By Christopher Knaus, originally published in the Guardian 12th May 2021.
The Coalition is not planning for its anti-corruption commission to be up and running prior to the next election, the budget papers reveal, prompting allegations it has “no real intention of acting on corruption”.
The Commonwealth Integrity Commission model has been beset by delay after delay since it was first announced in December 2018, two-and-a-half years ago.
Tuesday’s budget papers set the funding and staffing for the CIC at zero for both this financial year and next.Budget 2021: make no mistake, this is a keeping options open for an election this year budget
The 2020 budget listed the CIC’s average staffing level as 76 in the current financial year.
The draft CIC legislation is out for consultation and has been roundly criticised for its lack of public hearings, favourable treatment of public officials and politicians, and inability to act directly on public tip-offs.
The budget papers note that the CIC legislation is yet to be passed through parliament and appear to suggest it is still the government’s intention to legislate.
But the development has prompted concerns from both the Centre for Public Integrity and the Australia Institute, who say it shows the CIC will not be operational prior to the next election.
Former New South Wales supreme court justice and anti-corruption expert, Anthony Whealy, QC, said the government had done nothing other than consult on its plan since promising a CIC back in 2018.
“The federal budget provides zero staff and zero funding for the government’s Commonwealth Integrity Commission,” Whealy told the Guardian. “This shows the government has no real intention of acting on corruption – despite talking up the CIC draft bill released last year.”
Australia Institute senior researcher, Bill Browne, said the government had tried to “pull a fast one” by hiding its intentions in a single line item in the budget papers.
“Clearly something has changed between last October when budget papers revealed 76 CIC staff expected in the coming year, with the budget yesterday revising that figure down to zero,” Browne said.
“The government has shown its hand, that it is not interested in tackling federal corruption and integrity matters before the next election.”
There is a small increase to the budget of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, which receives $700,000 in 2021-22 to continue its oversight of various agencies.
The Australian National Audit Office, which has acted as a key accountability agency in recent years, was also spared any further cuts, after having its budget slashed down from $112m in 2020-21. Its funding was partially restored, up from $98m to $106m.
Analysis by the Centre for Public Integrity suggests it has taken a real funding cut of 10% in the nine years since 2011. The ABC, it suggests, has also been cut by 23% in real terms since 2011.
Whealy said Australia needed to approach funding of integrity agencies in a different way.
He said an independent funding tribunal should be established to ensure the resourcing of accountability institutions is free from political meddling. Such a body would follow the remuneration tribunal model, which sets funding of key Commonwealth agencies.
“These institutions are crucial to the functioning of our democracy,” Whealy said. “They need stable and independent funding sources so they can scrutinise the government without fear of being reprimanded on budget night.”
Such an approach has also been championed by the NSW independent commission against corruption, which wants its funding to be made independent of the usual budget processes.
The NSW auditor general found last year that the budget process threatened the independence of the Icac, leaving it effectively at the whim of the very people it is supposed to investigate.
The attorney general Michaelia Cash was approached for comment but did not respond.