Corruption Watchdog Wants More Whistleblowers to be Prosecuted

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Free speech

Queensland’s corruption watchdog is set to recommend that the act of disclosing information regarding corruption complaints to the media should become a crime.

The Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) held a two-day public forum on October 6 and 7, to discuss the 50 submissions made to a paper titled Making allegations of corrupt conduct public: Is it in the public interest?

The forum was announced in August after Alan MacSporran, chairman of the CCC, became concerned about the number of councillors who made allegations against their opponents in the lead up to this year’s council elections.

From the state’s 77 councils, a total of 29 councillors had complaints made against them.

The effects of the media ban

Media outlets warned that such a ban would have adverse effects on the CCC, as it would deter potential informants from coming forward, and cut off further leads.

Channel 7 senior reporter Alison Sandy told the forum that media exposure of complaints spurred others into coming forward with extra information, and without this the job of the CCC would be hindered.

The CCC’s Mr MacSporran admitted that the commission had not consulted its investigating officers to canvass their opinions on what a media ban would mean for them.

The importance of journalists

Shane Doherty, political reporter for Channel Nine, wrote in his submission, “Either a government is open, transparent and accountable or it is not. It cannot be ‘mostly open’ anymore than our media can be ‘mostly free’.”

The reporter also remarked that the CCC wouldn’t exist without the work of journalists and that no lawyer had ever triggered a commission of inquiry.

The Fitzgerald Inquiry

The CCC was initially known as the Crime Justice Commission (CJC). The oversight body was established in 1989 in response to a recommendation made in the report tabled by the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

In May 1987, then acting Queensland premier Bill Gunn called for a commission of inquiry to investigate media allegations of police corruption in the state.

A number of Queensland police officers had been anonymously providing journalists with information regarding corruption at the highest level.

This led to a series of articles published in the Courier-Mail and was followed by a Four Corners investigation.

The commission of inquiry was headed by Tony Fitzgerald QC and became known as the ‘Fitzgerald Inquiry’.

The two-year investigation led to the conviction and imprisonment of former Queensland police commissioner Sir Terence Lewis and to the deposition of former premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

The Crime Justice Commission was established to guard against any repeat occurrence of the corruption that had been uncovered by the inquiry.

The Crime and Misconduct Commission

In 2002, the CJC merged with the Queensland Crime Commission to form the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC).

The Newman government announced in 2012 that a review of the CMC would be undertaken as part of its push to give the organisation greater secrecy.

They claimed politicians were using the CMC to publish complaints to score political points.

Five complaints had been made by the Labor government about Campbell Newman in the lead up to his election as premier.

In March 2013, the CMC came under further scrutiny after it accidentally released secret Fitzgerald Inquiry documents at the Queensland State Archives.

The documents that were publicly available for just over a year included information about targets and informants, and were not supposed to be released until 2055.

The corruption watchdog was renamed the CCC in March 2014, when the Newman government introduced a range of reforms to the organisation.

Then Queensland attorney-general Jarrod Bleijie said they were streamlining the watchdog’s operations, as they were receiving about 5,000 complaints a year, but only moving forward on about 100.

Whistleblowers silenced

The changes included an end to anonymous informants. Complainants now have to sign a statutory declaration when issuing corruption allegations.

Nigel Powell is a former Queensland police officer who was one of the anonymous sources for journalists investigating police corruption in the state prior to the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

Powell said the loss of anonymous whistleblowers meant that vital intelligence would not be investigated, as it would stop individuals from coming forward for fear of being prosecuted.

The ICAC submission

At the CCC forum earlier this month, a submission made by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) said it didn’t have any examples of political candidates making allegations against opponents.

Indeed, ICAC sent a letter to political parties over a decade ago, warning them not to use the body in such a way.

The situation has made many wonder whether it’s just a handful of complaints about local councillors that led to calls for a media blackout on information about public officials who have allegations raised against them.

Complaints against police

The CCC’s 2015-16 annual report, tabled in parliament on September 30, outlined that of the 2,674 complaints received over the last financial year, 64 percent related to police.

Excessive use of force by Queensland police officers has been a key focus of CCC investigations over the last year.

There were 40 allegations of excessive use of force. Two resulted in criminal charges, another 13 remained under investigation and 24 cases were referred back to Queensland police.

The CCC is also monitoring a further 44 allegations of Queensland police brutality under internal by police.

Police investigating police

According to Nigel Powell, since the CJC was created in 1989, the different versions of the watchdog have always been partially staffed by current and former Queensland police personnel. And this leads to a problematic situation where police are investigating their own.

He wrote in the Courier-Mail last week, that the CCC is supposed to be overseeing Queensland police, but at the same time it’s actively working with the department on actual police investigations.

A return to the media

With the proposed media blackout on complaints made to the CCC, and the already lost anonymity of whistleblowers, there’s a growing lack of faith in the effectiveness of the official corruption watchdog.

Powell believes that today, an informant would be forced once again to approach the media with allegations of corruption, just as he did back in the eighties.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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