to undermine Australia’s reputation for high standards of governance, robust law and justice institutions, equitable delivery of services, democratic and electoral accountability, and transparent and fair markets.’ But the national ability to prosecute such complex cases like corruption and fraud has attracted criticism in the past.

While Australia’s ranked by Transparency International as one of the world’s least corrupt countries, it’s naive to assume that federal politicians, ministerial advisers, former politicians, lobbyists, and members of Commonwealth departments or agencies are immune to the temptations of corruption. (Indeed, more than 100 allegations are being made each month of crime, corruption or serious incompetence by Commonwealth government officials under new whistle blower protections laws.) The same point applies to large corporates, where the stakes are high and their behaviours are cloistered far from the scrutiny of state anti-corruption bodies.

No government can afford complacency when it comes to fighting corruption. There’ll always be those who seek to influence public-sector decision-making for personal gain. At the national level in recent years we’ve seen scandals such as the AWB and the UN’s oil-for-food program and the bribery scandal that rocked the Reserve Bank. While there are various state mechanisms in place, like the NSW Independent Commission on Corruption, we’ve had a blind spot when it comes to establishing an anti-corruption body at the national level.

Instead, the responsibility for reporting corrupt or inappropriate activity has rested with various parliamentary inquiries, investigative journalists and whistle blowers. The Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office is one of administrative review and oversight, rather than corruption investigation. The Australian Commission on Law Enforcement Integrity provides scrutiny of six federal law-enforcement agencies, but it excludes companies and has few investigators. The corporate watchdog, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, doesn’t have jurisdiction in relation to foreign bribery, although it’s prepared to run civil proceedings alongside the AFP’s criminal ones.

This new Centre is a welcome step. It follows an increasing trend for government departments to work closely together in the law-enforcement space, which has included focused task forces, the Criminal Intelligence Fusion Capability, and the National Anti-Gangs Squad initiatives. It will pool resources and expertise, always important in highly technical areas such as these. And placing it within the AFP likely increases the chances of effective collaboration with the Criminal Assets Confiscation Task Force. This task force itself should receive a boost once the Commonwealth government’s legislation on unexplained wealth is put into operation.

So while the creation of the new federal Fraud and Anti-Corruption Centre is a positive development, it will need to be properly resourced and linked to other efforts. On the first point, there’s cause for concern: while other areas of national security expenditure are set to expand, the Commonwealth contribution to the AFP’s budget in four years time will likely be about 16 per cent smaller than it is now.

Effective cooperation with existing, state-based anti-corruption bodies will also be essential. Establishing jurisdiction in those cases may be an issue for prosecutors, so close cooperation with the state governments and their police will be vital.

That last point’s especially important because the new Centre falls short of previous public calls for an independent federal anti-corruption agency that would have the potency of a Royal Commission and a full armoury of special powers: intercept, undercover operations, and surveillance.

Corruption by its nature is hidden and persistent. We need a Fraud and Anti-Corruption Centre sufficiently resourced to go looking for it.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. David Connery is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Alan Light.