Joel Morehu-Barlow
Joel Morehu-Barlow Queensland Police

Proposed changes to corruption watchdog could be dangerous

HIGH-PROFILE Queensland corruption cases the likes of the fake Tahitian prince and jailed former health minister Gordon Nuttall might have fallen through the cracks if proposed changes to the state's corruption watchdog were in place then.

The anonymous tip-offs that led to their downfall would no longer be accepted under the planned Crime and Corruption Commission unless the person's safety or career was threatened.

Former Queensland Health financial manager Joel Barlow, who pretended he was Tahitian royalty, was jailed for 14 years for stealing $16 million from taxpayers while Nuttall was jailed for seven years for receiving corrupt payments.

The revelation came as key legal figures raised concerns during a parliamentary committee hearing on Wednesday that new CCC would become a "plaything" or a "lapdog" to the government of the day should bipartisan support to appoint its chief officers be removed.

Also drawing concern was the change to the definition of official misconduct to reduce the number of frivolous and vexation complaints into the organisation.

Justice Department Director-General John Soso said the CMC received 4494 misconduct complaints in 2012-13 but the watchdog only launched 63 investigations, with most others sent back to departments.

He said these resources could be diverted to other important investigations within the organisation.

Crime and Misconduct Commission acting chairman Ken Levy said about 7% of complaints were anonymous.

He said he was concerned strict wording of the change might "inhibit the ability to efficiently investigate some complaints of serious corruption".

Former chairman Ross Martin suggested the proposed corruption reporting barriers should be removed because history showed secret tip-offs could turn into big leads.

"Imagine if an anonymous or detailed complaint came in, and it could do nothing about it and some time later the complaint became public and it became known that the CMC had the complaint and couldn't act upon it," he said.

"The position would be manifestly absurd."

Mr Martin was among those suggesting it was "desirable" to have bipartisan support when selecting who headed up the new CCC.

"History seems to suggest there will be a corruption scandal within a government in power for long enough," he said.

"A government seen to have diminished the CMC will carry the political burden much harder when that occurs.

"The CMC is always criticised, that's business as usual. But its reputation carries it through the crisis of the day."

Former part-time CMC commissioner David Gow said removing bipartisan support would impair the public's confidence in the watchdog's independence.

"If people perceive the CMC as nothing other than an extension of the government of the day or an unwilling to vigorously investigate any complaints that may relate to the government of the day then they're undoubtedly not going to make complaints for fear it may adversely affect their own careers, their own lives," he said.

Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee chairman Ian Berry said he did not think bipartisan support was "as big a deal as I think is being made out" and could not see the link to an independent watchdog.

He said the High Court was an example of people being appointed and becoming taking a different tact than expected once they gained independence.

Stephen Keim, from the Queensland Bar Association, said bipartisan would help the head of the watchdog "have the courage to make those independent and tough decisions that have to be made".

"There is the danger that a government in four or five or 10 years time might choose to appoint a lapdog and get the appointment right," he said.

"It's the danger of somebody not being independent that is the problem.

"You have flood levies, not because it's going to rain tomorrow. You have flood levies because some time in the next 10 or 20 years we're going to have a big storm.

"That what the bipartisan is. It's a protection, a safeguard. I'd hate to see it go.

"That must be a great comfort when you have to make incredibly difficult decisions where you have to arbitrate areas that are waters full of sharks."

Glenn Cranny, from the Queensland Law Society, said he was concerned about winding back the misconduct arm and focusing more on organised crime.

He said Queensland Police Service already looked at organised crime but there was no other body to deal with corruption.

The Crime and Misconduct Commission was set up after the landmark Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption in Queensland.

Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie has argued the CMC's own governance structure and the high number of malicious, baseless or minor complaints made it less effective.

Independent MP Peter Wellington, among others, suggested the government had no evidence to prove the bipartisan system was not working.

"I have a concern (that it) enables the government to appoint people to the leadership team because they will do the government's bidding," he said.