Centre for Public Integrity Research Director Dr Catherine Williams for the Sydney Morning Herald June 10 2021
The Prime Minister had cause to celebrate on Tuesday when he joined AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw in announcing the success of Operation Ironside.
He used the opportunity to call for stronger powers to combat organised crime and claimed that “as a government, we make no apologies for ensuring that our law enforcement authorities have the powers and authorities they need to stop criminal thugs and gangs”.
One might ask why it is that the federal government’s commitment to law enforcement extends enthusiastically and instantaneously to “criminal thugs and gangs” but not to ensuring that there is an appropriate federal anti-corruption authority with the powers required to tackle the insidious ill of public sector corruption?
The leitmotif of the government’s approach to this issue appears to be that politicians and their staff are somehow – inexplicably – in a different category when it comes to issues of law enforcement and integrity. We see this in the urgency with which the government views the passage of tougher laws to aid efforts against organised crime, in contrast to the delay which has defined its efforts to create a Commonwealth integrity commission.
We see it in the fact that it failed to allocate any funding to its own proposed commission in this year’s budget.
And we see it, perhaps most starkly, in its draft Integrity Commission Bill, where the prevention of public hearings or own-motion investigations into public sector corruption – coupled with a criminal threshold for investigations and secrecy provisions that prohibit reporting on any evidence, findings or recommendations relating to parliamentarians, their staff and much of the public service – is most revealing.
Under the government’s proposed model, when reporting on law enforcement corruption the integrity commissioner would be required to set out (among other things) their findings and relevant evidence.
In contrast, a report about a public sector corruption issue – the kind relating to parliamentarians and those who work in offices – would not be able to include the commissioner’s findings or relevant evidence.
This theme continues with a prohibition on the commissioner reporting any finding about whether a person engaged in corrupt conduct, unless that person is a member of a law enforcement agency. What justification can there possibly be for the stunningly broad prohibition, buried deep in the draft Bill, of “any opinion or finding that is critical (either expressly or impliedly) of, or a recommendation about, a parliamentarian, or their office, or any staff members of their office”?
The lack of an appropriate federal body to deal with allegations of corruption or fraud was laid bare on Monday.
In response to a request from Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young for the Australian National Audit Office to investigate the federal government’s spending on offsets for Western Sydney Airport, the Auditor-General pointed out that: “The ANAO is not a corruption investigation body and does not investigate matters of alleged corruption or fraud”, referring her instead to the ICAC (whose jurisdiction is limited to New South Wales) or the AFP (whose jurisdiction is limited to offences against laws of the Commonwealth – and, as experts have repeatedly pointed out, not all corrupt conduct amounts to a criminal offence).
That in 2021 we remain without a federal anti-corruption body with appropriate jurisdiction to investigate allegations such as those raised in relation to the Western Sydney Airport offsets and much more besides, is cause for concern.
That the government has proposed a body that would not be fit for purpose and indeed would be designed to conceal corruption is cause for alarm.
Specifically, far from former attorney-general Christian Porter’s claim that the proposed commission would have powers greater than a royal commission, there is consensus among all major stakeholders who participated in the government’s recent consultation process that its proposed body would be substantially deficient in both its powers and jurisdiction.
If the government is genuinely committed to ensuring that law enforcement authorities have the powers required to do their work, as it has claimed this week, it cannot credibly press on with a Commonwealth integrity commission model that has been the subject of virtually unanimous disparagement.
In advocating for the passage of stronger organised crime laws this week, the Prime Minister called for bipartisan support.
The government would do well to bear bipartisanship and broader political support in mind where its Commonwealth integrity commission is concerned, lest it be accused of that once-feared political failing: hypocrisy.