A strong and independent National Integrity Commission is urgently needed to begin restoring public trust in government. The recent scandal involving Crown Casino provides ample evidence of the gaps in our current integrity system. No existing agency has the ability to effectively investigate and expose allegations of corruption involving federal government at all levels.
The establishment of an effective National Integrity Commission (NIC) with a broad jurisdiction and strong investigative powers, including the ability to hold public hearings, is widely supported. 34 retired judges signed an open letter last year calling on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to establish such a body. Over 75% of poll respondents voiced public support for it. And the Law Council of Australia has made a number of submissions supporting the proposition. While conscious of the potential for reputational damage, the Law Council accepts that in cases of public interest, public hearings should be held.
The Centre for Public Integrity has released a research paper outlining the necessary design elements needed to make a NIC effective. They include the ability to investigate any person, whether or not they are a public official, whose conduct adversely affects the impartiality of public decision making. Strong investigate powers of a Royal Commission are needed, including public hearings to effectively expose corruption to the public.
In Parliament last month the Attorney General Christian Porter isolated the Hon Stephen Charles AO QC in his support for a strong and effective NIC. Analysis of debate shows broad support for an effective NIC as advocated by Stephen Charles QC, who is a board member of The Centre for Public Integrity.
Analysis of the Coalition’s proposed model for an integrity commission demonstrates serious defects. There is no justification for the Commonwealth Integrity Commission’s (CIC) division onto two halves, the much weaker section covering that part of the public sector which includes Parliamentarians and their staff and most public servants. The jurisdiction of the CIC and the definition of corrupt conduct are too narrow to cover anything that does not constitute a serious criminal offence.
The threshold for investigation is too high, since at the outset the CIC will usually not have enough information to form the necessarily reasonable suspicion. The range of persons who may be investigated is too narrow, most State ICACs have much wider jurisdiction. No individual whistle-blower can make a complaint to the CIC. The CIC’s public sector half cannot hold any public hearings at all, can make no public report or public findings, and at the conclusion of an investigation can only refer a criminal brief to the DPP. The public will have no idea that an investigation is taking place unless and until a prosecution is actually brought before a court.
It is for these reasons that the CIC will be a body with little or no ability to discover public sector corruption, and why virtually no corruption will be exposed by it. The Law Council submission reflects and comments on these shortcomings.
The Attorney-General last week in Parliament objected to strong language being used about his CIC model for an integrity commission, describing as ‘’eerily similar” the views expressed by the Shadow Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus QC, and views previously expressed by Stephen Charles QC before the last election. Presumably Mr Porter is referring to the fact that both Mr Dreyfus and Mr Charles are seeking the establishment of a strong and effective NIC. On this point the views of the Centre for Public Integrity, Transparency International, 34 retired judges and over 75% of the public are all “eerily similar”.
Mr Porter has in the past been very careless with the truth in claiming that the Law Council has endorsed his CIC. The Law Council has not done so, indeed it has respectfully but substantially criticised his model in a number of important respects. Before Mr Moses SC became President of the Law Council, he wrote a letter to the press enthusiastically praising the Coalition’s CIC. He is virtually alone in having done so, and the Law Council did not agree with him, as is shown by the submission made as to the CIC model in January 2019.
With broad support and strong need for an effective National Integrity Commission, debate must now move on to how and when it will be established. Personal attacks and false claims on either side are not constructive or necessary. However it is important for the Coalition to listen to the growing swell of criticism of its weak proposal for a CIC.
Anthony Whealy is the Chair of The Centre for Public Integrity