By Nick Bonyhady, originally published by Brisbane Times 14 October.
Months after the government said it would restart talks over its proposed federal anti-corruption body, crossbench senators are still waiting to hear from Attorney-General Christian Porter.
Following renewed calls for a national integrity commission triggered by the sacking of Victorian state minister Adem Somyurek in June, Mr Porter said his “next step” would be to talk to the crossbench, whose votes could be critical to passing any government bill.
The idea of a federal integrity body has been thrust into the spotlight again this week by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s disclosure to the state Independent Commission Against Corruption that she was in a secret relationship with a disgraced former MP, but crossbenchers said they have had no discussions with the government in recent months.
“Christian Porter said he was going to restart discussions with the crossbench but we’ve seen no direct evidence of that,” said Stirling Griff, a Centre Alliance senator. Fellow independent and One Nation crossbenchers senators agreed.
“You can’t say its only the states that have these problems,” Senator Griff said on Wednesday as Ms Berejiklian’s former lover, Daryl Maguire, sat in the witness box after confessing to using his office for profit. “These issues would exist federally without a doubt.”
The government announced its plans for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission in 2018, and draft legislation went to cabinet before the pandemic hit. The CIC would have two divisions: one for investigating federal law enforcement bodies like the police, which would have strong powers; and another for investigating politicians and the rest of the public service, which would not be allowed to hold public hearings or make findings of corruption, as the NSW ICAC did against former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid.
Mr Porter said the government’s model would have greater powers than a royal commission but they would be used carefully.
He said that would avoid the “worst mistakes of state-based integrity commissions, which have resulted in multiple instances of unjust and irreparable harm to the reputations of innocent people due to a lack of appropriate checks and balances in their processes and operation”.
The Greens and Labor both support an anti-corruption commission with greater latitude to use its powers than the government’s model.
Mr Porter said the first stage was already under way, with money allotted in last week’s federal budget. Draft legislation for the second stage will be unveiled “as soon as possible after the more immediate priorities concerning the management of the COVID recovery have been dealt with,” he said.
Han Aulby, executive director of the Centre for Public Integrity, which is lobbying for a federal integrity body, said the government had delayed acting.
“The federal government has been ‘carefully considering options for a National Integrity Commission’ since January 2018,” Ms Aulby said.
“In its current form, the government’s proposed CIC would be the weakest watchdog in the country and would operate almost entirely in secret. It would not be able to investigate the sports rorts or the western Sydney airport scandals.”
Independent Senator Rex Patrick, who also supports a federal commission with the power to hold public hearings when there is a case for the subject to answer, said a merely adequate commission could create a base for future improvements.
“It’s always hard to say no to something that is better than nothing,” Senator Patrick said.