Queensland Integrity Commissioner says staff shortages cripple watchdog capacity
Staff shortages have crippled Queensland’s integrity watchdog, leaving the Commissioner with as little as a staff member and the inability to answer dozens of questions on issues such as conflicts of interest potentials.
Queensland Integrity Commissioner Nikola Stepanov outlined the impact of the lack of resources allocated to his office, whose duties include advising state MPs and regulating lobbyists, in his 2020 annual report -2021.
The situation was described as “alarming” by a prominent transparency expert, who said it came at a time when there was an increased need for oversight of lobbying and integrity standards.
Dr Stepanov revealed in the report that at one point this year there was only one staff member available to help him do his job, compared to four permanent full-time positions that exist in the office. .
Downsizing – coupled with an increased workload – prevented her from providing advice on ethics, integrity and best interests 68 times out of 233, according to the report.
The report indicates that on these 68 occasions, parties concerned were urged to seek further counseling resources and details of these avenues were provided.
“The number of employees available to help the [commissioner] fluctuated between one and three staff over the year, ”he said.
“Changes in personnel and capacities have affected the ability of the [commissioner] to fully discharge its duties and has led to the introduction of provisional service limits on two occasions.
“In addition, as there were a number of temporary staff hires, given the specialized work of the office, additional time and effort was required to train the staff, as this would have caused delays.”
The main function of the Queensland Information Commissioner’s Office is to advise MPs and bureaucrats, and it manages the State Registry of Lobbyists.
It received 108 notifications concerning potential offenses related to the conduct of registered and unregistered lobbyists during the past fiscal year.
At the same time, the number of registered lobbying activities exploded from an average of 239 registered contacts per year between 2010 and 2019, to 988 contacts in the past fiscal year, based on registry data. lobbying contacts.
Dr Stepanov said there was also an increase in requests for advice regarding concerns about corruption, bullying and other inappropriate behavior.
The annual report indicated that staff changes during the year included the transfer of two employees to another agency without their positions being filled.
In a statement to the ABC, Dr Stepanov said she currently has three staff members to help her, one of whom started working this week on a temporary six-month contract.
Dr Stepanov said an interim service limit, which came into effect in March this year, was pending due to “fluctuations in staff and sustained workload”.
The annual report highlights that the Civil Service Commission (PSC) is responsible for the budget, staff and resources of the Integrity Commissioner of Queensland.
Dr Stepanov said his office’s governance structure placed him in “an inherently vulnerable position”.
“The governance and administration arrangements are not replicated in the case of any other Queensland integrity agency,” she said.
“In addition, the arrangements work in such a way as to place the [commissioner] in a position of inherent vulnerability, due to dependence on the CPS exercising its powers judiciously. “
She said the problems were highlighted in a 2019 report by Peter Bridgman, who conducted an independent review of the state of Queensland’s employment laws.
The PSC has been contacted for comment.
“Surprising and alarming” situation
Griffith University public policy and law professor AJ Brown said the understaffing was alarming and there was “no doubt” that the Integrity Commissioner’s workload was increasing.
“I think it is both surprising and alarming that the staffing is being restricted or declining for any period of time, when we know the need and the real activities of the Integrity Commissioner, like other agencies of integrity, increase – and go for very good reasons, ”Professor Brown said.
“Complaints, concerns and questions about lobbying activity in Queensland have increased, and very significantly, particularly after the Queensland election, when the role of former Labor staff as lobbyists and advisers to campaign has caused a lot of concern in the public and really needs to be fully explained. .
“In this context, we can see that the role of the Integrity Commissioner, like other integrity agencies, will only become increasingly important.
“This is all the more the reason why it has to be not only politically independent but institutionally independent with its own budget and a sufficient budget to do this job properly.”
Professor Brown – who is also a board member of Transparency International Australia and has previously collaborated in his research with the Queensland Integrity Commissioner – said the budgets of integrity agencies should be scrutinized by Parliament .
“There is a sensible initiative in Victoria and New South Wales to follow a good precedent in New Zealand for integrity agencies of this type, not only to be institutionally independent of the executive, but [also] to have their budgets controlled through negotiations directly with parliament, ”he said.
“Queensland must follow this trend and establish this full and proper independence.”