Watcher of watchdogs fills anti-fraud void

A commission is investigating allegations of wrongdoing at federal agencies, including Border Force.
A commission is investigating allegations of wrongdoing at federal agencies, including Border Force.

The federal anti-corruption watchdog is investigating hundreds of allegations of wrongdoing at federal agencies, plugging the void until a promised integrity commission is set up.

The Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity is missing its targets for timely work, but the parliamentary committee charged with watching the watchdog said in a report tabled on Thursday that speed should not be at the expense of chasing down fraud and corruption.

Two key operational challenges for the agency were serious and organised crime, and recruitment and retention, a report showed.

The committee acknowledged the government is working towards laws on establishing a new larger commission and that the current one is "working diligently" in preparation.

The commission investigated the Australian Federal Police, the Department of Home Affairs including the Border Force, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment during 2019/20.

Of 172 notifications received, 124 related to "abuse of office" (up by 35 from the previous year), 46 were "corruption of any other kind" (up by 22) and two on perverting the course of justice.

Where corrupt officials are working with serious and organised crime groups, the agency advised the committee it often conducts a joint investigation with other federal bodies, further complicating cases.

More than 200 assessments were completed in 2019/20, missing targets for timely work.

The commission said targets were missed because of a rise in notifications and referrals. It plans to "stop the clock" on assessments that run for too long, aiming for 90 per cent to be completed within 30 days.

The parliamentary committee supports the adoption of a "stretch target", but said it should be realistic so the public doesn't get the wrong idea about performance.

But the auditor-general found it could not decide whether the commission had been operating efficiently as the body had not "measured, benchmarked or reported on its efficiency in detecting, investigating and preventing corrupt conduct".

The Morrison government announced plans in 2018 to set up a broader anti-corruption body, the Commonwealth Integrity Commission.

But laws have yet to be introduced to parliament.

The current commission's jurisdiction was expanded beyond law enforcement this year, as part of the transition.

It can now investigate the tax office, the competition watchdog, the corporate watchdog and the banking regulator.

Australian Associated Press