Corruption and Integrity Update – March 2024

18 April 2024
Daniel Maroske, Partner, Brisbane

In this edition of the Queensland Corruption and Integrity Update we consider recent developments from the Office of the Independent Assessor, reports from the parliamentary committees overseeing the CCC, the Integrity Commissioner, the Ombudsman and the Information Commissioner, as well as updates from recent reviews by the CCC. Finally, we consider the implications for integrity officers following the recent local government elections.

Office of the Independent Assessor

Councillor Conduct Tribunal Decision

On 28 February 2024, the Councillor Conduct Tribunal (CCT) published its decision and reasons regarding alleged misconduct by a Toowoomba Regional Council councillor. The decision considered allegations relating to potential misconduct for failing to deal with conflicts of interest in a transparent and accountable manner pursuant to section 173(4) of the Local Government Act 2009 (Qld) (the Act). At the time of the alleged misconduct, the councillor’s breach of trust constituted a breach of section 175E(2) of the Act, though the relevant provision has since been repealed.

The CCT found that none of the allegations could be substantiated because the councillor’s personal interest did not rise to a level that could create a conflict of interest. The CCT also noted that the councillor sought advice on how to deal with his personal interests, which indicated that public confidence could be maintained in the councillor. Finally, the CCT held that even if the councillor had breached the trust placed on him, he did not do so ‘knowingly or recklessly’ because he would have been required to go through the company books in order to identify the conflict. Such a requirement was considered ‘overly stringent’ for someone who was not involved in the day-to-day running of the business.

OIA Update on operations

On 21 February 2024, the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) provided the Housing, Big Build and Manufacturing Committee with an update on the OIA’s operations following the assent of the Local Government (Councillor Complaints) and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2023 (Amendment Act) on 22 November 2023.

Following the Bill’s assent, the OIA reassessed matters that were in either the investigation or natural justice phases, as well as matters which had been referred to the CCT that were awaiting determination. This process resulted in 18 investigations and 15 matters undergoing natural justice being dismissed, and 26 undetermined CCT matters being withdrawn. The OIA specifically noted that the withdrawal of a matter did not necessarily indicate whether a councillor had breached their legislative responsibilities, and that other public interest reasons warranted the dismissal or withdrawal of a matter.

The OIA stated that it will continue to work alongside the CCT to remove and reduce the existing backlog, including ensuring the appropriate prioritisation of resources to ensure that serious instances of misconduct are prioritised. It is likely that this will result in the investigation of fewer complaints, but that the complaints that are investigated are likely to be more complex and serious.

Oversight of the Integrity Commissioner Public Briefing

On 4 March 2024, the Cost of Living and Economics Committee held a public briefing for the Committee’s oversight of the Queensland Integrity Commissioner. The Queensland Integrity Commissioner, Ms Linda Waugh, provided a broad overview of the recent work undertaken by the Commission and some key statistics.

Ms Waugh indicated that in the current financial year, there have been 90 requests for advice, increasing from 78 requests received in 2022-2023. Ms Waugh also reflected on the work that the Commission continues to do with respect to lobbying, stating that the number of registered listed persons continues to grow, with an increase from 227 registered persons in 2021 to 337 in February 2024.

Ms Waugh also reflected on the most recent annual report, stating that 26 show cause notices were issued to entities with respect to lobbying. These notices primarily related to failures to comply with annual renewal processes.

Finally, Ms Waugh noted that the office still had significant work with respect to its education function, with only four presentations delivered last year. This year, the Office has delivered 24 presentations, largely focusing on key stakeholders, executive leadership and government boards.

The broadcast and transcript of the briefing can be accessed here.

Legal Affairs and Safety Committee (LASC)

Crime and Corruption Amendment Bill 2024

On Monday 4 March 2024, the Inquiry into the Crime and Corruption and Other Legislation Bill 2024 was discussed at a public hearing held by the LASC.

The hearing invited parties and representatives who made submissions in relation to the Bill to discuss their submissions. These parties include:

  • Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC): the CCC submitted that they are supportive of the purpose of the Bill – to improve operation and performance of the CCC. The CCC highlighted the concerns from their submission relating to the proposed changes to the duration of senior executive officers, and that tenure provisions should be consistent with senior executive officers in the Queensland Public Service. Additionally, the CCC noted that the Bill makes substantial changes to chapters 3 and 4 of the Crime and Corruption Act, and that this would have significant operational impacts. The CCC stated that it would be imperative that a date for transition be fixed and to allow six to twelve months from the commencement of the Bill for transitionary purposes.
  • Queensland Law Society (QLS): the QLS noted that their main concern with the Bill, as reflected in their written submissions, is the continued abrogation of individual rights and privileges such as legal professional privilege and the privilege against self-incrimination. QLS also raised their concerns regarding the appropriateness of the CCC being able to commence proceedings without obtaining prior advice from the director’s office, specifically in circumstances where warrants and search entry powers may be exercised.
  • NewsCorp Australia (NewsCorp) /Australia’s Right to Know (ARTK): NewsCorp/ARTK highlighted the ethical obligation given by a journalist who has promised a source confidentiality, and noted that the burden of proof required to pierce the shield almost always lies with the CCC once it is confirmed that confidentiality is given. ARTK’s primary ongoing concern is the preliminary decision-making powers granted to a presiding officer in determining whether the shield should stand or fall (proposed sections 205F through to 205ZG of the Bill). NewsCorp/ARTK proposed that amendments include:
    • the ability for a journalist to meet the requirements to deal with a document or thing subject to journalist privilege by instead sealing a hard or soft copy of the document or thing; and
    • the Bill should not give the CCC chairperson the power to issue a warrant.

