Retired judges have criticised the Morrison government’s broken promise on the federal anti-corruption commission as a “massive policy failure”, saying the Coalition’s explanation for walking away from the pledge was “spurious”.

The Coalition is under pressure over its failure to introduce legislation establishing its proposed anti-corruption commission, despite promising to do so prior to the last election.

Scott Morrison and other Liberal MPs have sought to blame a lack of Labor support for its failure to legislate the watchdog, an explanation described by Labor’s Chris Bowen as a “farce” and “complete nonsense”.

Retired New South Wales supreme court judge Anthony Whealy, now chair of the Centre for Public Integrity, said the government’s stated reason for not legislating the anti-corruption commission was “quite spurious”.

“The true reason for this massive policy failure is that, with a litany of scandalous rorts identified in audit reports, this government wishes to avoid proper scrutiny and being held publicly accountable,” he told the Guardian.

The government’s proposed model, which was released as an exposure draft, was widely condemned as weak, ineffective and a “protection racket” for politicians.

It had no ability to conduct public hearings for government corruption, despite allowing such hearings for law enforcement matters, and sets a near-impossibly high bar for investigations to commence. Professor Anne Twomey, one of the nation’s leading legal minds, described it as a “shamefully inadequate system, which appears designed to protect the corrupt from investigation”.

A Guardian analysis found the threshold for beginning investigations was so high that the proposed watchdog would have been able to investigate only two of 40 recent political controversies.

Liberal MP Andrew Bragg was questioned about the Coalition’s failure to legislate on ABC’s Q+A on Thursday night, and attempted to blame Labor for its lack of support. Bragg said he hoped to legislate the watchdog in the Coalition’s next term.

“We’ve tried to establish an important institution and that hasn’t been possible and the Labor party wouldn’t agree so we’ll have to go it alone in the next term if we are returned to government,” he said.

The response was met with laughter. Bowen, also appearing on the panel, said the model proposed by the Coalition was a “joke”.

“Experts have said you would be better off doing nothing,” he said. “But to this whole farce of an argument that somehow they couldn’t introduce legislation, they haven’t even introduced the legislation, because the Labor party wouldn’t sign on to it, that’s a very interesting development.

“So apparently now the government is not going to introduce any legislation unless we agree first. This is great news! This is wonderful news! It means we now have power of veto as the opposition. This is just complete nonsense.”

Frontbenchers Stuart Robert and Simon Birmingham also said the Coalition would consider establishing the body if they win another term.

“We will come back again and we will seek, through a bipartisan level, to get that going,” Robert said on Friday.

Birmingham told Sky News that if the Coalition won in May it would have a mandate to implement its proposed model. That’s despite the promise being made prior to the last election, which the Coalition won.

“We’re not going to legislate for the type of reputation-destroying, star chamber model we’ve seen in NSW,” he said.

Whealy said the Coalition’s rationale for its broken promise was “quite spurious” and described it as a “massive policy failure”.

“Simply put, it raises a serious question: can we trust the Coalition to honour any of its promises and to do so within an honest framework?” he said.

On Friday the Centre for Public Integrity released a new report saying the ability to hold public hearings was “critical” to the success of recent Victorian Ibac and NSW Icac investigations.

The NSW Icac was able to expose corruption to the public in 42 public hearings and 39 public reports between 2012-13 and 2019-20.

Geoffrey Watson, former counsel assisting NSW Icac, said “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. Watson, now a director with the Centre for Public Integrity, said “many investigations would not be successful without them”.

“Corruption flourishes in the dark,” he said. “Without public hearings the public may not find out about corruption investigations until years after the fact, if at all.”

Written by Christopher Knaus. Originally published in the Guardian on 15 April 2022.