Labor expects its proposed national integrity commission will examine alleged misconduct from as far back as 15 years, with both former and current politicians eligible to be investigated under a broad definition of corruption.

Unlike the Coalition, Labor has promised to create an integrity body with retrospective powers, meaning it could examine decisions taken before the commission came into being.

Under attack for failing to establish an integrity commission during the last term of parliament, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has accused the opposition of failing to release enough detail about its plan for an anti-corruption body.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said in an interview there was “every reason” to believe Labor’s integrity commission would investigate alleged misconduct that occurred 10 to 15 years ago – especially if the politicians or public servants in question remain in senior positions.

“Once the commission is established, not only will the commissioners be able to respond to allegations that occurred in the past – it might be that they occurred a long time ago,” he said.

A 15-year time span would cover the end of John Howard’s prime ministership, as well as decisions made under successors Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison.

“There is no barrier to Labor’s commission looking into the past,” Dreyfus said. “It will entirely be a matter for the commissioners to decide upon.”

Even if the relevant officials have left public office, Dreyfus said they could still be investigated for alleged misconduct that occurred many years earlier. This would be especially likely if the commission believed such conduct could happen again, he said.

Although there would be no statute of limitations on what the commission could investigate, Dreyfus said: “If it was a minor allegation of misconduct from 25 years ago and all the people involved are dead, it’s not likely the commissioners would consider it worth spending time and resources on.”

While criminal law does not apply retrospectively, Dreyfus said it was an “absurdity” for the government to argue such a standard should apply to a federal integrity commission.

The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and Victoria’s Independent Broad‑based Anti‑corruption Commission (IBAC) both have retrospective powers.

Dreyfus pointed to the ICAC investigation into disgraced Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid’s business dealings in Circular Quay that occurred more than a decade earlier. Obeid was later found guilty of misconduct in public office and sentenced to jail.

During the Nine Network leaders’ debate on Sunday, Morrison said of Labor’s plan: “It’s only two pages, there’s nothing on it.”

Contrasting Labor’s proposal with the government’s 374-page draft bill, he asked: “Where is it? You have been hiding in the bushes for three years.”

Labor has released seven key “design principles” for its integrity commission, and promised to hold a vote in parliament by the end of the year.

Dreyfus said he expected Labor’s bill to be extremely similar to the one independent MP Helen Haines introduced into parliament in 2020.

Unlike under the government’s proposal, Labor’s proposed integrity commission would be able to initiate public hearings whenever it saw fit. It would be able to investigate corruption allegations that do not reach the threshold of criminality.

Asked how much money Labor would provide for a commission, Dreyfus said it would “certainly not be less” than the $104 million over four years the government allocated in 2019.

Former NSW Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy said Labor’s proposal was “much superior” to the government’s plan, even without draft legislation.

“We haven’t seen it in its expanded form, but the principles are excellent,” Whealy, the chair of the Centre for Public Integrity, said.

Asked to rate Labor’s proposal, AJ Brown, a corruption and integrity expert at Griffith University, said: “Their fundamental principles are certainly better than those in the Coalition’s model, which is a dog’s breakfast.”

Brown, a board member at Transparency International, added: “There’s a bit of a lack of detail on how it would work in practice.”

Yee-Fui Ng, deputy director of Monash University’s Australian Centre for Justice Innovation, said: “Labor’s proposal for a National Anti-Corruption Commission is far superior to the Coalition’s watered-down model of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission.”

Ng said she wanted to see more detail from Labor about the amount of funding it would allocate for a commission.

Adam Graycar, a professor of public policy at the University of Adelaide, said he wanted to see more detail from Labor. But he was confident its legislation would be better than the Coalition’s proposal, which has “many, many deficiencies”.

“Labor cannot renege on this, they have to put up something better,” he said.

Written by Matthew Knott. Originally published in the Age on May 13 2022.