Written by Centre for Public Integrity Board member Stephen Charles QC. Originally published in the Age November 9 2021.
If not for an investigation by this masthead and Nine’s 60 Minutes program, alleged improper practices in the electorate office of a federal minister may never have faced public scrutiny.
Information produced by the investigation into the electorate office of the assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar has made the need for an effective federal integrity body to examine, expose and recommend action against wrongdoing even more urgent.
Even if the Commonwealth Integrity Commission, as currently proposed by the federal government, was established in its current form, it would fall well short of holding federally appointed officers and authorities to account.
The latest investigation reported this week by The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes has suggested Mr Sukkar had intimate knowledge of a long-running scheme in which his best friend, younger brother and factional supporters were paid by taxpayers for political work that boosted the power of his own faction.
Concerns about Mr Sukkar’s office were originally referred to the Finance Department for report when they were first raised last year. Soon afterwards, the department released a one-page statement saying it had found insufficient evidence of wrongdoing by Mr Sukkar.
Mr Sukkar had strongly argued that the full report should be kept secret and its release not authorised.
It is now alleged that if the full investigation report had been released, it would have revealed that investigators failed to interview or contact key witnesses, who, it is said, could have given evidence alleging that Mr Sukkar’s faction, and his office rorted taxpayer funded electorate office jobs as part of a scheme to boost factional powers.
The federal Finance Department has justified its decision to block the release of its inquiry by pointing to its lack of investigative powers; since it had no power to force witnesses to help it investigate alleged impropriety, the release of its report would mean the department would have even less chance of getting witnesses to voluntarily assist future investigations. Currently, Victoria’s IBAC is investigating in public hearings allegations of widespread branch-stacking by state and federal Labor MPs, and the NSW ICAC is investigating allegations including the question of “pork-barrelling” involving former Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
There is no federal body with similar powers to those of ICAC or IBAC dealing with parliamentarians. The Prime Minister and his then Attorney-General, Christian Porter, nearly three years ago promised to create a Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC).
That proposal resulted in an Exposure Draft of a Bill, made public over a year ago, for a CIC in two halves, the first half dealing with Law Enforcement Bodies, such as the Australian Federal Police, and their personnel.
This half had a broad definition of corruption, any whistleblowers can complain to the CIC, even anonymously, all hearings are in public, and the report, which may contain findings of corrupt conduct, will be made public.
The second half deals with the rest of the public service and parliamentarians, and whereas the first half is very strong, the second is very weak. The definition of corruption requires a reasonable suspicion of a crime; no whistleblower can complain to the CIC; any complaint must be taken to an entity such as the Federal Police, who must then be satisfied of the reasonable suspicion of a relevant crime; there will be no public hearings; any report must not include any opinion or finding that is critical, even impliedly, about a parliamentarian.
No report would ever be made public because if the CIC thought it appropriate, it would be referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions for consideration. It would not become public unless a charge were laid and proceedings reached a court.
The result, of course, is that unless some entity, such as the Federal Police, could be persuaded that there was a reasonable suspicion of a relevant crime, no complaint about the allegations involving Mr Sukkar could ever reach the proposed CIC. If they somehow did, there would be no public hearings. And only if the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions decided on a prosecution, months later, would the matter ever be made public.
The high likelihood, therefore, is that there would be no investigation by the proposed CIC of Mr Sukkar, no public hearings and no public report. Only if a prosecution were commenced, which would, in any event, be long afterwards, would the public be informed of the matter.
The absence of any obvious crime would prevent the CIC investigating the extraordinary circumstances of the Canstruct contract, under which Canstruct presently receives $30 million a month for the supposed care of 107 asylum seekers now on Nauru; or the Sports Rorts program; or the Carparks Rorts; or the other programs on which the present government wastes billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money either to further its prospects of re-election or to benefit political donors or friends of the Coalition.
According to recent polling, roughly three-quarters of the electorate want a National Integrity Commission, which is able to hold public hearings. The proposal for such a body is not directed at any one party; it is directed particularly at the government in office at any time, to hold that government to standards of integrity and propriety which the present government no longer seems to recognise, and, among other things, to deter parliamentarians from gross misuse and waste of vast amounts of taxpayers’ money.
The Coalition’s present proposal for a CIC will not expose corruption or impropriety by federal parliamentarians at all. It is not intended to. It is a sham, and the intention is to protect parliamentarians such as Mr Sukkar from any public investigation.