Only a bad law hides corrupt acts

The Baillieu government is at last delivering on its promise to create an anti-corruption commission.

The Baillieu government is at last delivering on its promise to create an anti-corruption commission.

The Baillieu government is at last delivering on its promise to create an anti-corruption commission. The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission will have sweeping powers to investigate more than 250,000 people in public service, including politicians, their staff, judges, police, local government, consultants, the auditor-general and the governor. That is the good news. The bad news is that even as it is scraps constraints on investigating the tentacles of corruption wherever they lead, the government is seeking a way to keep some inquiries from the public.

As the government rushed through 100 pages of IBAC legislation on Parliament's last sitting day, Anti-Corruption Minister Andrew McIntosh told reporters: ''We were elected on a promise to shine a light on public corruption. I have a message for Victoria's public servants: if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.'' The government is not applying that message to itself. One clause creates an exemption from any obligation to disclose investigations. Rather than ''shine a light'' on corrupt conduct, the commission can make a ''private recommendation'' to the premier or a minister. If the IBAC commissioner is satisfied the government heeded the advice, no one else need ever know about the matter.

Publicity can derail some covert investigations. However, this clause could also be applicable to politically embarrassing or damaging findings. On the face of it, opposition spokeswoman Jill Hennessy is right in saying: ''Under this legislation, reports will be hidden and only the government will have access to investigations about itself. This piece of legislation has been written by the government for the government.''

If the commission finds the government's response unsatisfactory, it can release a public report. In this regard, another concern raised by Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews is relevant. The government broke an undertaking to give a bipartisan parliamentary committee the right of veto over the selection of the inaugural IBAC commissioner. ''We cannot have a situation in this state where the IBAC commissioner is the government's person,'' he said. This is especially so when the IBAC chief decides what complaints to pursue, what inquiries to initiate and whether the government can keep an investigation under wraps.

This newspaper regularly reports on matters that government would rather not be the subject of open inquiries. If, for instance, the special treatment accorded Premier Ted Baillieu's brother-in-law, Graeme Stoney, brought the secret return of cattle to the Alpine National Park before the IBAC, the public might never know. The same is true were the IBAC to follow up unresolved questions about the role of ministers and staff in the intrigues that forced police chief Simon Overland and his deputy, Ken Jones, to resign. There are questions about Business First's direct funding of Liberal candidates and what developers expected in return. Only after this newspaper's inquiries were disclosures made. If belated compliance with electoral law were to satisfy the IBAC, voters might remain ignorant of any inquiry into ''buying'' political influence.

The Coalition has taken a historic step in setting up this anti-corruption commission. We won't see how the IBAC performs until next July. But when Mr Baillieu castigated his predecessors for their lack of transparency and accountability, and for looking after Labor ''mates'', his promises of open administration were based on a premise of disclosure. Impropriety and wrongdoing flourish in secrecy transparency itself counters corruption. If any public official engages in corrupt conduct, the public has a right to see that justice is done. Unless the IBAC promotes that principle, efforts to clean up public administration in Victoria could fall well short of what is needed and was promised.

A man of many virtues'He was a master lawyer and ? he brought to his work and to the whole of his public life an unflagging and almost inexhaustible energy and a mind of great strength, power and range.'' This description could well have applied to Sir Zelman Cowen, Australia's 19th governor-general, who died this week at the age of 92. In fact, this adroit summary comes from The Australian Dictionary of Biography's entry on Sir Isaac Isaacs, Australia's 9th viceroy. Its author: Sir Zelman Cowen.

Much has rightly been made of Sir Zelman's five-year term as governor-general, from 1977 to 1982, and of the key conciliatory role he played in restoring dignity to that office after the rancorous and messy aftermath following the dismissal. But there was much more to him than that, as his many colleagues and friends would attest. As former High Court judge Michael Kirby said, toasting Sir Zelman's 90th birthday, he was a man of many virtues: seven public ones and seven private ones, that resembled the twin arms of the menorah - or candlabrum sacred to the Jews. These included Sir Zelman's roles in academia, law reform, and media and communication (it should not be forgotten that, while chairman of Fairfax in the early 1990s and in the face of a proposed takeover by Kerry Packer, Sir Zelman helped draft, and was a signatory to, this newspaper's charter of independence). Less publicly, his other virtues included a loving nature, conversational expertise, courage, intellectualism and luck.

Sir Zelman remained active in public life long after his retirement and, indeed, while dealing with the onset of Parkinson's disease.

Next week, he will, entirely appropriately, be given a state funeral in Melbourne. Such a great and influential Australian deserves nothing less.

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