Opinion piece by Stephen Charles, originally published in the Guardian 19th June 2020.
The government’s proposed commonwealth integrity commission will be ‘the weakest and most ineffective such body in this country’
This week’s allegations of systemic branch-stacking and misuse of public money again show the urgent need for stronger anti-corruption measures – not only in Victoria, but federally.
Investigations by 60 minutes and the Age have revealed potentially serious misconduct in the factions and branches of the Victorian Labor party.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, responded promptly to the initial allegations by sacking former minister Adem Somyurek from cabinet and referring matters to Victoria’s anti-corruption agency, IBAC, and Victoria police for investigation.
Somyuerek denies the branch-stacking allegations.
There is no agency that can investigate and expose corruption allegations involving federal politicians and the public sector. Many in the community have been campaigning for several years for a national integrity commission.
After the Labor party, the Greens and most – if not all – crossbenchers had indicated support for the establishment of a national integrity commission, in December 2018 the federal attorney general, Christian Porter, announced a commonwealth integrity commission and published a paper providing an overview of his proposed reforms.
Notwithstanding that Australia and the world has since been overwhelmed by the Covid 19 pandemic, and the government has been forced to concentrate on all the problems the virus has brought with it, it is surprising that nothing has been heard in the past 18 months of Porter’s draft bill for a CIC.
Now would have been a very good time for Australians to have had the opportunity to consider what Porter had proposed.
In the months before the last election, as just about everyone is aware, the government spent hundreds of millions of dollars of Australian taxpayers’ money on grants for sports, community safety and rural development programs.
The auditor general was asked to investigate the sports program in particular, and his report found that there was evidence of a distribution bias in in the award of grant funding. In other words, that the grants were used to give the Coalition an advantage in the coming federal election. Not only was this called out by many as political corruption, but leading constitutional lawyers described it as unlawful and unconstitutional as being having been made without the required parliamentary appropriation.
Government ministers, from the prime minister, Scott Morrison, down, repeatedly said nothing wrong had happened, the minister concerned was just doing her job properly. The relevance of all this and the explanation for Porter’s silence on his proposed CIC can be seen by reference to the nature of that body; for as explained by Porter’s paper in December 2018 it would have no jurisdiction to investigate the sports rorts, any inquiry would be conducted in secret, and there would be no public report of any investigation.
For like reasons if there were an attempt to investigate the Somyurek affair in the proposed CIC there would be no public hearing and no report in the unlikely event of any inquiry being allowed to start.
Porter surely does not want to release his draft bill because he does not want to expose the flaws in its design. Unless it departs dramatically from the model exposed 18 months ago, it will be the weakest and most ineffective such body in this country, with no right to call itself an integrity commission at all.
• The Hon Stephen Charles AO QC is a board member of the Centre for Public Integrity and the Accountability Round Table, and a former judge of the Victorian court of appeal