Like most superheroes, Irene Moss AO presents a relatively demure exterior. But as one of Australia ‘s most powerful corruption fighters, she had to deliver plenty of organisational muscle to back up her crime-buster mission statement. Lauren Thomsen-Moore reports.
There’s an old saying in the corruption-fighting business that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and according to former New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) Commissioner and CEO, Irene Moss, this means that the best way to handle corruption is to throw light on issues.
For example, when I joined ICAC, we could only tap about six telephone lines at any one time. I know it’s a peculiar thing, but that’s very important in our industry. And that’s very difficult for an organisation with more than 30 investigators. Now ICAC has the capacity to tap thousands of telephone lines if we wanted to, at any one time, Moss says.
ICAC was established in 1989 to expose public sector corruption by investigations and hearings, and to minimise corruption through research, education and prevention.
The Commissioner and Chief Executive Officer of ICAC had to be a leader and a manager, cultivate a culture of success, set high personal standards of integrity and ethical behaviour and defend the organisation from attempts to weaken its crime-fighting abilities.
During her five-year, non-renewable term as ICAC Commissioner, Moss was in charge of a corruption fighting body endowed with extraordinary powers. In common with other investigative and oversight bodies including the Police Integrity Commission, The Crime Commission, and Royal Commission ICAC can set up telephone intercepts, install listening devices, conduct covert surveillance, perform controlled operations where officers can legally stage or take part in criminal offences to gather evidence, and obtain warrants for searches, seizures, and arrests.
In addition to exercising ICAC’s statutory functions and powers, the ICAC Commissioner is also the CEO and is answerable in various ways to the community through the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the ICAC, the Ombudsman, the Auditor-General, and ultimately the Parliament and the courts.
When Moss was appointed as ICAC Commissioner in November 1999, her key aims were clearly set out in the ICAC Act: essentially to minimise, prevent, investigate and expose corruption.
When I came on board I made an assessment of the performance of the organisation and quickly realised that there were certainly opportunities for improvement. And although I felt quite clearly that ICAC had made a very positive impact on NSW, there was still room for improvement, Moss says.
Moss restructured parts of ICAC, which employs about 115 staff, and introduced better accountability mechanisms, both externally for the public, and internally for the organisation.
She introduced performance measures, improved inefficient administrative processes and outdated systems, and updated technology (such as the phone-tapping capability).
During her time at ICAC, Moss says she also improved the forensic skills of investigators and developed clearer accountability for managers, including regular divisional meetings to look at the serious cases. Performance reporting, planning, budgeting, and resource-allocation initiatives were also improved.
Moss believes organisational improvement must be continuous and is satisfied that ICAC has achieved the goals it set five years ago. On the whole we’re a bit better equipped to tackle more complicated, complex and difficult types of investigation, Moss says.
In the past few years, Moss has also helped build the profile of the corruption watchdog and increase public awareness.
According to ICAC’s annual report for 2003 2004, the organisation experienced a 53 per cent increase in the number of core complaints over the past two years.
This statistic doesn’t necessarily indicate a systematic increase in corruption in NSW, Moss says, but is due to greater awareness and confidence generated by public hearings and investigation reports, and a higher public profile for the organisation generally.
Moss says that the public is more forthcoming with information: It really has the staff working flat chat.
I think the use of the Internet has probably helped in the time that I was at ICAC. We worked hard in improving the website and the Internet process and I think that’s something that will be used more and more by the public.
Through initiatives such as ICAC’s Regional and Rural Outreach Project, public education, exposure and investigations, Moss believes people are now more aware of ICAC and are therefore lodging more complaints.
A Harvard graduate, prior to her stint at ICAC, Moss served as a magistrate and then as NSW Ombudsman for five years. From 1986 to 1994 Moss was Commonwealth Race Discrimination Commissioner.
As NSW Ombudsman Moss felt she had power to help the powerless, while as ICAC Commissioner Moss had power over the powerful.
