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Exposing and preventing corruption in a time of COVID-19

A candid interview with IBAC Commissioner The Honourable Robert Redlich QC, CEO Marlo Baragwanath and Director of Legal Helen Fatouros about how Victoria's anti-corruption agency is keeping up efforts to expose and prevent public sector corruption during these challenging times.

  • Helen: Hello and welcome to a special IBAC podcast for Law Week 2020, as we all continue to adapt to new personal and professional circumstances during this pandemic.  My name is Helen Fatouros and I'm the director of the legal division at IBAC, which includes our assessments or complaints function, reviews and compliance.  For the listeners who may not be aware, IBAC, or the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, is Victoria's anti-corruption agency responsible for preventing and exposing public sector corruption and police misconduct.

    Today I'm pleased to be talking with the IBAC commissioner, the Honourable Robert Redlich QC and our new CEO, Marlo Baragwanath, about how IBAC is keeping up the good fight during COVID-19, while we adhere, of course, to physical distancing from our respective home offices. Good afternoon to you both.

    Commissioner: Pleased to be with you, Helen.

    CEO: Thanks Helen, I'm happy to be here as well.

    Helen: So Commissioner, you're almost at the halfway point of your five-year term at IBAC.  Why did you choose IBAC when some might say after your distinguished career at the bar and on the bench you were probably due a more relaxing retirement?

    Commissioner: Well the most exciting part of the law is when it intersects with the public sector.  So over a lifetime, whether as a barrister or a judge, I've always found the most stimulating questions arise where that intersection occurs.  As a judge, of course, I was always dealing reactively to the problems of the human condition which had already occurred.  I was very conscious that IBAC provided an opportunity to be doing what I think is the most important work of an anti-corruption commission, namely focusing on prevention and education.  That was more than enough lure to come to IBAC.

    Helen: Commissioner, was there any one particular professional experience you had, whether as a judge or a barrister, that really highlighted for you that prevention function?

    Commissioner: Well whilst I was still junior counsel, I was fortunate enough to be appointed the first special prosecutor of the Commonwealth.  This was at a time before the Commonwealth DPP existed and I was required to look at all of the civil and criminal remedies that should be taken, arising out of the Costigan royal commission in Victoria and the Stewart royal commission in New South Wales.  That took me across the entire breadth of work of the public sector and it was then for the first time that I realised how exciting and challenging working in that area was.  I've always seized every opportunity since then to be immersed in those sorts of questions.

    Helen: Marlo, as IBAC's new CEO - and what a time to be taking up a new leadership challenge - following your role as the Victorian Government solicitor, can you tell us why IBAC for you?

    CEO: So Helen, the vast majority of my career has been in the public service and public service is really something that resonates with me.  I almost feel like it's a bit of a vocation.  So I'm very proud to be a public servant and what is important to me is that citizens can have trust in their institutions and government, sadly something which has been in fairly short supply in recent times, leaving aside there's been a bit of an uptick with the pandemic.

    So I think IBAC is a little bit like the public service on steroids, that is we're the ones who are entrusted to expose and prevent corruption, with the ultimate aim of them building that trust and confidence in government.  So that was a clear winner for me and the reason I wanted to come to IBAC.

    Helen: There's a real theme in both of your answers around public service and working at a systems level and a prevention level.  I guess that becomes even more important during this particular moment in time.  I've certainly been reflecting post the Premier's announcement earlier this week, relaxing some of the restrictions, on my 16 months at IBAC and what it means to be a public servant as an IBAC officer at this particular moment in time.

    So I guess I'm interested, Marlo, what a time as I mentioned before for you to be starting as IBAC's leader.  It's certainly not the normal introduction and induction to leading an agency, but what would you say operating in this unique times are some of the opportunities and challenges for IBAC, but also more broadly in the public sector and for Victoria Police?

    CEO: I have to say it was a little bit of a baptism of fire, but I'm pleased to report that IBAC as an organisation adapted better to working from home probably than I did personally.  So we have managed to fairly seamlessly transition to working from home.  I think we had half a day of IT glitches and a bit of thinking to work out what to do with hard copy mail and how we process that.  But we're still assessing complaints, we're still conducting investigations We're still researching, we're still writing reports, all of those sorts of things.

    We're in discussion with government about how some of the things that do at the moment require physical presence, such as examinations and service of documents, those sorts of things, how we can look at being able to do that remotely or via the use of technology  I'm optimistic that we'll be able to resolve something in the next couple of weeks that will mean that we are definitely firing on all cylinders.  So I think that's probably more in the challenge space.

