Prime Minister Scott Morrison has escalated a political fight over trust in politics by slamming calls for a stronger federal integrity commission and launching a fierce defence of former NSW Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian over what he called a “shameful” public inquiry into corruption.
Former judges accused Mr Morrison of showing “utter contempt” for integrity in public office and raising questions over whether he could be trusted to tackle wrongdoing, setting up an election fight over Labor plans for tougher laws to investigate politicians.
In a dramatic day in Parliament that saw one Liberal backbencher vote against the government to try to force a debate on an integrity agency, Mr Morrison issued a stunning denunciation of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption amid its investigation into Ms Berejiklian.
With federal cabinet ministers still considering draft integrity laws, Mr Morrison told Parliament he would not meet demands from Labor about the federal body because doing so would create a “kangaroo court” like the NSW commission.
“Those opposite want to support the sort of show which has seen the most shameful attacks on the former premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian,” he said.
“What was done to Gladys Berejiklian, the people of NSW know, was an absolute disgrace.
“And I’m not going to allow that sort of a process, which seeks to publicly humiliate people on matters that have nothing to do with the issues before such a commission, to see those powers abused and to seek to traduce the integrity of people like Gladys Berejiklian.
“The Australian people know that Gladys Berejiklian was done over by a bad process and an abuse.
“I’m not going to have a kangaroo court taken into this Parliament. These matters should be looking at criminal conduct, not who your boyfriend is.”
While many in Parliament expected Mr Morrison to reveal his updated plan for an integrity commission next week, government sources said on Thursday night that this was still being considered by federal cabinet and might be delayed until next year.
Ms Berejiklian quit as premier on October 1 after the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption revealed it was investigating whether she breached public trust or encouraged the occurrence of corrupt conduct during her secret relationship with disgraced former MP Daryl Maguire.
An exclusive survey published in and on Thursday showed many of the state’s voters continued to have some sympathy for Ms Berejiklian, with 54 per cent of voters saying they “still like and respect” the former premier.
On a separate question, 43 per cent agreed with the proposition that Ms Berejiklian should not have resigned based on what had emerged from ICAC, while 25 per cent disagreed and 32 per cent were neutral. The results were based on 515 respondents in the Resolve Political Monitor conducted last week.
Mr Morrison made his declaration in question time on Thursday after the government lost a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives when one of its own MPs, Liberal backbencher Bridget Archer, backed a motion to debate a call from Victorian independent Helen Haines to set up a federal integrity commission.
Ms Archer, who represents Bass in northern Tasmania, expressed her frustration that the government had promised a commission but was yet to put its plan to Parliament.
While the government lost the vote, Dr Haines and her supporters did not secure the absolute majority they needed in the House to suspend other business and bring on a vote on her private member’s bill to create the anti-corruption body.
Former NSW Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy, QC, said Mr Morrison’s remarks were “shameful” and showed an “utter contempt” for integrity in public office.
“To suggest that ICAC should not have investigated the possibility of a serious breach of ministerial standards in NSW, and a significant conflict of interest, is very telling about the Prime Minister’s own attitudes to integrity and accountability,” he said.
While Mr Morrison argued that Ms Berejiklian was treated unfairly because of her boyfriend, Mr Whealy said this showed Mr Morrison did not understand the “concept of corrupt conduct” in the NSW system.
“If you’ve got a boyfriend and no-one else knows about it and you’re arranging grants for millions of dollars for his electorate, to advantage his position and standing, then you are in a very serious conflict of interest situation,” he said.
“If the Prime Minister is suggesting that should not be investigated, that’s just astounding.”
Stephen Charles, QC, a former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal, said the federal government had established royal commissions into banks, sexual abuse and aged care and accepted the need for public hearings and strong powers in other areas.
“The only people they don’t want investigated in public are Coalition parliamentarians,” he said.
“What the Prime Minister is saying demonstrates that insofar as the country wants, at the next election, someone that they can trust, he is demonstrating that he is not to be trusted.”
Mr Charles said there would have been public outrage if a male premier had overseen financial grants that helped his girlfriend without declaring the relationship.
The Centre for Public Integrity, a group that includes Mr Whealy and Mr Charles, has called for a more powerful federal watchdog that can hold public hearings, deliver public findings and does not require the suspicion of criminal conduct to launch investigations.
University of Sydney law professor Anne Twomey said the NSW approach “gets to the nub of genuine corruption” because it considers the improper use of official powers, in a dishonest or partial way, while the Commonwealth approach was limited to breaches of criminal law.
“ICAC should not be criticised for investigating allegations of non-criminal corruption, or for doing so openly. Nor should its findings be pre-empted,” Professor Twomey said.
“If all corruption allegations were dealt with in secret, behind closed doors, as proposed by the Commonwealth, people would justifiably be concerned that they were not being adequately investigated or fairly dealt with, and that it might indeed be a ‘kangaroo court’.”
Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek challenged Mr Morrison on the question by asking why he had not delivered on the promise he made in December 2018 to set up the commission.
“Why did the Prime Minister say he would create a national integrity commission when he didn’t mean it?” she asked.
Mr Morrison said the model put forward by Labor and others did not allow procedural fairness, did not prevent vexatious claims, allowed significant coercive powers on low-level offences, would publicise investigations and did not include protections for journalists and their sources.
The government is yet to introduce an updated version of its draft bill to set up a Commonwealth Integrity Commission and may delay a decision until early next year, dashing talk of a debate next week.
Mr Morrison said he would introduce the government bill if Labor backed the model.
Labor transport spokeswoman Catherine King asked Mr Morrison whether he was trying to prevent a federal anti-corruption body looking into scandals such as the use of false documents in the office of Energy Minister Angus Taylor, a dispute over a land sale at the Western Sydney Airport, the “rorting” of taxpayer funds on sports projects and commuter car parks.
Mr Morrison said the new commission would have $150 million in federal funds to investigate specified criminal corruption, with powers to search and seize property and tap phones when necessary.
“This has been out for public consultation for a long time, even the draft legislation is there before them,” he said of the Labor Party.
“But they don’t want a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, they want a Commonwealth kangaroo court, that can go and pry and pursue political vendettas.”
As Labor leader Anthony Albanese and others interjected, Mr Morrison said the “disgraceful” treatment of Ms Berejiklian had forced her to resign before there was any finding about her by the NSW ICAC.
“Now, the leader of the Labor Party might support what was done to Gladys Berejiklian but I do not,” he said.
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( Information from smh.com.au was used in this report. To Read More, click here )