Watching the watchdogs

Mark Standen'Rather ten devils to check one another than one mandarin with absolute power.' (The Tiananmen declaration, 2 June 1989)

Ah, but how to tame those devils? Public life is a struggle for power, profile and privilege, yet like Diogenes we seek the honest man who will end all corruption. Today we are given government-begotten institutions vested with 'standing royal commission' powers. That they can't keep the executive, even the police, in check, and that power is toxic to some working in them, should by now be evident.

These commissions put on highly satisfactory shows. WA's Corruption and Crime Commission did a beautiful job on non-public servant/now lobbyist Brian Burke and his business partner in public hearings in 2007, and on the head of that state's Health Department earlier this year.

Victoria's Office of Police Integrity has been holding public inquiries in which some police, who denied making suspect phone calls (or calls to suspects) on the one day, were exposed making such calls in covert telephone taps on the next. Squirming is such sweet satisfaction.

Yet the displays do not necessarily end well. WA's ex-health chief Neal Fong — who supposedly misled his powerful Minister by denying he had had contact with Mr Burke, when in fact he had illegally told Burke about a CCC enquiry affecting him — is not to be prosecuted. This is, according to WA Director of Public Prosecutions Robert Cock, because Fong has suffered enough in being forced to resign his $600,000 position.

Other public servants condemned by the CCC were later cleared of wrongdoing by tribunals or the CCC's Parliamentary Inspector, who was scathing about the quality, bias and adequacy of the CCC investigation. McCusker QC was then scourged by the CCC for 'exceeding' his powers in reinvestigating its investigation — in other words, for making it accountable.

In NSW, a highly public Royal Commission exposed corruption, bribery and extortion over more than two years. It led to an increased role for a Police Integrity Commission as well as the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Yet Senior Inspector Mark Standen (pictured) of the NSW Crime Commission, an organised crime detection agency independent of the police, moulders in strict security charged with massive complicity in a conspiracy to import illegal drugs.

For all those Victorian OPI hearings, there yet remains a dark underbelly of police officers with personal connections with organised crime and shady mates; making careful calls, hints and discretionary interventions. Why assume that the answer is another anti-corruption body?

Two observations should be made. The first is about our naïveté in placing trust in standing royal commissions. The Star Chamber worked efficiently, too.

The second is that public, authoritative and even judicial decision-making stands to be affected by our human need to externalise 'evil'.

Anti-corruption and crime prevention agencies employ not only people who work in policing, intelligence and investigations, but also police and government agencies with investigative powers. Lawyers and former judges, too. They tend to have mixed socially as well as professionally.

In a righteous environment, to be seen to breach conventions of propriety or authority, a man or woman has to become 'other'. It is a lot easier to see wrongdoing of one who does not share a bond with the observer.

It is infinitely harder to detect in those with whom we have shared a common purpose — for example, police and anti-corruption investigators conducting joint operations into organised crime who are, at the same time, supposed to be alert to 'corrupt conduct' or misconduct in the other. Friendships and relationships blur lines of sight, perception and sensitivity. It's human nature.

We are also discouragingly quick to assume that a public excoriation during an investigative hearing or media flurry is equivalent to real guilt. Let us not assume that Mark Standen is, for example, guilty of any crime. It is a matter for the criminal law to prove beyond reasonable doubt, having displaced a presumption of innocence.

Who of us was not shocked about the apparent guilt of Dr Haneef? And yet it was not so, and often is not so, and even a chief of police or a DPP may, with a fairy dusting of enormous powers (such as anti-terrorism and organised crime laws), become a political player.

The truth lies where it ought. Even the pure make decisions based on the allegations of powerful men. Mark Standen had a colleague dismissed after 'informally' accusing him of tipping off crims. A fall may be triggered by quiet conversations, nods and understandings among apparently good, sound men.

We need good laws and judges to make sure our governors and their institutions do not hog power. Anti-corruption, police integrity and organised-crime agencies are just as vulnerable as any other to infiltration, concealment and a bullying culture in which intimidation and 'noble cause' corruption can grow.

A representative democracy has to protect individual rights. There will always be tensions between those rights and the organisational needs of government. Until there is some internalisation of these principles in those who rule us, watchdogs continue to be essential. But it is impossible to govern by royal commission.

Some anti-corruption watchdogs work with government to develop guidelines and training to make the principles of ethical behaviour integral to the working environment. This is to be praised. Yet there is a fine line to be drawn between cooperating with bureaucracies and being co-opted by them.

For the watchdogs themselves there is a delicate balance to be struck. There is a difference between retaining the integrity of the office and acting in a high-handed way. WA's CCC, for example, has claimed to be immune from public oversight of its investigations. Yet its acts can ruin reputations and lives.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Ultimately, we the people.

Office of Police Integrity
Independent Commission Against Corruption
Corruption and Crime Commission


Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates.


Flickr image by Publik16

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, standing royal commissions, Corruption and Crime Commission, Brian Burke, Police integrity



submit a comment

Existing comments

The evaluation of Moira Rayner of the Star Chamber techniques and the effectiveness of such bodies as the WA CCC is very timely and very correct.

As a non-legal taxpaying voter I must ask just what has the WA CCC achieved in dealing with corruption in this State? It has been given extraordinary powers without being accountable to anyone.

Has its actions resulted in substantial successful prosecutions? It picks marshmallow targets resulting in sensational headlines in WA only daily newspaper.

All it seems to do is line the pockets of the legal profession and provide material for journalists without any real return to the taxpaying voting public of WA.

Nick Agocs | 19 June 2008  

Let me quote Bill Hayden on this one: a country that settles for a second rate police force, settles for a second rate democracy.

Leo Donnelly E. | 13 August 2008  

Similar Articles

Why Rudd commission won't stop the bomb

  • Binoy Kampmark
  • 19 June 2008

Continuing the work of the defunct Canberra Commission, Kevin Rudd's Nuclear Non-Proliferations and Disarmament Commission is re-inventing a wheel that never worked. Preventing freelance scientists from following their career wanderlust is the real challenge in any post-nuclear framework.


Consumer confidence can't be bought

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 16 June 2008

Rising petrol prices and interest rates mean Australians' confidence in the economy has declined to the lowest level for 16 years. There is a need for a deeper source of confidence beyond economic good times.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up