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What to do when under suspicion?

By Scott Prasser - posted Thursday, 2 November 2006


Should public officials, both public servants and elected representatives, be made to stand down automatically when subject to allegations or formal complaints that have yet to be tested in a court of law?

There are issues concerning public accountability, trust and whether different standards of behaviour should apply to public servants compared with elected officials.

Recent events in Queensland have raised interest in this issue.

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Earlier this month, after a critical Coroner's report that a Queensland police officer's actions may have contributed to the death of an Indigenous man on Palm Island, suggestions that he should be suspended pending advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions were rejected by the Police Commissioner and the Police Minister. Instead, the officer was given different duties, but has now decided to "suspend" himself on full pay.

Elsewhere in the public service, staff under allegations can be "stood down" pending investigations. This is an administrative decision normally exercised at the discretion of senior management. However, staff investigated by the Crime and Misconduct Commission are now automatically stood aside. Clearly, these arrangements do not apply to police officers named in coroners' reports. Different rules also apply to elected representatives.

For instance, amid allegations about some Gold Coast city councillors' conflicts of interest under investigation by the Crime and Misconduct Commission, then local government minister Desley Boyle argued unsuccessfully that the Gold Coast Deputy Mayor should have been suspended when the commission began legal proceedings against him.

Similarly, when the then speaker of State Parliament, Ray Hollis, was under investigation by the Crime and Misconduct Commission, he was not suspended, but took sick leave, and later retired. Former Health Minister Gordon Nuttall, found by the Davies commission of inquiry to have been "misleading, unreasonable and careless", was never suspended or sacked, but was later transferred to a different portfolio and eventually retired.

For public servants the issue is whether their actions compromise their formal positions of office or the services they provide. Since the 1989 Fitzgerald inquiry there are now formal codes of behaviour.

While similar codes exist for elected officials, a different process is at play. Allegations about elected officials' behaviour are seen to be part of the cut and thrust of parliamentary life. If members were suspended every time an allegation was made, few would be left standing.

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Rather, the important distinction is that the people elect state parliamentarians and local government councillors, while an administrative selection process appoints public servants. There are other recourses for state parliamentarians, through Parliament itself or the courts.

For instance, state parliamentarians can lose the confidence of Parliament by a vote against them. This could have happened to Hollis and Nuttall, but did not; their party had the numbers to repel such attempts.

Decisions revolve around whether individual actions are adversely affecting a government's political standing. They are judgments made for political reasons, dressed up in the rhetoric of the "public interest".

For local government councillors, the primary recourse is through the courts, which can disqualify a councillor from office for conviction of a range of offences. A council can also suspend a councillor for a limited period if there has been a breach of the code of conduct.

Recent events suggest we need clearer guidelines as to when all public servants, including the police, should be stood aside following allegations and pending investigations. The present inconsistency can be fixed.

However, addressing increased public apprehension about the way the fate of elected officials under investigation is determined by their party and not under a clear set of principles is more difficult.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on October 16, 2006.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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