Independent MPs are urging Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to honour his election pledge to pass laws this year to create a national integrity commission amid growing fears he will miss the deadline and deliver a weaker watchdog than they want.
Concern at the delay has spread among crossbench MPs after the government suspended Parliament to mark the death of Queen Elizabeth, fuelling a row over the power of the new commission to combat corruption.
Advocates for the new commission also called on Albanese to ensure the federal agency could not investigate only public officials but also third parties such as individuals who bribed or corrupted those in government.
The calls came after Albanese said the bill to create the integrity commission would be introduced before the end of the year and that this had been his commitment, although others noted he had originally promised to get the bill through Parliament this year.
Victorian independent MP Zoe Daniel called on the government to release the draft bill this week rather than delaying the debate because of the suspension of parliament, raising questions about the government’s ability to proceed with its agenda while marking the transition to King Charles III as head of state.
“Labor committed to legislate this year. The government should keep its promise,” said Daniel, the member for Goldstein in Melbourne.
“The PM has made much of keeping his promises. It would be a very bad precedent indeed if failing to meet this crucial ‘integrity test’ turned out to be his first ‘non-core’ commitment.”
Other crossbenchers including Andrew Wilkie, Kylea Tink, Zali Steggall, Allegra Spender, Helen Haines and Kate Chaney also called for the commission to be legislated as soon as possible with powers that guaranteed its independence.
“I feel very strongly that the legislation should be through the Parliament this year, not just tabled and sent off to a committee,” Wilkie said.
“That was the original ALP promise and I see no reason why that can’t be achieved.”
The Centre for Public Integrity, a not-for-profit group of former judges and other legal experts, said the draft bill should include the powers to investigate “third parties” as well as government – a key issue on which the government is yet to declare its hand.
“We’re concerned about the delay and we’re concerned about the need to investigate third parties,” said Han Aulby, the centre’s executive director.
“When we see the bill we need to make sure it’s broad enough to not only cover public officials but also businesses that are seeking to corrupt public admnistration.”
Albanese was asked on Monday why he had suspended Parliament for two weeks when the House of Commons was continuing to meet in Westminster and he replied by saying he was following the protocols and conventions put in place for the death of the monarch.
Labor promised to have a national integrity commission legislated this year when it outlined its policy on April 15, about one month before election day.
“It’s urgent and that’s why we will legislate it this year,” Albanese told Cairns radio station 4CA on April 16.
Asked if that meant it would be legislated in 2022, he replied: “In 2022, we will get this done. Because we’ve waited long enough.”
On Monday, however, Albanese said: “The commitment we had is it would be introduced this year.”
Parliament was due to meet for four days this week but the death of the Queen started a sequence of events set out in plans prepared over recent years, including the suspension of Parliament.
The government revealed on Monday that Parliament would meet on Friday, September 23, to mark the passing of the Queen, one day after the national memorial service to be held in the Great Hall of Parliament House on Thursday, September 22, a public holiday. Parliament will meet from September 26 to 28 to resume its usual business.
Another dispute over the bill is whether the government will include stronger laws to protect whistleblowers who reveal corruption so they do not face prosecution, a pressing issue for Wilkie and other crossbenchers.
Wilkie said the government needed to establish a “whistleblower commission” alongside the new authority, which is expected to be called the national anti-corruption commission.
“I’m open-minded about whether it needs to be done at exactly the same time but it can’t be allowed to drop off the radar,” he said.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said through a spokesman the government would “aim” to pass the law this year and said the bill would be introduced in the next sitting week.
Asked if the government would also agree to stronger whistleblower protections, the spokesman said the government would bring legislation before the parliament “in this term”.
Former prime minister Scott Morrison promised a federal integrity commission at the 2019 election but failed to deliver on the pledge before the 2022 election because he released a draft bill but never introduced it to Parliament.
Greens Senator David Shoebridge said there was “no ambiguity” about the government’s election promise because it had said it would legislate this year.
“The mess that’s been made of the parliamentary calendar can’t be an excuse for either no action or a rubber stamp for Labor’s first draft,” he said.
Victorian independent MP Helen Haines welcomed the decision to bring Parliament back as soon as possible but said she was keen to get started on the legislation for the national anti-corruption commission.
“As it stands, we will miss about two weeks of time when the select committee that will examine the bill would have been holding hearings and taking submissions,” she said.
“For this commission to truly be the best it can be and have the trust of Australian people, we need time to debate these issues in the public sphere, through the committee process.
“This is about setting the commission up for success, not compromising and getting it wrong.”
The member for North Sydney, Kylea Tink, said she expected to see draft legislation introduced to Parliament when it meets on September 26 and hoped it would be approved quickly.
“The results of the last election made it really clear that Australians would like to see a federal integrity commission. All the indications are they would like to see that sooner rather than later,” she said.
“With that said, it’s important that the legislation is right and, therefore, it shouldn’t be rushed simply to meet a deadline of the end of the year.
“At the end of the day, what’s most important here is that a healthy and robust independent integrity commission is introduced which will stand the test of time, regardless of what major party is in power.”
The member for Wentworth in eastern Sydney, Allegra Spender, said the government had promised the reform would happen this year and Australians had already waited too long but the commission had to be “done right” to succeed.
“The bill was meant to be tabled this Wednesday so I would like to see the government release the proposed bill this week,” she said.
“The sooner we can consider the details, the sooner we can ensure that the new integrity commission will be fit for purpose.”
Independent senator David Pocock said voters wanted parliamentarians to work more, not less.
“The government committed to legislating an integrity commission this year and there is an expectation from the community that this will be done,” he said.
“The development, design and passage of the integrity commission should not be delayed or short-changed.”
Written by David Crowe. Originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald on September 12, 2022