    I think in the opportunity space, this realistically will change the way that we all work.  IBAC, like any other organisation, has staff that are crying out for flexible working arrangements and to the extent possible before the pandemic, I would have said we were not too bad at enabling some of those, but this has definitely recast the way you think about how you can work remotely and the ease with which that's happened.  Then as I said, if we can get technology solutions for some of our other work, I'm optimistic that we'll be able to really take that to the next level and be far more open in that sense of working in different ways.

    So as I understand it, that's probably an experience that is being echoed across the rest of the public service, really having people rethink about how they actually engage in the work.  I do think some of the possible challenges in terms of what our substantive purpose is, i.e. exposing and preventing corruption, there will be behaviours and attitudes that go unchecked with people working from home.  So it's how do governance arrangements flex to take into account a different way of working and to ensure that the public sector is actively resistant to corruption, that I think will be the interesting next generation of this work.

    Helen: Just picking up on that point around certain behaviours that might not be visible now that we're all working remotely, commissioner, from your perspective, do you think that the current circumstances have raised additional risks of corruption?  What do you think are some of the opportunities and challenges for us as an anti-corruption commission, but also for the public sector and Victoria Police?

    Commissioner: We did an intelligence report about two months ago which preceded the COVID environment's onset, in which we alluded to the increased corruption risks which must come with an emergency environment.  We've seen some examples of that unfortunately coming to the fore during this COVID period.  But what's really impressed me is that notwithstanding the COVID environment, the organisation has seamlessly transitioned to working from home.  I've not at any stage had the slightest sense that there's been a decline in productivity or any drop in the sense of urgency in us addressing corruption risks. 

    What I'm particularly mindful of is Victoria lags so far behind all of the other states in terms of addressing corruption risks.  Every other state had royal commissions 15, 20, 25 years ago into corruption, both in public sector or the police sector, following which permanent commissions were established.  IBAC's only seven and a half years old, so we have got a long way to go to catch up to where the other states are.  I'm really pleased to say the COVID environment doesn't seem to have stalled that initiative at all.

    CEO: Helen, just following up on what the commissioner said, I think that's probably been one of the things that's most impressed me in the nearly four months that I have been at IBAC, is how keen our staff are to get on and do the work, whether that was in the office or working from home.  They're very much galvanised around the mission of exposing and preventing corruption and they're just hungry to do the work.  As the commissioner said, there just hasn't been a decline in productivity or the quality of the work that we're doing whilst we've been working from home.  So it's just been a great experience.

    Helen: I have to say, in discussions with staff across our agency, as we prepare to transition to a new way of working yet again, where some of the relaxation around restrictions will have people back in the office but people still working from home, that transition is going to be very important in two to three weeks.  What are the particular opportunities you see for us to work differently when we do return to the office in some way, shape or form?

    What are the things we might need to consider more broadly in terms of our role, given that the impacts of COVID more broadly in the community but also on the economy and other ways of operating and living, they're going to have an effect on our work as well?  What are some of the challenges you think that might be coming down the road that we have to prepare for, Marlo?

    CEO: I actually think in a very funny way, having been through this situation, it possibly will give us more reach in terms of our prevention and education kind of functions.  Previously, I think, we very much relied on that personal contact, that going out and meeting with people, holding forums in person.  So you're limited by how many times you can get out of the office to see people, how many people you can get into a meeting room to meet with you and all of those sorts of things.

    I really think that has probably opened our eyes to the fact that people are used to working online now.  They're more than happy to turn up to a webinar or a Zoom conference and all of those sorts of things, which given that we can possibly cut down on the travel time, opens up huge opportunities in terms of reach and also out into regional and rural areas, which just because of the physical distance was a bit harder to get out to.  So I think in some ways that's a significant opportunity for us to really ramp up our prevention and education opportunities.

    Helen: Just following up from that, Marlo, as our new CEO, not only because of COVID and using technology to our advantage, do you also see a more important role for IBAC in terms of reaching out into the community and explaining the role of IBAC in a more accessible way?  Which sort of links in with the theme of Law Week.

    CEO: Definitely, I think having been someone that worked in the public service, providing advice to people on what IBAC was, what its jurisdiction and powers were, those sorts of things, IBAC still to an extent, given that it's such a young organisation, as the commissioner said, is still shrouded in mystery for some people.  I think the public service and Victoria Police and probably local government are probably very familiar with the jurisdiction, what it means.

    Although there have been some changes in recent years, as you know, with the new public interest disclosure regime.  But I do think there's an opportunity for us to reach out to other communities who may be sitting there with a complaint or an issue with government, but not sure how to advance it.  So to reach out to those communities or groups, or stakeholders if you will, to basically say IBAC is here, this is what our role is, you can come to us about it.  So I definitely think that that is now getting more and more open to us to take that approach.

    Helen: Commissioner, from your perspective, in terms of what our role might look like as we all keep on this journey, dealing and adapting with the pandemic, what do you see in our immediate future in terms of our role and how we might need to change the way we work, or do more of something versus less of something else?

