Australia’s anti-corruption commissioner attacks what he describes as a ‘national culture of blame’, questioning how the resignation of Optus’ chief executive would benefit the company telecommunications in difficulty.
- National anti-corruption commissioner questions usefulness of Kelly Bayer Rosmarin’s resignation as Optus CEO
- Paul Brereton says a ‘culture of blame’ has sought scapegoats rather than solutions to problems
- He says civil servants must be able to speak out about their mistakes without fear of punishment.
National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) head Paul Brereton made the rare public remarks at an event in Adelaide, alongside commissioners from corruption watchdogs South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland.
While responding to a question about what was needed to ensure public servants acted ethically and spoke out against allegations of corruption, Commissioner Brereton said one of the challenges was a “culture of blame” that permeated Australian society in its entirety.
He cited former Optus boss Kelly Bayer Rosmarin’s decision to fall on his sword after a network-wide outage left millions of customers without service almost a fortnight ago.
“I don’t want to go into specific details, but who will benefit from the resignation of the CEO of Optus?” he said.
“I don’t think Optus is going to benefit from it from an operational point of view – from a reputation point of view there was a sacrifice to the gods if you will, but that’s about all that There is.
“And the blame culture where someone should be punished for a mistake is part of the problem.
“If we recognize that mistakes are going to happen, if we accept responsibility for them, if we make things right, rather than just looking for a scapegoat, we will do a lot to improve the culture in the public service.”
Commissioner Brereton said a cultural change was needed in federal departments and agencies to ensure public servants felt they could make decisions without influence, even if that required calling out mistakes.
“The challenges ahead are truly about human nature – about self-interest and self-protection,” he said.
“People are naturally reluctant to take action, to make admissions, that might harm what they might perceive to be their reputation or their own interests.
“The consequences of being the harbinger of bad news have been around as long as Mercury – the practice of shooting the messenger goes back a long, long way.
“What I think is really key to overcoming this problem is that the careers of people who do the right thing, especially those who do the right thing when it’s unpopular, need to be seen as prosperous and not as perishable along the way.”
Anti-corruption commission pursues six secret investigations
The NACC opened its doors in July and has already received more than 1,800 referrals.
Nearly 1,300 of them were dismissed because they did not involve an allegation of corruption or involve a Commonwealth official.
Six investigations have been opened so far, although few details are known about these investigations, with the NACC not revealing what it is investigating.
Commissioner Brereton highlighted that one of the NACC’s priorities was the widespread use of contractors and consultants by the federal civil service – an issue recently thrust into the political spotlight with the PwC tax scandal.
The case was referred to the NACC after it was revealed that a senior partner at the consultancy firm had used confidential Treasury information on multinational tax avoidance measures to develop new products for PwC clients .
“Consultants, who are individuals often hired to assist an agency, have access to information and the ability to misuse the information they access for their own benefit or that of other clients,” he said. said Commissioner Brereton.
“Entrepreneurs may view government sources as an easy way to make money – this has been happening since the 1990s, at least, probably well before that.
“I just read in this morning’s paper about someone who went to the NDIS and found that an item retailing for $50 was being supplied by the NDIS supplier for $300. dollars.
“These are areas where government may be effectively treated as a cash cow, and where resources intended for program beneficiaries are effectively diverted to the benefit of the contracted service provider.”
Commissioners reflect on disparate anti-corruption commissions across the country
Commissioner Brereton was joined on the panel by the heads of the New South Wales, Queensland and South Australian corruption watchdogs.
The NACC is the newest agency on the scene, operating under its own legislation passed by Federal Parliament.
“I think it’s rather extraordinary that in a small country like Australia we each have a different regime for public interest disclosures, just as we have a different system for our integrity commissions,” he said. Ann Vanstone, SA ICAC Commissioner.
“It seems extraordinary…we have such different powers and jurisdictions from state to state.
“It just seems crazy that we don’t all learn from each other and have standard legislation to build on the experiences of each state and even the Commonwealth.”