Broadcast on 7.30 Report Tuesday 16th July

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER:  Along with the public’s right to know, broader questions about transparency and integrity in government are also front and centre in Australian politics at the moment.

The Government last year caved to pressure to establish a National Integrity Commission, but debate is still raging about what powers it should have.

Here is chief political correspondent, Laura Tingle.

LAURA TINGLE, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT:  Getting a clear picture of how Canberra operates, how political parties and vested interests wield influence, how policy decisions are made, has not always been easy.

Allegations of outright corruption are still a rarity at the federal level. They have remained more a feature of the state and local government’s fear, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of questions about how money talks in Canberra or about how decisions are made.

GEOFFREY WATSON SC, CENTRE FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY:  The fact is that the contracts are larger in the Commonwealth and the potential therefore for corruption is more intense.

LAURA TINGLE:  During the recent federal election, both sides of politics questioned the sources of the other side’s election funding and the power of an unprecedented $60 million spend by Clive Palmer was clear.

CLIVE PALMER, LEADER OF THE UNITED AUSTRALIA PARTY:  Put Australia first, vote United Australia Party. 

LAURA TINGLE:  In his ability to capture almost half a million primary votes for his party and produce a two-party swing to the Coalition in crucial seats.

SCOTT MORRISON, PRIME MINISTER:  How good is Queensland!

LAURA TINGLE:  There is also the broader issue of trust.

Polls showing a collapse in trust of our politicians and institutions has come on the back of reports of politicians behaving badly and government refusing to be clearly accountable for its actions.

Struggling to maintain control when it lost its majority in the House of Representatives last year, the Morrison Government yielded to pressure from the then powerful crossbench, which it introduced legislation to establish a federal anti-corruption body.

The Government came up with a proposal of its own for a National Integrity Commission – though the proposal was criticised from the start for a couple of its key features.

Geoffrey Watson, who ran high-profile corruption investigations at the New South Wales Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) says the Government’s model is far too narrow.

GEOFFREY WATSON:  Initiating an inquiry under the government model is set at such a high bar, you cannot investigate until, in effect, a criminal offence has been established. That would prevent most inquiries ever commencing.

For example, I can’t imagine any of the inquiries in which I was engaged, either at ICAC or with the Police Integrity Commission could have even started.

The Government is still proposing a model for a Federal Integrity Commission which would require it to keep all of its work secret, to do it in-house and to keep it secret so that the public would not be allowed to know.

LAURA TINGLE:  There have been a range of controversies since Parliament last debated the issue about the awarding of government contracts, right through to questions about the public’s right to know with raids on journalists and the prosecution of whistleblowers.

Professor AJ Brown of Griffith University and Transparency International has long campaigned for bodies like an integrity commission.

PROF. AJ BROWN, TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL:  We have only seen more evidence of the reasons why a strong integrity commission needs to take on a range of functions – whistleblower protection, for example.

LAURA TINGLE:  Now, a new body has been established to keep up the pressure.

A group of former judges and corruption investigators who want broader reforms to make the flow of money through politics more transparent.

GEOFFREY WATSON:  We need to look at reforms all the time to make sure that we are actually protecting our politicians from the influence of bad donors, protecting our politicians from the efforts of lobbyists who themselves might be very skilful, but acting for badly motivated individuals in their lobbying.

LAURA TINGLE:  But there is also now a question about how quickly the Government may act to set up its own constrained integrity commission.

The baton to pursue the cause on the House of Representatives crossbench has been handed to new independent MP, Helen Haines who are replaces Cathy McGowan in the seat of Indi.

HELEN HAINES, INDEPENDENT MP:  It needs to be a robust one, not a watered down one.

Unless it has the capacity for public hearings, unless it has the capacity to look at issues retrospectively, we may as well not have one at all.

GEOFFREY WATSON:  In some ways the model proposed by the Federal Government for an integrity commission would be worse than having no commission because it has been kept secret, because it is under powered, because it is going to be more or less useless.

It will be pointed to as though, by corrupt people, corrupt bureaucrats, corrupt politicians, as though it hasn’t been a problem for the Federal Integrity Commission.

It will be its own fashion of cover-up.

CHRISTIAN PORTER, ATTORNEY-GENERAL (December, 2018):  This is not a show trial body. Where is justice done in circumstances where someone is investigated by a body, pursuant to rules of evidence which no one here would accept are orthodox and then simply makes a finding against that person?

AJ BROWN:  The big problem with public hearings so far has been that in some rare cases they have been over used by some state anti-corruption bodies, but the bottom line is those powers are going to be needed.

LAURA TINGLE:  A spokesman for Attorney-General, Christian Porter, says the Government’s intention is to introduce legislation for the new National Integrity Commission by the end of the year.

But Mr Porter rather has his hands full, handling the issues of religious freedom and industrial relations reform for starters.

And of course, parliamentary pressure is now off the Government now that it has a slender majority.

SCOTT MORRISON:  I have no interest in establishing kangaroo courts that, frankly, have been used, sadly, too often for the pursuit of political, commercial or bureaucratic agendas in the public space.

GEOFFREY WATSON:  We need one now. We don’t need generalisations like kangaroo court.

LAURA TINGLE:  A crucial change in the dynamic is likely to be the Government’s need to get the support of the crossbench Centre Alliance senators who have taken on issues like whistleblower protection.

While the Government now controls the House of Representatives, the minor parties in the Senate could be the new force pressing for a more transparent integrity commission in return for support on key government bills.

GEOFFREY WATSON:  You’ve got to remember that corruption is just an extraordinarily different kind of offence to ordinary crime.

Police forces are not geared up to deal with systematic public corruption. The fact is that the people who are putting it in play, are actually the people who made the rules.

AJ BROWN:  It is well overdue to actually bite the bullet on some of these things, which will make a huge difference to public trust for decades to come.