Written by David Crowe. Published in the Age October 4 2021
A federal pledge to combat corruption is heading for an impasse in the Senate as Liberals rethink whether to vote for sweeping new powers for a national integrity commission after the sudden resignation of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
Liberal backbenchers are warning against giving the national integrity commission too much power to decide the fate of federal politicians, putting them at odds with legal experts who want the federal body to have broad scope to investigate wrongdoing.
Senior Liberal ministers believe the government must avoid a negotiation in the Senate that gives the new agency similar powers to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption when the federal proposal goes to Parliament within weeks.
Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce aired the concerns on Monday morning by likening the state commission to the Spanish Inquisition and saying politicians should answer to the people rather than bureaucrats.
Liberal MPs said the fall of Ms Berejiklian last Friday, when she announced her resignation after ICAC named her as the subject of an investigation, meant they would be cautious in voting to set up the federal body.Loading
“It basically confirms the government should have a ‘hasten slowly’ approach in terms of getting it right,” said one MP who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“The concern is about avoiding the NSW scenario, so this will confirm the thinking in the party room that the new integrity commission needs to have lots of protections for people who have accusations levelled against them.”
Another Liberal said the government would need to be careful with the model it put forward given that the NSW commission was at one “extreme” of the options compared to other agencies with more safeguards.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced plans for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission in December 2018, but the plan stalled during 2019 and was not revived until December 2020, when the government released a draft bill and asked for views on the plan.
The Centre for Public Integrity, a group of former judges and prosecutors, has rejected the draft as too weak because it does not allow the commission to launch its own investigations, does not allow members of the public to refer suspected corruption and does not allow for public hearings.
The Australian Federal Police Association said members of the public should be able to refer cases to the commission, while the Police Federation of Australia said there should be “one rule for all” so members of parliament were subject to investigation just like police officers.
A spokesman for Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has said the government planned to bring the Commonwealth Integrity Commission legislation to the Parliament by the end of 2021.
Amanda Stoker, the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, said the government would go ahead with its bill but would not follow the NSW model. Victorian Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson, who chairs the Senate legal and constitutional affairs legislation committee, said she strongly backed the government plan to create an integrity commission.
With Parliament due to sit for only four more weeks before Christmas, and with the next federal election due by May, the integrity bill could stall in the Senate.
South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick said the upper house would expect to hold an inquiry into the bill when it is introduced to Parliament, hearing from experts about the scope of its powers.
“I would like an ICAC with teeth but there is a political difficulty in negotiating on a bill where the government doesn’t really care if it gets through or not,” Senator Patrick said.
“When governments want to get a bill through it’s possible to negotiate, but when it’s a bill they don’t want to get through it becomes much harder.
“It leaves us in an awkward position where you’ll probably never get the bill that you want and you might pull back and decide it is better having nothing.”
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