- The Guardian
- Issue #2006
Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The question of the integrity of government has emerged as a major issue in the lead-up to the May 21st federal elections as Prime Minister Scott Morrison runs scared of anything resembling a genuine integrity commission.
The establishment of a federal integrity commission (FIC) was a key election promise by the Coalition government at the 2019 elections and is now in effect off Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s agenda.
The draft produced by the government reads more like something from Yes Minister than a serious piece of legislation tackling parliamentary and public sector corruption. It claims to address corruption but is designed to cover up corruption and unethical conduct.
The government’s model restricts what types of conduct its FIC could investigate and how it could operate.
Public hearings would not be permitted in respect of the public sector resulting in lack of transparency and public accountability for actions. The state Independent Commissions Against Corruption (ICACs) have discretionary powers to determine when public hearings are held. The FIC would not be able to investigate the billions of dollars spent on vote-buying and secretive deals by government ministers.
The Commission could only investigate matters on its own motion in the case of law enforcement corruption. It could not operate retrospectively. The Attorney General would have the power to restrict information requested by the Integrity Commissioner.
The FIC would only be able to investigate matters that constitute a criminal offence. Not all corrupt conduct is a criminal offence. Corrupt or unethical behaviour includes conflicts of interest, and misspending taxpayers’ money on party political campaigning or for personal gain.
The Morrison government’s Sports Rorts would not come within its ambit or other perceived abuses of office or unethical conduct if they did not fall foul of criminal law.
Parliamentarians could refer themselves or staff in their office to the FIC! In other words, they could dob themselves in!
And as if those restrictions were not enough, the Attorney General would have wide powers to gag the FIC’s findings.
EXCUSES, EXCUSES, EXCUSES
Morrison has come up with a series of limp excuses for not bringing his draft bill before Parliament including: refusing to bring it before Parliament before Labor agrees to support it without amendment. The government didn’t do that with its Ensuring Integrity Bill which set out to crush trade unions (See Guardian #1891, “Kill the Bill”). That so-called Integrity Bill came before Parliament in 2017 and again in 2019 and was defeated on both occasions.
The last thing Morrison and his close cronies want is a commission with teeth that can hold public hearings and where members of the public and whistle blowers can raise matters for investigation.
The government emphatically rejects calls for a commission like the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption ignorantly or dishonestly calling it a “kangaroo court.”
Independent Helen Haines introduced a well-researched bill for a FIC in 2020 and returned to Parliament again with it in 2021. This legislation specifically allows for public referrals to the FIC. It could act retrospectively, hold public hearings, and have the same powers as a royal commission.
It could cover branch stacking, rorting, blind trusts, and other serious behaviour. Its hearings would be public or private at the discretion of the judicial commissioners.
Haines moved suspension of standing orders to allow her private members’ bill to be debated. It was surprisingly seconded by Liberal MP Bridget Archer and carried 66-63 in favour – suggesting her bill would pass through the Lower House. But, the motion was defeated on a technicality: A suspension of standing orders requires an absolute majority of the 151-seat Parliament, not a majority of those present.
NEED FOR REFORM
It’s not surprising that so many people are turned off by the politics and policies of the two major parties and are turning to independents as they seek real change. The stench emanating from Canberra is growing stronger by the day. In recent years there has been a litany of actions by government ministers that warrant further investigation. These include:
- Sports rorts
- Car parks rorts
- Porter’s blind trust
- Leppington $30 million land purchase of land worth $3 million for second airport, from a family with ties to the Liberal Party
- $80 million purchase of water rights from company which Environment Minister Angus Taylor had been a director
- Allegation that Angus’ office forged a document to discredit Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore
- Grants awarded through closed, non-competitive processes.
And so on.
Pork barrelling has become endemic with politicians demonstrating contempt for the public purse and the public itself. Former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian stunned many commentators when she tried to justify pork-barrelling as “not illegal” saying: “Governments in all positions make commitment to the community in order to curry favour. I think that’s part of the political process whether we like it or not.”
Political donations, $10,000 dinners to access a government minister, lobbying in secret, and revolving doors between big business and government offices all constitute corruption.
An independent ICAC with real power is required, not a toothless tiger in the capitalist jungle. There is also a need for transparency, public accountability, and substantial electoral and other reforms to eradicate such corrupt practices. The electoral system is stacked against smaller parties whose ability to stand candidates and campaign is restricted by legislation supported by Liberal and Labor Parties.
The practice of revolving doors where private sector lobbyists are employed as staffers must end. The practice of MPs and ministers being awarded lucrative six or seven figure directorships or consultancies on leaving Parliament is nothing short of corruption. In the old days their payment came in brown paper bags, but today it is more sophisticated, but none-the-less corrupt. There needs to be laws to prevent this.
An ICAC with teeth would be able to delve into business-government relations and ensure transparency and provide mechanisms for recall of offending politicians.
Political donations from the corporate sector corrupt the limited democratic processes we have under capitalism. One way to curb this is to cap expenditure on political campaigning and have real time exposure of donations.