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SA anti-corruption system at tipping point

Opinion

South Australia’s anti-corruption system has reached a crisis point, with unresolved questions about the state’s biggest and most important department. The State Government cannot allow this to stand, argues David Washington.

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How ironic.

The Marshall Government’s election promise to bring South Australia’s ICAC hearings into the public realm is competing with the commissioner’s desire to shine a light into the darker corners of SA Health.

The State Government seems stunningly relaxed about Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Bruce Lander’s belief that our biggest public service department – one that is essential to the wellbeing of the community – is plagued by maladministration and likely to house corruption.

For more than a year, the Government has been aware of Lander’s views on SA Health.

The lack of progress since then should be a scandal.

Lander is unequivocal about the extent of the problem: he is “confident” there is corruption in the department; he knows for sure it is “riddled” with maladministration and questionable practices.

In a letter to the Government last year he said: “A number of investigations already undertaken by my office have been thwarted because of poor records management and condonation of improper behaviour or improper practices by senior staff.”

He revealed this week he would like to conduct a special evaluation of the department’s practices, policies and procedures, but he doesn’t have the resources.

The evaluation, which is beyond Lander’s day-to-day remit of investigating specific cases of corruption and maladministration, would be designed to dig deeply into SA Health – to unpack the arcane processes that make the Commissioner’s corruption investigations more difficult and costly to undertake.

Both Health Minister Stephen Wade and SA Health’s relatively new CEO, Chris McGowan, apparently agreed that such an investigation would be beneficial.

However, the Government, which increasingly has the appearance of an outfit in the tight grip of grim Treasury beancounters, is refusing to provide the resources that Lander says he needs.

Instead, chief beancounter Rob Lucas says Lander has plenty of money and should just do it, as is his responsibility under the ICAC Act (it is telling that Lucas has been the Government’s public face on this – not the Attorney-General or the Health Minister).

He also has his own men on the case – the multi-million-dollar accountants KordaMentha who are running the books for the biggest local health network. Lander is also supportive of their work – but they’re administrators, not anti-corruption experts.

Lucas points to some $14 million in extra funding provided to the ICAC in last year’s budget over the next four years. However, about half of that funding – some $7.5 million – is going towards facilitating the Government’s desire for public ICAC hearings, as well as other bits and pieces like IT and office fit-outs.

Why can’t the ICAC hold its public hearings in any number of existing public spaces around Adelaide? Why must new facilities be built? Is it because the Government wants to get maximum political benefit from its decision to fling open the ICAC doors and expose the state’s secrets to glorious rays of sunlight?

On August 20, 2018, Lander wrote to Wade saying that a comprehensive evaluation of SA Health was needed to safeguard public resources and that such an undertaking would cost about $2 million beyond his budget.

Lucas’s first budget came a week later. A few weeks after that, Lander wrote to Wade saying he couldn’t do the evaluation with the resources he had to hand – even after the budget increase.

Given the seriousness of Lander’s concerns, why didn’t the Government consider diverting some of the $7.5 million put aside for public hearings and other non-core investments?

Our body politic has shrugged its collective shoulders and poured another red too many times to mention.

This situation is quite obviously untenable.

But having seen year after year of disasters in this state’s public administration, I’m also quite sure that South Australia is capable of just letting it slide.

Our body politic has shrugged its collective shoulders and poured another red too many times to mention.

What does it say about us as a state if allegations of widespread maladministration and “condonation of improper behaviour or improper practices by senior staff”, as Lander puts it, are allowed to go unexamined?

It is staggering that the Government’s most experienced minister – Lucas – appears to view this situation as just another ambit claim for dough from a pesky public servant.

Faith in public administration in South Australia is already low, thanks to numerous scandals, many of which involve SA Health.

One of its biggest local health networks was found by Lander to have committed maladministration in the shameful case of the Oakden aged care facility. The chemotherapy dosing scandal raises all sorts of questions about clinical management. Some mental health services have been disastrous and dysfunctional. [On that point, Chief Psychiatrist John Brayley has been investigating the strife-ridden southern area mental health services for over a year and he still isn’t finished. If just one small corner of the vast SA Health empire requires that sort of time and attention, then Lander’s request for $2 million to conduct a broader examination seems piddling.]

The administration of SA Health has been of deep concern for many years. Are we so complacent about Lander’s astonishing assessment, simply because it is no surprise to anyone?

Perhaps coincidentally – but probably not – SA Health is also the least transparent Government department, and by some margin.

And, yet, it is the most important area of public administration in the state: it is meant to keep us safe from disease; help bring children into the world; care for the aged; come to the aid of people with poor mental health; inspire us to lead healthier lives; care for us when disaster strikes.

Reading between the lines of Lander’s statements this week, though, and we can see the shadow of a malfunctioning and self-interested bureaucratic beast.

So here we are.

The state’s anti-corruption authority knows there is a deep and ingrained problem inside SA Health.

Key figures in the Government agree an investigation is warranted – but, at the moment, the Cabinet prefers to put fiscal fisticuffs ahead of corruption concerns and, potentially, the safety of the community.

This is a dangerous position for the Government and for the people of South Australia: if more disasters emerge within SA Health, and surely they will, then this Government – not Labor, under which SA Health spiralled into administrative turmoil – will be rightly blamed by the community. They have been warned and they are choosing not to act.

What does it do to community confidence in the ICAC if it holds apparent evidence of corruption and maladministration exists and is hampered in its efforts to investigate?

It will be a terrible result for all of us – everyone who needs the care of the health system, for the many good and kind people who work in our hospitals and health services, for the diligent bureaucrats in SA Health, for those who blow the whistle on corruption and graft – if the stalemate stands.

And given the history of public administration in SA, this is exactly what is likely to happen.

David Washington is editor of InDaily.

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