By Geoffrey Watson, originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 1, 2019

The current Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry is of critical importance – and for two quite separate reasons.

ICAC is exposing continuing problems with election funding in NSW. The public inquiry is still in its early days, and it is not appropriate now to speculate about what might eventually come out, but it is disappointing to see that, so soon after ICAC’s investigation into the Liberal Party for fiddling election funding, that an investigation into the Labor Party has become necessary for precisely the same thing. It is as though no lessons are ever learned – or, more likely, that the political parties are utterly shameless in what they will do to get their hands on money. Bear in mind that the laws which are being broken are being broken by the same kinds of people who made those same laws.

Do not underestimate the importance of this particular inquiry. It is not about $100,000 cash in a shopping bag. That is eye catching, but not the real issue. The real issue is one of national security. The source of the cash has been said to be an “agent of influence” from a foreign power. Why would China interfere in a NSW election? These are big questions. These are nationally important questions.

Which reveals the second reason why ICAC’s inquiry is of crucial importance – it demonstrates exactly why we need a powerful and independent national integrity commission. If this kind of conduct was uncovered at a federal level there is no federal agency capable of investigating and exposing potential corruption. Think about how disturbing that is: there is no federal anti-corruption agency equipped to deal with questions of the integrity of our electoral system going to questions of our national security.

The absence of a national integrity commission is a stunning omission from our system of government. There are anti-corruption bodies now in every state or territory – but none federally. Why is that so? Some federal politicians have claimed there is no evidence of corruption at a national level, but that is self-fulfilling nonsense – there is no evidence because there is no investigative body looking for corruption.

And even if the Pollyannas are right, then it would not stand in the way of the appointment of an investigative body. If a national integrity commission is established and after five years it establishes that there is no corruption federally, then I will be the first person to say that we should disband it. Personally, I will not be betting on that outcome.

Experience around Australia demonstrates that a powerful anti-corruption agency is an important adjunct to good government. The current ICAC inquiry proves that. It encourages careful management of public money. It gives good and decent public officials more confidence in their work. People want to know their politicians are honest.

So, the time is ripe for a national integrity commission. And that takes me to another issue – what form should that commission take? In the lead up to the recent federal election Labor ran on a policy of the introduction of a powerful and independent national integrity commission. The Coalition responded by providing a model for its own commission. The Coalition’s proposal was a joke. Toothless, spineless, and secretive – it would have no power to examine the activities of politicians or those close to them. Why should any honest politician fear an anti-corruption agency? It also – laughably –prevents the investigation of corruption in the past, with the consequence of protecting crooked politicians from any examination of their misdeeds.

The Coalition’s proposal is not a real anti-corruption agency; it is a sham. It would be worse than having no commission at all. And Labor has taken a bad turn. Under Anthony Albanese, Labor’s support for a national integrity commission has waned. According to Albanese such an agency “would make it difficult to govern”. What?

It would be a real pity if the only issue upon which our politicians can strike a bipartisan agreement is an agreement to turn a blind eye toward corruption.

All of this underlines why it is essential a national integrity commission independent of politicians. The current inquiry underway in ICAC would never have been launched if politicians had their way.
We need a body which will look critically at politicians, not one beholden to them. And we need it now.

Geoffrey Watson is a Sydney barrister and former counsel assisting the ICAC. He is a director of the Centre for Public Integrity.