Vivienne Thom (Image: AAP/Alan Porritt)

Why bother with a federal ICAC when you have Dr Vivienne Thom?

With several expense and spending scandals erupting last week the Morrison government has called on the  services of Thom, a former public servant with a long background in running secret investigations. 

Thom will be investigating the case of ASIC boss James Shipton and his $118,000 tax advice bill, as well as the payment of $30 million to Liberal donors Tony and Ron Perich for land valued at $3 million at Badgerys Creek. 

So who is the government’s go-to investigator? 

Thom is a former deputy Commonwealth ombudsman as well as a former inspector-general of intelligence and security, an independent statutory position in the prime minister’s portfolio which oversees Australia’s intelligence agencies.

In neither role were investigations public.

In the case of intelligence agencies, the secrecy is total, with the public simply not knowing what improper behaviour has been found or how it was investigated. Thom was also hired by the High Court to investigate claims of sexual harassment made against former judge Dyson Heydon.  

Thom is listed as an executive reviewer and consultant with Canberra-based CPM Reviews which specialises in workplace reviews and investigations, including of “whistle blower issues”.

Last year, the Department of Finance engaged CPM Reviews at a cost of $37,000 to investigate allegations of bullying in the office of former aged care minister Ken Wyatt. Up to 10 former staffers were  interviewed. However none had reportedly been given its findings or been told what recommendations were made with the government claiming “public immunity”.

In the case of the Heydon investigation, the High Court made Thom’s conclusions and recommendations public, but the process was administrative and its findings had no judicial weight.

The federal government’s tendering site AusTender shows that CPM Reviews has been engaged a number of times by federal departments and agencies this year alone.

In June, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet signed a $30,000 contract for “compliance services”, via a limited tender — a process which suspends normal tendering requirements.

In July the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications signed a $22,000 contract, also via a limited tender.

In October it was the Health Department’s turn with a $50,000 contract, also on limited tender. 

The investigations done by CPM and Thom — unlike ICAC — have no power to compel witnesses to give evidence, nor is evidence given in public.

The department which pays for the services has a role in defining the scope of the investigation and it has no obligation to make findings public.

It is, in short, a method which means governments maintain control and can manage the public fallout, while avoiding the embarrassing spectacle of politicians and public servants being caught out under the gaze of a robust public inquiry. 

Both cases to be investigated by Thom — ASIC and the Badgery’s Creek land payment — only became publicly known because of the work of the Australian National Audit Office, which saw its funding cut in the recent budget.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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