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Govt control of ICAC budget 'threatening its independence'

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EXCLUSIVE | South Australia’s anti-corruption watchdog wants the parliament involved in determining his budget, arguing State Government control of the purse strings is a threat to his independence.

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In the wake of Treasurer Rob Lucas’s refusal to fund his proposed inquiry into SA Health, Lander told InDaily this morning that a new funding model should be considered as a way of guaranteeing his independence from the Government.

“Consideration should be given to a model that would include a recommendation by the Crime and Public Integrity Policy Committee to the Parliament about resourcing the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption,” Lander said.

“The precise form of the model needs to be further debated.

“There is a debate on this topic currently underway in both New South Wales and Victoria.”

The Commissioner attended a two-day conference in Melbourne last week, during which he appeared on stage with other anti-corruption chiefs from around Australia.

The group called for a new independent funding model to prevent political interference in their work.

Lander said at the conference that governments can easily prevent inquiries from going ahead by refusing to fund them.

“If the executive doesn’t want us to investigate it, it only has to under-resource us,” he said, in comments reported by The Age.

“So our independence is entirely dependent on adequate resourcing.”

During a press conference last month, Lander said SA Health was “riddled with maladministration” and that he was “very confident” it harboured corruption.

Documents later released by his office showed the Treasurer had refused the Commissioner’s request for $2 million to fund an evaluation of SA Health, despite the proposal having the apparent support of both Health Minister Stephen Wade and SA Health CEO Dr Chris McGowan.

In a phone interview with InDaily this morning, Lucas dismissed the notion that Lander’s independence was being undermined by the Government’s control of his budget.

He said the idea of devolving budgetary powers from the Government to another body was “impractical”, labelling Lander’s proposal “a thought bubble”.

“The governments are elected to make decisions and Treasurers are there to allocate funds,” he told InDaily.

“The Commissioner is very well-funded; there’s been no cut to his resources at all.

“He has more than enough funding to investigate allegations of corruption.”

Lander has not claimed that his funding has been cut, nor that he does not have the resources to investigate allegations of corruption.

Rather, he argues that he would have to drop his individual anti-corruption investigations if he were to perform the “massive undertaking” of an evaluation of SA Health without the extra funding.

“(The funds are) not sufficient … for us to carry out an evaluation of Health,” the Commissioner said last month.

“That was the reason I approached the Treasurer for more resources. They’re just not sufficient.”

But the Treasurer told InDaily this morning Lander can allocate his budget however he sees fit, insisting the Commissioner has sufficient resources to evaluate SA Health if he chose to do so.

Lucas said he was unaware of anything that would prevent the Crime and Public Integrity Policy Committee from making recommendations to Parliament about the Commissioner’s budget in principle – but emphasised that taxpayers expected the Government to have ultimate control public spending.

“(The committee) can recommend (an increase in the Commissioner’s budget) but that doesn’t solve his problem,” said Lucas.

The Treasurer said he didn’t see any problem, in principle, with a Government controlling an anti-corruption commissioner’s budget.

“What would be a problem is if a government systematically set about cutting the resources of a corruption watchdog,” he said, stressing that the Government had boosted Lander’s funding.

“He’s completely independent as to how he allocates his $15-16 million (a year).”

The head of the NSW anti-corruption body is also in the midst of a budget battle with the NSW Government.

NSW chief commissioner Peter Hall said in October that budget cuts would have an “immediate and serious” effect on the agency’s ability to fight corruption.

He has reportedly proposed a new funding model to ensure the ICAC’s independence from Government.

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