By Harley Dennett, originally published by the Canberra Times on 19 November 2020.

Federal politicians and their inner circles will have even more scope to hide from scrutiny according to legal analysis of the proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission.

New secrecy provisions prohibit the commissioners from reporting on any evidence, findings or recommendations relating to parliamentarians and their staff.

“The government is making it easier for MPs to hide in the very same bill that is supposed to increase scrutiny,” the chair of the Centre for Public Integrity, Anthony Whealy QC, said.

The think tank of senior lawyers and jurists has analysed the proposed commission and concluded special protections for the political elite goes much further than the carve-out originally proposed for the public sector.

Protections for politicians are robust, with restrictions on critical opinions, even implied criticism of MPs, that prevent publication.

In addition to striking any recommendations a CIC commissioner may offer during an investigation about federal politicians, the inclusion of their staff in these protections will effectively provide a whitewash over corruption within political parties.

“The CIC bill does not allow public hearings for public sector corruption, and has secrecy provisions that prohibit any reporting of investigations into MPs,” Mr Whealy said.

“MPs should not be given special treatment. Public sector corruption should be investigated the same as law enforcement corruption. The secrecy provisions must be removed.”

The original pitch for a commission had a carve out for the public sector, which would limit commissioners from self-initiating investigations into the public sector if they became aware of an allegation or issue. Only on law enforcement corruption issues could the CIC hold public hearings.

The Centre for Public Integrity is concerned the bill’s restrictions represent a step backward, and will embed a permanent flaw that no future government will want to remove.

The think tank pointed to some states, notably Victoria and South Australia, where their integrity agencies were introduced with significant restrictions that remain in place after changes in government.

“This bill will only further undermine public trust if it remains secretive and protects MPs from scrutiny,” Mr Whealy said.

Attorney General Christian Porter introduced the draft bill earlier this month noting the government did not want a federal version of the NSW ICAC, which has the reputation as a career-ender for premiers.

The proposed CIC will have the power to compel witnesses to give sworn evidence and produce documents, search and seize property, make arrests and tap phones.