    Commissioner: The one casualty of the COVID environment has been the lost opportunity to conduct examinations, for obvious reasons.  Because of the requirement of social distancing, we've not been able to do so.  But it may be in the very near future we will be able to start doing examinations via video linkage and that opportunity won't end when the COVID environment ceases to be a concern.

    So what I see happening is particularly, given that IBAC's resources are limited and for obvious reasons will remain limited for the foreseeable future, I expect that we will be able to look at conducting many more examinations than we previously did by the usage of video linkage and audio linkage, which will mean a great deal in terms of being able to expedite the process of individual investigations.  So as is so often the case, there's a silver lining that comes out of the COVID environment.

    Helen: One of the themes for Law Week is this accessibility point and making the law accessible to all in the community.  That of course includes IBAC and IBAC's unique role, which as Marlo said can be shrouded in mystery and inherent to the work we do is a degree of necessary secrecy.  However, we have been doing a lot of work in recent times with different parts of the sector, including the legal sector and we've now run some three roundtables, drawing in community legal centres, rights advocacy groups from the legal sector quite broadly.

    Most recently, just before we went to the remote environment, we had a very successful roundtable with the legal sector where we were talking about body-worn cameras by Victoria Police, our complaints process and how we reach out into vulnerable communities in particular, who may not feel confident in making complaints, whether it's in the public sector space or Victoria Police. 

    We are going to be probably doing a virtual roundtable later in the year and that'll be a first for us. 

    Helen: Commissioner, from your perspective, if you were to consider a key piece of advice, whether to the public sector or to Victoria Police or both, what would you be saying to them in terms of how they're leading and operating during this time, but also beyond, things that they should look out for?

    Commissioner: Well plainly enough the COVID environment has shifted everyone's focus in the short term, but my sense is that it's now become the new norm.  We're already adjusting to that additional responsibility and returning to ensuring that all aspects of integrity standards are kept in mind and that we do all we need to, to prevent and educate in that area.  What I'm conscious of, particularly in Law Week, is the way in which we intersect with the legal profession.  The two prime areas, of course, are where the members of the legal profession are acting for a victim who is involved in an investigation which IBAC has undertaken, or is acting on behalf of persons of interest in that investigation.

    IBAC has found it extremely helpful when we get feedback from the legal profession about the way in which we've dealt either with the victims or with persons of interest, because bearing in mind the volume of complaints and matters that we have to investigate, we are of necessity in part process driven.  Sometimes what smacks of being a bit of a proforma response to issues concerning victims or persons of interest is not adequate.  We are doing everything we can to adjust our responses to ensure that we actually meet the needs of each individual case when we deal with the legal representatives.  So I certainly want to encourage continued feedback by the legal profession, in terms of how we're dealing with both of those types of clients.

    But it's in the other area where we intersect with the legal profession that I want to make a quick comment.  That is the legal profession often plays a pivotal part in the public sector notifying us of matters that should be brought to IBAC's attention.  Regrettably, too often we've found that rather than the legal profession being a prime mover in ensuring that the client, the public sector organisation involved, does come forward with notification, that it's delayed the process of notification.  So something I would like to look at in the next few months is seeing how we can utilise the legal profession to assist in compliance, the public sector compliance, with the mandatory notification process.

    Helen: Thanks, commissioner.  Well I want to thank both of you for taking time out of your remote work environment to have a discussion with me and produce this podcast.  We were, of course, pre-COVID, due for the first time during Law Week to open the doors to IBAC's offices to the legal sector and to the community.  We were going to give people a firsthand look at the work we do and track people through complaint, all the way through to investigation, report and outcomes for the community and any specific agency that we were oversighting.  So that'll be something to look at in the future, possibly using technology.

    But in the meantime, this podcast was designed to give a little flavour during Law Week of how IBAC is approaching its important work during this particular moment in time, to say that we are still open for business and our independent work continues. So thank you to both of you. It was lovely chatting to you and hopefully sometime soon we will meet in person again.

    CEO: Thanks, Helen.

    Commissioner: Thank you, Helen.

    Helen: Thank you for listening and thank you to the Victoria Law Foundation for inviting us to take part in Law Week.  The event's objective to demystify the legal system and make learning about the law accessible to all is an important one and IBAC is excited to be part of it. 

    I encourage you to check out the rest of the Law Week program at www.lawweek.net.au, including a panel discussion with Victoria Police deputy commissioner, Shane Patton; Victoria's equal opportunity and human rights commissioner, Kristen Hilton; and IBAC's very own deputy commissioner, Katie Miller on the oversight of the use of police powers during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Of course, if you're interested in hearing more IBAC podcasts or accessing all of our many prevention and education resources, visit our website at www.ibac.vic.gov.au.