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Government lawyers the ‘moral compass’ of their organisations

Government lawyers the ‘moral compass’ of their organisations

By Karin Derkley

Corruption Ethics 


Government lawyers have been urged not to lose sight of "true north" and ensure they give "honest fearless advice" on every legal issue that arises.

IBAC Commissioner Robert Redlich told the LIV Government Lawyers conference that government lawyers have a greater responsibility than lawyers "who hang their shingle on the street".

"You are lawyers to these organisations… You have to make sure that your organisation is always aligned to true north and that its moral compass is right."

While IBAC investigates only a small proportion of complaints about government agencies and instrumentalities, including Victoria Police, it conducts reviews of matters that have been investigated by other bodies.

Through those reviews, as well as investigations and research, it has been able to identify common behaviours that characterise misconduct and corruption, Mr Redlich said.

They included an organisational culture of denial, obfuscation and concealment, and a failure of those in positions of management and supervision "to be as forthcoming as they should be about misconduct".

"Managers are too often complicit in whatever sort of coverage or hiding of what occurred," he said. "They don’t express a willingness to publicly expose what has occurred within their organisation."

That had particularly been the case in "hierarchical para-military organisations" such as Victoria Police, which can lead to misguided loyalty. "That ‘I’ve got your back’ culture comes from a para-military concept, but that shouldn’t mean I will protect you if you do the wrong thing."

Combined with unrealistic KPIs, that culture had led, for instance, to the widespread practice of police falsifying breath tests in order to meet a ramped up breath testing target. "Many police rationalised the misconduct because of the unrealistic and impossible KPI which caused people to cut corners," he said.

Corruption is not just serious crime or misconduct, Mr Redlich pointed out. "It starts with a failure to adhere to processes, an arrangement that involves conflict of interest, nepotism, and looking the other way in relation to a failure to strictly adhere to the requirements of the organisation."

"None of us are immune from risks of corruption," he said. "(There have been) failures at an extraordinary level by leadership that failed to insist on compliance with elementary processes."

Government lawyers needed to ensure they gave "honest fearless advice", and to recognise that they played a role in building a culture that was ethical and followed proper procedures.

They also needed to support those who are in a position to speak out "and make sure they get the full protection of the law in relation to being courageous", Mr Redlich said.

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