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ICAC to hold public hearings on SafeWork's watchdog functions

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The Independent Commissioner Against Corruption will conduct a public evaluation of SafeWork SA’s watchdog functions, following a series of complaints and reports about the agency.

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Commissioner Bruce Lander told newly appointed chief executive of the Attorney-General’s Department Caroline Mealor yesterday that he would be evaluating the workplace safety agency’s regulatory arm and that he would be holding public hearings.

Lander announced the evaluation this morning, saying his office had received “a number of complaints and reports” about SafeWork SA since the ICAC began its work in 2013.

“The nature of those complaints and reports, together with other information I have received in respect of SafeWork SA, has led me to the view that an evaluation of its regulatory functions is in the public interest,” he said in a statement this morning.

“The purpose of the evaluation will be to consider what, if any, improvements can be made to minimise the potential for corruption, misconduct or maladministration to occur within the agency.”

Last week, Lander announced he would be examining SafeWork SA’s investigation into the fatal Airmaxx 360 Royal Adelaide Show ride, after the workplace watchdog withdrew its prosecution over the death.

Eight-year-old Adelene Leong was killed when she was flung off the ride at the 2014 Royal Adelaide Show.

Mealor and SafeWork executive director Martyn Campbell said this morning they welcomed the broader evaluation of AGD practices, policies and procedures as they relate to SafeWork’s regulatory functions.

“As a business unit of Attorney-General’s Department, SafeWork SA has a critical role to play in effectively protecting the health and safety of South Australian workers,”  said Mealor.

“This is an opportunity to help identify how we can improve the SafeWork SA’s regulatory role and we will be working with the Commissioner throughout the evaluation process.”

Campbell said he had acted to improve how the agency investigates and prosecute work health and safety breaches since he began his role.

“Significant reforms are already underway, and this evaluation will give us the opportunity to evaluate the progress that has been made to date and identify where more work needs to be done,” he said.

Lander said individual complaints about SafeWork that have been made to his office over the past several years had been dealt with on their merits.

“Some resulted in no further action being taken,” he said.

“Others resulted in investigations undertaken by me (including the investigation I announced last week), or by the chief executive of the Attorney-General’s Department, on referral by me.”

As InDaily reported last year, SafeWork SA has refused to release the findings of its internal review into the failure of prosecutions concerning the death of workers in South Australian workplaces over the past several years.

Former Premier Jay Weatherill instructed the agency to release the findings to the families of those killed, but later endorsed the secrecy on “legal privilege” grounds.

Lander stressed that the SafeWork inquiry not an “investigation” into the conduct of individual public servants but rather an evaluation of SafeWork SA’s practices, policies and procedures, which allowed him to hold public hearings on the subject under existing law.

He said he had decided to conduct the evaluation in public because “it is critical that those who are regulated by SafeWork SA, as well as the public, have confidence in the way in which the agency carries out its functions”.

“Carrying out such an evaluation in public allows both weaknesses and strengths of the agency to be highlighted and opportunities for improvement to be debated openly,” he said.

“By holding the evaluation by way of a public inquiry, members of the public can be made aware of the evaluation, its scope and progress and may be more willing to come forward with information relevant to the evaluation.

“(And) people will be able to judge for themselves whether the content of my final report is appropriate in light of the evidence and submissions received.”

He added that members of the public who had dealt with SafeWork SA, and its employees, “ought to be afforded an opportunity to make submissions”.

The Liberal Party will later today introduce legislation that would allow the ICAC to conduct public investigations into serious or systematic maladministration or misconduct.

Lander has long-advocated the change, which was resisted by the Weatherill Government on the basis that it risked unfairly ruining the reputations of people who may later be exonerated.

But the Labor Party is now open to public investigations in principle. It wants to see the detail of the amendment to the ICAC Act before endorsing it.

But the bill is likely to pass parliament with the support Legislative Council crossbenchers, regardless of Labor’s position.

Lander said he would make a call for submissions and indicate the time and place of public hearings once he had decided on the “precise scope” of the evaluation and secured the “necessary resources to carry it out”.

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