The LASC has now published its report. At a high level, the LASC recommended that the Bill be passed.

For further information relating to the Bill and the various submissions made by key stakeholders, please see our February 2024 article.

Office of the Information Commissioner Report

Earlier this year, the LASC released a report which provides a summary of its oversight of the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) for the 2021-22 financial year. The report references the Committee’s Annual Report 2021-22, as well as the public hearing held on 13 July 2023.

During the 2021-22 financial year, the OIC:

  • finalised 650 external review applications, 89% of which were finalised without a formal decision; and
  • finalised 68 out of the 69 privacy complaints received.

The Annual Report also advised that 61% of most enquiries were about access to or amendment of documents under the Right to Information Act 2005 and Information Privacy Act 2009 (RTI and IP Acts) and that 8,931 people completed the OIC’s online training courses.

At the oversight public hearing, the LASC noted that the OIC looks forward to introducing legislation to amend the RTI and IP Acts. Such legislation should address:

  • the importance of consistency with other jurisdictions;
  • the need to streamline interactions between governments, communities and businesses; and
  • strengthening protections for information rights.

Queensland Ombudsman Report

The LASC has also released a report which contains details of its oversight of the Queensland Ombudsman (Ombudsman). The report references the Ombudsman’s Annual Report 2021-22, as well as the public hearing held on 1 June 2023.

During the 2021-22 financial year, the Ombudsman:

  • finalised 6,669 complaints and 1,108 investigations;
  • made 180 recommendations to relevant agencies, 99% of which were accepted; and
  • delivered 175 decision-making training sessions to approximately 3,145 public sector officers (which was almost double the number of sessions held the previous year).

Public Interest Disclosures (PID) relating to corrupt conduct were the most reported type of wrongdoing in the 2021-22 year, representing 87.9%. The Ombudsman delivered ‘live online’ PID training to a record 1,450 participants. The LASC commended the Ombudsman for its important contribution to the oversight of PIDs, training and good governance in Queensland.

At the public hearing, the Ombudsman stated they have been establishing a team to support the new role of ‘Inspector of Detention Services’ which has been introduced by the Inspector of Detention Services Act 2022.

The Ombudsman also noted that several previous recommendations have been implemented by the government, including:

  • the Integrity and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2022 implementing the five-year timeframe for strategic reviews of the Office as opposed to seven years; and
  • reviewing the PID Act.

At the public hearing, a recommendation was made that parliamentary committees should contribute to the Ombudsman’s financial arrangements and management practices. The LASC agreed with this recommendation.

CCC release quarterly report 6 on Commission of Inquiry Recommendations

The CCC recently released its sixth quarterly update on the ‘Implementation and delivery of COI recommendations’. Since our last coverage in the January edition of the Corruption & Integrity Update, no further recommendations have been completed.

By way of summary,11 of the 32 recommendations have been completed. The balance of the recommendations not yet completed largely remain ‘in progress,’ with the CCC continuing to take actions towards their implementation.

The CCC will continue to publish quarterly reports relating to the progress of the implementation and delivery of the 32 recommendations.

CCC release its report on the Review of the Criminal Proceeds Confiscation Act 2002

On 9 April 2024, the CCC released its Modernising Queensland’s asset confiscation regime Report. The Report concerns the CCC’s review of the Criminal Proceeds Confiscation Act 2002 (Qld). By way of overview, the CCC’s review assessed whether Queensland’s asset confiscation regime was still effective in an evolving organised crime environment.

The CCC’s review found there is the need for significant reforms of the Act. Specifically, the CCC identified seven priority areas for reform and made 10 recommendations to modernise Queensland’s asset confiscation regime. Of particular note, these suggested reforms attempt to:

  • make the money laundering offence contemporary, clear and fit-for purpose;
  • improve the effectiveness, efficiency and agility of Queensland’s asset confiscation regime;
  • introduce an asset-focused confiscation regime and change how confiscated assets are used; and
  • ensure the Act delivers on objectives for disruptive impact.

Local government elections – integrity officers

Integrity officers working in the local government space are likely to experience an increase in the volume of work following the recent elections, particularly in those councils where there are newly elected officials. It is important for councils to have in place strong procedures for assessing and referring allegations received, as well as giving consideration to public interest disclosure thresholds where appropriate. Adequate training for new members is also important.

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Authored by:
Daniel Maroske, Partner
Anna Fanelli, Senior Associate
Monica Baur, Solicitor
Isabella Parsons, Graduate
Max Drummond, Paralegal

This update does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. It is intended only to provide a summary and general overview on matters of interest and it is not intended to be comprehensive. You should seek legal or other professional advice before acting or relying on any of the content.

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