With a 30-year career in the public sector, the past 15 in senior positions, Moss believes that, in her experience, leadership is about goal setting and being able to motivate staff to do their job properly and do it well, while management is about implementation.
I think it’s important not to overstate the difference between the two, because
I think there are a lot of important overlaps between management and leadership. There’s no point having a grand vision that cannot be implemented, and conversely, when it comes to implementation, even the most ordinary task that people need to do, needs to be understood, and known how it fits into the bigger picture, if [people are] to be properly motivated. So it’s no good being good at one, but not being able to do the other, she says.
Moss says goal setting is an important aspect of the role of managers and CEOs: For example, what’s your charter? Where’s the strategic plan after you’ve worked out your goals?
Motivation is also very important, right throughout the organisation.
For an organisation to be successful, Moss says people should be committed to what they’re doing and people management from the top is very important, as is hiring and retaining good staff.
A lot of people like the idea of being the CEO; it brings about prestige, status and perks, and all of that. But I actually think if you say yes’ to the job, it’s more important that you want to do the job as opposed to wanting it for the status or prestige.
And I really think that the truth is, not everyone really wants to do it, whereas a lot of people want the job itself. Once you get into those jobs, you really do have to make hard decisions. And the doing’ is actually quite hard, Moss says.
Creating a culture of success
According to Moss, developing a culture of success takes time and commitment: You’ve got to basically start at the top and try and roll that culture down.
You’ve got to start with yourself. There’s no point in talking standards with people, you’ve got to live it and you’ve got to walk the talk. If you say something to your staff, I really think that you’ve got to do it. If you’re not sincere, the people in your organisation will see through it.
It’s also very important to get your direct reports on side, Moss says.
You can’t do anything on your own, no matter how strong, and well intentioned, and hard working you may be. If your immediate managers are not on side, then they’re not the people that you want working for you, to roll out what you want.
Moss says it’s important to articulate clearly to the whole organisation what you want the culture to be and motivate all of the staff: as it is also important that they see where they fit in and why they’ve been allocated those tasks and issues.
Moss believes in setting goals clearly, monitoring the work and rewarding it.
I’ve always thought that if you’re serious about creating a culture of success or change in an organisation, you’ve got to be able to quantify it and measure it. And if you can measure it, then you can manage it, she says.
Moss rates her proudest achievement as her reputation for integrity and believes that integrity and ethical standards are key management skills.
In building an ethical culture, Moss says it’s important to ask whether your organisation’s mission is valid and achievable, because if you don’t have achievable missions, there’s just too much temptation to cut corners to inappropriately achieve that mission.
Moss says it’s important to have leaders at the top who are more specific than just giving general statements about ethics.
For example, if you’re an agency that gives approvals or licenses or has access to private and confidential information, it would be most inappropriate to accept a gift that is more than just token. You’ve got to have clear specific rules and reporting mechanisms to deal with those sorts of issues.
Moss says one of the most valuable lessons she has learnt in her career is that integrity is something that needs to be maintained.
As an example, when Moss took up the job as ICAC commissioner she voluntarily resigned from boards she was serving on at the time to avoid possible conflicts of interest.
She says that she has learned from being in public positions for a good 15 years that public scrutiny is enormous.
The one silly thing that you say or do in a public, or even semi-public, situation can get you into a lot of hot water. So I think it’s quite a duty, taking on a public position.
Moss says she has had various mentors during her career, but rates her husband of 30 years, Macquarie Bank Managing Director, Allan Moss, as a mentor figure for his quintessential advice and support.
On many management issues we can compare notes not that we would give away any sensitive information. We would never do that but you can run broad situations by each other.
Moss says she also admires people such as Nelson Mandela who are able to do a good job in really tough times and really tough situations, be it personal or situational tests and taking on really tough jobs and surviving.
She believes a quote by Oscar Wilde sums it all up: Apparently he said: The measure of success is how you deal with failures’. So the people I admire most are people who are able to survive in tough times.
