The staffing shortage has crippled Queensland’s integrity watchdog, leaving the commissioner with one staff member and the inability to respond to dozens of inquiries about issues such as potential conflicts of interest.
the main points:
Queensland’s Integrity Commissioner Nikola Stepanov outlined the impact of a lack of resources for her office, whose functions include advising state MPs and regulating lobbyists, in her 2020-2021 annual report.
A leading expert on transparency called the situation “worrying” and said it came at a time when there was a growing need for oversight of lobbyists and integrity standards.
Dr. Stepanov revealed in the report that at some point this year, there was only one employee available to help her do her job, after there were four permanent, full-time jobs present in the office.
The reduced staffing – along with an increased workload – meant it was unable to advise on issues of ethics, integrity and interests on 68 out of 233 occasions, the report said.
On those 68 occasions, affected parties were advised to seek alternative sources of advice and details of those avenues were provided, the report said.
Number of staff available to help [commissioner] It ranged from one to three employees during the year.”
“Changes and capabilities at the employee level have affected the ability of [commissioner] to fully perform its functions and led to the introduction of temporary service limits on two occasions.
“Furthermore, with a number of temporary staff engagements, due to the specialized work of the office, more time and effort has been required to train staff as this is expected to lead to delays.”
The Queensland Office of the Integrity Commissioner’s main function is to advise members of Parliament and bureaucrats, and it also manages the state’s register of lobbyists.
It received 108 notifications of potential violations related to the conduct of registered and unregistered lobbyists during the past fiscal year.
At the same time, the volume of registered lobbying activity has exploded — rising from an average of 239 contacts registered annually between 2010 and 2019, to 988 contacts in the past fiscal year, based on data in the lobbying contacts registry.
There has also been an increase in requests for advice related to concerns about corrupt behaviour, bullying and other inappropriate behaviour, Dr. Stepanov said.
The annual report stated that staff changes during the fiscal year included transferring staff to another agency with not filling their positions.
In a statement to ABC, Dr. Stepanov said she currently has three employees to help her, one of whom began work this week on a temporary six-month contract.
Dr Stepanov said the temporary service limit, which came into effect in March of this year, was continuing due to “fluctuations in staffing and an ongoing workload”.
The annual report states that the Public Service Commission (PSC) is responsible for the Queensland Integrity Commissioner’s budget, staff and resources.
Dr. Stepanov said the management structure of her office puts it in an “inherently fragile situation”.
“The governance and management arrangements have not been replicated in the case of any other Queensland integrity agency,” she said.
“Moreover, the arrangements work in a way that puts [commissioner] in an inherently fragile situation, due to the reliance on the PSC to exercise its powers in a judicious manner.”
She said the issues were highlighted in a 2019 report by Peter Bridgeman, who conducted an independent review of Queensland’s employment laws.
PSC has been contacted for comment.
The situation is “sudden and alarming”
Griffith University professor of public policy and law, A.J. Brown, said the lack of staffing was worrisome and that “there is no doubt that the workload of the Integrity Commissioner is increasing.
“I think it is surprising and troubling at the same time that hiring is being restricted, or reduced for any period, when we know that the need for, and the actual work of, the Integrity Commissioner, like other integrity agencies, is increasing – and continues to be the case,” Professor Brown said.
“Complaints, concerns and questions regarding lobbying activity in Queensland have increased significantly, especially after the Queensland election when the role of former Labor Party staff as lobbyists and campaign advisers has caused a lot of public concern 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 be more and more important.
“That’s why it needs to be not only politically independent, but institutionally independent with its own budget and enough budget to do the job right.”
Professor Brown – who is also a board member of Transparency International Australia and previously co-authored his research with the Queensland Integrity Commissioner – said integrity agencies’ budgets should be controlled through Parliament.
“There is a reasonable move in Victoria and New South Wales to follow a good precedent in New Zealand for integrity agencies of this type, to not only be institutionally independent from the executive but [also] to adjust their budgets by negotiating directly with Parliament.”
“Queensland needs to follow this trend and also to establish that full and proper independence.”