A watchdog that can only watch

THERE is a healthy level of irony in the fact that controversy now surrounds the very state agency that's tasked with lifting and enforcing the highest levels of conduct and ethics in Tasmanian governance.

In a bizarre turn of events, the Integrity Commission this week admitted that it does not have sufficient power to investigate claims of serious misconduct.

The revelation was remarkable, but so were the circumstances in which it came to light and the political response.

The commission concluded that it did not have the power to compel witnesses to appear before it, or demand documents while looking into long-standing complaints that were linked to the pulp mill planning process.

A watchdog, in short, that can only watch.

In the words of commission acting chief executive Russell Pearce, ``the commission would require, at the very least, the ability to compel witnesses to answer questions and to produce information'' if it was to adequately investigate such serious allegations.

He added that ``such a basic coercive power is vested in all similar agencies in other Australian jurisdictions''.

That could be seen as a failure of the government, which eventually set up the commission under pressure from the Liberals and Greens and Parliament.

Comments made at the time are telling.

In 2008 then-deputy premier and attorney-general Lara Giddings acknowledged there was a need for improved governance but not to the extent being called for by others.

``We want a body that has teeth in this state, but _ as it was put to me _ not fangs,'' she told a parliamentary committee looking into ethics at the time.

``We do not believe there is any systemic or orchestrated level of corruption that would require a far-reaching commission of corruption inquiry.''

Anti-pulp mill groups are now alleging the government carried out more serious dental work when it designed the legislation to set up the commission, and in effect created a ``toothless tiger''.

Certainly at the time both the Liberals and Greens criticised the limited time allowed to debate the legislation.

Several amendments put up by those parties then were voted down by the government.

Looking at the issues in setting up such bodies in the mainland, however, it is not unusual to have such teething problems. The really worrying aspect of this is not that shortcomings were discovered once the commission began operating, but that those shortcomings were revealed in a leaked report.

The report put together by the commission, in response to a number of allegations related to the pulp mill process, was sent only to those complainants.

In his executive summary to the report, Mr Pearce specified that the contents were not confidential but the commission had ``no plans to release it publicly''.

Why on earth not?

Surely the high level of public interest was obvious.

It was true naivety if Mr Pearce thought that a report sent to a number of groups and individuals who regularly court media would not become public anyway.

To make matters worse, Mr Pearce was not available to speak to the media after the report's release to better explain the contents.

In written responses, he seemed to indicate that the commission saw no pressing need to address the shortcomings it had identified.

Strange and stranger.

Bass Greens MHA Kim Booth was the only politician demanding immediate action from the government.

The Liberals and Attorney-General Brian Wightman said they saw no urgent need because the commission had seen no urgent need.

(If it had, then surely it would have raised the matter with the parliamentary committee set up for just that purpose.)

Like the commission, Mr Wightman believes this can wait until a three-year review of the commission (which was going to happen anyway) rolls around next year.

Meanwhile, the state's cynics and conspiracy theorists will see this as yet more evidence of the Apple Isle being rotten at its core.

Hardly the impression one imagines the commission was going for.

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