After working in the public sector pretty much non-stop in either a state or federal capacity for close to 30 years, Moss says she now plans to take a bit of a break and I’ll see what comes up after my break.
I had a bit of a health scare during [last year], but that situation looks a bit more stable, and I’m feeling quite fit. So I feel there are lots of options but, at the moment, I don’t think there’s a pressing need for me to make any decisions.
And as far as ICAC goes, Moss says its ongoing success, as with any other organisation, cannot be taken for granted.
I’ve been quite privileged in the particular positions that I’ve occupied. And I’ve enjoyed them enormously. It’s had its moments, of course.
I don’t think you go through jobs without the personally testing issues that you have to face. But, I feel quite privileged to have been in all of those public sector positions: Anti-Discrimination Board, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. I’ve been a magistrate for a short space of time, NSW Ombudsman, and I’ve been ICAC Commissioner. It has been quite a journey.
Investigating the scandals
Rockdale City Council scandal
In July 2002, ICAC found six men, including two councillors, engaged in corrupt conduct after investigating claims that a number of Rockdale councillors used go-betweens to solicit bribes of up to $450,000 for development approvals.
In the Report into corrupt conduct associated with development proposals at Rockdale City Council, ICAC Commissioner Irene Moss made findings that councillors Andrew Smyrnis and Adam McCormick, developers Con (aka Costa) Chartofillis and Terry Andriotakis, and go-betweens Manuel Limberis and Tony Retsos engaged in corrupt conduct.
The Commissioner also expressed the opinion that the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) give consideration to charging the men with bribery offences and giving false and misleading evidence under the ICAC Act.
Whilst advocating for more transparency of political donations, a bipartisan approach at the State level is necessary to adequately review the way political donations operate in the State, specifically at a local government level, Moss said.
Building industry scandal
In 2004, an investigation into safety certification in the NSW building industry revealed widespread abuse, with ICAC recommending the DPP consider charging seven people for issuing false safety assessment and training notices.
ICAC found that thousands of competency certificates for operating heavy machinery had been issued by corrupt assessors who had failed to properly assess and test operators.
The ICAC uncovered deliberate and widespread abuse of the system that assesses workers in the use of high-risk heavy machinery, said Moss. Thousands of workers have been issued with certificates of competency when their actual competency to operate hazardous machinery was not adequately tested.
Late last year in a submission to a review of ICAC’s powers, the Parliamentary Joint Committee (PJC) recommended that ICAC’s powers be wound back so it can only make recommendations of corruption, not findings.
It was claimed that such a move would protect those investigated if findings against them did not result in disciplinary or court action.
The PJC recommendation was not accepted as part of the official report into the review that was completed in early 2005.
Irene Moss said that ICAC should retain the power to make corrupt conduct findings, and make it clear whether a person has been found to have committed corrupt conduct or not.
Moss said that any changes that are perceived by the public to be a slackening of the fight against corruption, would probably be poorly received by the public.
Irene Moss AO
Irene Moss’s career highlights:
- Member of the Board of the Powerhouse Museum Trust, 1999
- Chair of the Management Committee of the National Breast Cancer Centre (Federal Ministerial appointment) 1995 1998
- Moss was awarded the Order of Australia in 1995
- Committee Member of the Australian Honours and Awards Review Committee 1994
- Member of the Board of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) 1992 1997
- Board Member of the Australian American Education Foundation (Fullbright Commission) 1993
- Chair of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s National Inquiry into Racist Violence in 1991
New ICAC commissioner
The Hon. Jerrold Cripps QC, 71, was appointed to replace Irene Moss as ICAC Commissioner when her five-year, non-renewable term expired in November last year.
Cripps was a member of the judiciary for 15 years, serving as Judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, Chief Judge of the NSW Land and Environment Court and Judge of the District Court of NSW.
Cripps has served on a range of tribunals and committees, including positions as Chair of the National Electricity Tribunal, Member of the Corporation and Securities Panel, Chair of the Legal Aid Commission of NSW, and President of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board.