As the federal election draws ever closer, the federal government’s failure to establish a serious anti-corruption body is becoming a serious liability for the Coalition.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised before the last election to create a federal equivalent to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. Yet as of Friday, he has not put forward a bill.
Meanwhile, pressure has only grown for a federal agency to address concerns about the potential for corruption in taxpayer-funded schemes such as the multi-million-dollar sports grants and car parks programs.
The issue is a key point of difference between the Coalition and the ALP, which promises a strong NSW ICAC-style body.
With the clock ticking on the year’s last session of Parliament, the independent member for Indi Helen Haines on Thursday called for a debate on the issue, and extraordinarily the Liberal MP for the marginal Tasmanian seat of Bass, Bridget Archer, crossed the floor to support the motion.
The motion failed for complicated reasons but in question time later that day Mr Morrison responded with an attack not on his political opponents but on the NSW ICAC.
He said he rejected the model of a NSW-style ICAC because it was a “kangaroo court” which had “done over” former premier Gladys Berejiklian. He described it as a “very bad process and an abuse”.
Mr Morrison said the ICAC “seeks to publicly humiliate people on matters that have nothing to do with the issues before such a commission”.
He said a federal integrity commission should look at criminal conduct and “not who your boyfriend is”.
Mr Morrison was apparently trying to enlist to his cause the public’s sympathy for Ms Berejiklian. The former premier remains popular with NSW voters despite her resignation over the ICAC’s inquiry into the conflict of interest in awarding grant funding to two bodies associated with her secret boyfriend, former MP Daryl Maguire.
The ’s Resolve Political Monitor this week found 54 per cent of respondents still liked and respected Ms Berejiklian after her appearance at ICAC and 43 per cent felt she should not have resigned.
Mr Morrison’s attack on the ICAC, a body led by former judges who were appointed by Ms Berejiklian, was however premature, ill-informed and politically misguided.
He misrepresented and trivialised the ICAC investigation. While there is no suggestion that Ms Berejiklian took money for herself, the ICAC is looking at whether Ms Berejiklian’s conduct was a breach of public trust or a dishonest partial exercise of her functions and whether she encouraged or allowed corruption by failing to tell the ICAC about Mr Maguire’s activities.
As former Supreme Court Judge Anthony Whealy observed, it says a lot about Mr Morrison’s understanding of integrity in public life that he is against looking into these potential serious breaches of ministerial standards. In any case, until the ICAC has made its findings it is far too early to pass judgment.
Mr Morrison’s comments were also a slur on the current head of the NSW ICAC Peter Hall and Ruth McColl, who is handling the inquiry.
They are both former senior judges and Mr Hall was appointed by Ms Berejiklian herself. To suggest these two respected legal figures are part of a political hit job without any evidence is derogatory and cowardly, and undermines faith in the judiciary.
If Mr Morrison thinks there is political advantage in trashing their reputations, he is misguided. The ICAC remains a trusted body. The Resolve poll found 47 per cent of people agreed that the ICAC did important work and should not have its powers reduced. Only 19 per cent disagreed.
Mr Morrison should stop these distractions and put before Parliament a bill to create a federal integrity commission with real investigative powers similar to those of the NSW ICAC.
It must go beyond the blueprints for such a body that the government has put up for discussion so far. They would only create a toothless tiger, which, according to the Centre for Public Integrity, would have less power than any of the anti-corruption agencies in state jurisdiction. Under the government’s current proposal, the integrity agency’s inquiries would be held in secret with no findings made in most cases. It would lack the power to investigate conduct affecting impartial decision-making.
If the NSW ICAC had been set up on that basis it would not have had the power to uncover the $60 million coal conspiracy for which former ALP power broker Eddie Obeid is now in jail.
Mr Morrison’s refusal to honour his commitment to set up an integrity commission only deepens suspicions about what his government is trying to hide. It is time for a federal ICAC.
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( Information from smh.com.au was used in this report. To Read More, click here )