By Andrew Clark, originally published in the Australian Financial Review, 7th March 2020.
A nation consumed with the coronavirus emergency may also soon connect with another political contagion infecting the Morrison government. The issue is the so-called sports rorts affair and the government’s resistance to a push for a tough ICAC-style federal anti-corruption body that would be allowed to investigate it.
That may soon change, depending on the outcome of a dangerous game of political chicken. The Morrison government will not allow its putative body, the Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC), to investigate the actions of politicians, hold public inquiries or initiate its own investigations.
But there is a developing threat by some Nationals MPs, including Deputy Speaker Llew O’Brien, a former policeman, to join the Labor opposition and five independent MPs to reject the relevant bill when it comes to Parliament.
“I don’t think it’s delusional” to anticipate a possible government defeat over a watered-down anti-corruption bill that would prevent a new body from investigating the sports rorts affair, according to Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie. “The government will continue to drag its feet to try and hose down community concern about sports rorts.”
According to another independent MP, Zali Steggall, “the government doesn’t want any independent pathway referral” – such as, say, over the sports rorts affair – for the proposed new body.
The potential significance of their remarks is illustrated in the post-May 2019 election make-up of the House of Representatives. Out of 151 lower house MPs, the Coalition has 77, Labor 68 and there are six crossbenchers.
Five of the six – Adam Bandt (Greens), Helen Haines (independent), Rebekha Sharkie (Centre Alliance), Zali Steggall (independent), and Wilkie – may support a motion to toughen up the proposed anti-corruption body, or even defeat the relevant legislation, but not the sixth crossbencher, Bob Katter (Katter Australia Party).
For such a push to be successful, it would also require three Coalition MPs to join the Labor opposition and the five crossbenchers. This would be an unusual move among Coalition ranks, but not unprecedented. Such a defeat, were it to occur, would not imperil Scott Morrison’s hold on power, but it would shake his government’s confidence.
The issue is developing at a time when the Morrison government is already under pressure flowing from the aftermath of the disastrous bushfire season, near-panic over the global COVID-19 contagion, and signs that the Australian economy could be slipping into recession. Morrison is confronting a vastly different political reality to the post-election victory euphoria common among Coalition ranks.
If, as former British prime minister Harold Wilson once said, “a week is a long time in politics”, then three months of bushfires followed by the COVID-19 contagion is an eternity. Added to that are rising tensions among Coalition ranks over the powers of its proposed anti-corruption body, the CIC.
According to a group of well-placed MPs who spoke on condition of anonymity, O’Brien, a Nationals MP representing the Queensland seat of Wide Bay, believes the scrutiny that can be applied to the police by a new federal anti-corruption body should also be extended to politicians. Otherwise it could lead to a situation where, as the British novelist and author George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, a satire on Stalinism: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
It’s the sort of view that resonates among some Coalition MPs. These may include those Nationals MPs who last month broke ranks with the Coalition to support O’Brien’s successful, Labor-initiate, candidacy to be Deputy Speaker against the Morrison government’s official nominee, former Fremantle Dockers coach and Nationals MP Damian Drum.
O’Brien’s elevation came hours after he quit the Nationals amid continuing rancour over Barnaby Joyce’s failed bid to regain his position as party leader. O’Brien said he would remain a government MP but he would no longer attend party meetings.
This MPs’ push against the government’s proposed CIC may gain further momentum in coming weeks after news filters out about the quality of the non-party opposition to the government approach. This includes an influential proponent of a tough federal anti-corruption body, former Victorian Supreme Court Jjudge Stephen Charles.
Charles earlier condemned the CIC proposal as a “sham” that was “designed to fail”. He is one of 34 other former judges calling for a beefed-up federal anti-corruption body that could launch its own inquiries and make public reports.
“If there were a national integrity commission along the lines we have proposed,” Charles tells AFR Weekend, then the sports rorts affair “certainly should be investigated by it to see what was the involvement of members of the Coalition cabinet other than Senator [Bridget] McKenzie herself. I have never suggested that Senator McKenzie acted corruptly. I have always assumed that there were other more senior members of the Coalition who were directing operations. I don’t know who,” he adds.
