It’s a tough day for Australia’s science community with job cuts coming and a hiring freeze in place at the CSIRO as Tony Abbott’s Coalition government presses ahead with plans to shed 12,000 jobs from the public service and shrink the federal bureaucracy.
A swag of committees and advisory bodies are being axed – some clearly surplus to requirements, such as the Antarctic Animal Ethics Committee.
There are others like the Insurance Reform Advisory Group and the National Housing Supply Council which seem important but whose work is duplicated by industry lobby and advisory groups and some associated loudmouths.
And then there’s the National Steering Committee on Corporate Wrongdoing, set up under Paul Keating’s Labor government in 1992. It reports to the Attorney-General and is a forum where the corporate regulator, ASIC, and the Director of Public Prosecutions could get together to sort through potential confusion in how corporate shysters should be handled – through ASIC’s civil penalties, or the criminal justice system.
According to a 1999 University of Melbourne paper (here, PDF), one of the motivations for setting up the committee was because “co-operation and collaboration between the ASC and the DPP has… fallen short of the Government’s expectations.” ASIC would pursue targets under the civil regime, potentially missing opportunities to involve the DPP
It’s important to remember that in early ’90s Australia the air was thick with corporate rot. The horrors of WA Inc were being exposed and Christopher Skase had skipped off to Spain. Authorities were under pressure to be seen to be chasing down the spivs.
The University of Melbourne paper outlines some more mundane organisational challenges faced in corporate law enforcement – mainly that ASIC and the DPP didn’t talk to each other much. In 1997 they struck an agreement under which ASIC would check in with the DPP on its civil cases. As a result the DPP could ensure that it was across the various ASIC cases and make sure they didn’t involve crimes where crooks could get fines when they should be doing jail time.
Essentially the Coalition is signalling that government oversight of the relationship between ASIC and the DPP is no longer necessary. It was a powerful troika, comprising the secretary-general of the AG’s department, the chair of ASIC and the chair of the DPP. It reported to the AG and had a specific duty to resolve disputes how to handle corporate wrongdoing cases.
Government oversight of decisions on pursuing people through the criminal system is always a little irksome. But clearly when this was set up there was concern enough that the enforcement regime wasn’t working properly.
One respondent in that UM study told the researchers: “I think there are differences [between ASIC and the DPP], but I think they’re built in differences. The way a prosecutor thinks is very different from the way a regulator thinks. A prosecutor is by definition someone who’s very measured, very objective and is conservative, they’re trained that way because of the consequences of what they do, they put people in jail.”
Prison time is an infinitely more powerful deterrent than being stripped of some cash and some corporate sanctions. The Australian community expects that corporate crooks will pay the maximum penalty for breaking the rules and it’s important for Australia’s international reputation too.
ASIC and the DPP have taken some significant steps to ensure the lines are open, and it’s a vote of confidence in their work that there’s no apparent need for this forum. But the disdain in certain quarters of Australian business for “cheese boards” and pointless meetings is matched only by an interest for less regulation and, for some, vigilance.