Written by Rob Harris on Feb 7 2022. Originally published in the Age.
The chances of a long-promised federal integrity commission being established by May could well be a neat analogy with Scott Morrison’s current predicament. The clock is ticking and there mightn’t be much time left.
An admission from federal Attorney-General Michaelia Cash on Monday that the body, first promised to Australians on December 13, 2018, was not a priority shouldn’t have been a shock. In fact, in November last year Morrison was being asked if he could guarantee he’d make good on an election pledge to legislate what’s often called a federal ICAC.
In a trademark response from the Prime Minister, he shifted the blame to the federal Opposition.
“We have said very plainly that we would like to take this through on a bipartisan basis,” he said at the time. “Our model is not supported by the Labor party, who have a two-page proposal. We have 349 pages of detailed legislation.”
But when asked on Monday, Morrison warned journalists not to be presumptuous. “The term is not completed yet”, he said.
In an interview with The Australian Financial Review, Senator Cash indicated that with only three sitting days for the Senate before the expected May election, the government was unlikely to waste effort on legislating the body or class actions reforms. The government’s more pressing priorities, she said, were religious freedom laws and changing privacy laws to help combat online abuse.
But should Labor decide to “stop playing politics” on this matter and agree to pass its legislation, the government would ensure quick passage through the Parliament. In other words? Our way or the highway.
Voters can judge whether Morrison and his government ever really had their hearts in the establishment of a commission anyway. The proposed model, opposed by Labor and the crossbench, has been dismissed by the Centre For Public Integrity as an “appallingly weak sham designed to hide corruption”.
Morrison even made his views clear last year that corruption bodies, such as the one in NSW, had acted in recent times as a “kangaroo court”. Labor, he says, just wants more political show trials. Even a relatively thin Coalition policy platform from the 2019 election has been derailed for much of the past two years by the health and economic response to the coronavirus pandemic. It has taken plenty of time, effort and money and distracted much of the government’s resources.
But with a promised referendum on Indigenous recognition put in the too-hard basket and question marks hanging over legislation for an Indigenous “Voice” co-design process, it appears now another promise may be kicked down the road.
While many within the Coalition government believe no Australian will be casting their vote on the establishment of an integrity body, the question must be asked whether Morrison, trailing in the polls and engulfed in scandals, can afford a broken election promise?
Issues of integrity remain core to trust in governments and with that in rapid decline across the world, a federal body here is long overdue. Many inner-city Liberal MPs are under siege from independent candidates, who are making integrity a major campaign issue.
And, after all, trust with voters is something Morrison and his government is desperate to regain.