McKenzie, a former agriculture minister and deputy leader of the Nationals, oversaw the $100 million in federal sports grants shortly before last May’s federal election. The Australian National Audit Office reported the administration of the program “was not informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice”. The grants were also lambasted because they were skewed in favour of marginal seats held by the Coalition, or marginal Labor-held – or crossbench held – seats targeted by the Coalition.
Many of the funding decisions went against the advice of Sport Australia, and there are also contested claims about the extent of the involvement of Morrison’s office in some contentious grant decisions. The latter ordered an investigation after reports there was a conflict of interest in McKenzie directing one grant to a club where she was a member, without declaring her connection.
The report to Morrison was written by the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Philip Gaetjens, who was head of Treasury while Morrison was treasurer, and before that was Morrison’s chief of staff. It was never released. McKenzie resigned from her positions as agriculture minister and Nationals deputy leader on February 2.
More than a month later, Charles tells AFR Weekend the Morrison government’s proposed CIC “is designed to prevent an investigation of things of this kind. Politicians tend to think when they’re in government that taxpayers’ money [is] there to spend pretty much as they want. If they can benefit a large donor, an associate or someone connected with their parties, they will do it.”
The calculated nature of these comments is likely to come under scrutiny next week when Charles is due to appear before a select parliamentary committee inquiring into the sports rorts affair. These comments are even more significant after considering the source.
Charles was a leading barrister in the Victorian Bar from the 1960s to the early ’90s before his Supreme Court appointment by the Jeff Kennett-led Victorian Coalition government. After 11 years as a judge on the Victorian Court of Appeal, he retired and became an active board member of the influential Centre for Public Integrity, which calls itself “an independent think tank dedicated to preventing corruption, protecting the integrity of our accountability institutions, and eliminating undue influence of money in politics in Australia”.
After the election of the Ted Baillieu-led Coalition government in Victoria in 2011, Charles headed a panel that made recommendations for the establishment of an anti-corruption body known as the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, or IBAC. However, “what we got was a body with a very narrow jurisdiction. Everyone complained bitterly that it was a paper tiger and a sham. It was a considerable factor in it [the Baillieu government] losing office after one term.”
Since then, the [Victorian] Labor government “has tightened it a little bit, but not enough”.
Referring to the federal government’s proposed CIC, Charles says it, too, would have “a very narrow jurisdiction” and “would only deal with criminal offences, and it would have to be a serious, or systemic criminal offence”. There would be “no public hearings, no referrals by individuals and no public reports”.
An adverse ICAC finding ended Nick Greiner’s political career, and leading federal Coalition members fear the CIC could do an ICAC.
Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter has staunchly defended his CIC proposal. He recently told ABC’s Radio National that “all corruption and crime commissions have to investigate criminal offences” and “there hasn’t been any suggestion whatsoever that there’s been a criminal offence committed or reasonably suspected by anyone” in relation to the sports rorts affair. “So the complaint that an integrity commission that we might design wouldn’t investigate things that weren’t offences is kind of a circular argument,” Porter said.
However, he has left the door slightly ajar for further negotiation.
Behind Porter’s comments is the searing memory in Coalition ranks of the early history of NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption), which was established by Liberal premier Nick Greiner after he won the 1988 state election. One of the most significant reforms by any Australian government since World War II, ICAC helped to expose corruption at the highest level, including among senior ministers in the former NSW Labor government and senior figures on the Liberal side.
However, an adverse ICAC finding also ended Greiner’s political career, and leading federal Coalition members fear the CIC could do an ICAC.
At the same time, they are wedged by the threat of a lower house revolt. “I’m very pure on this issue,” independent MP Wilkie says. “I want a powerful, independent integrity agency with real teeth and I remain very critical of the government’s half-baked proposal.”