Opinion piece by Stephen Charles, published in the Sydney Morning Herald 20th January 2020.
The sports grant rort uncovered by the Australian National Audit Office last week is far worse than traditional pork-barrelling and equates to political corruption. It again underlines the urgent need for a strong and independent national integrity commission to hold politicians and public servants accountable to the public interest.
On Wednesday, the Audit Office released a report on the operation of a $100 million community sports grant program. It found that in determining grants then sports minister Bridget McKenzie’s office “drew upon considerations other than those identified in the program guidelines” and applied “considerations inconsistent with the published guidelines”.
In the third round of funding, 167 – or 73 per cent of the “approved projects” – had not been recommended by Sport Australia, the that administers the grant program. The Auditor-General concluded the award of funding “was not consistent with the assessed merit of applications” and “reflected the approach documented by the Minister’s Office of focusing on ‘marginal’ electorates held by the Coalition as well as those electorates held by other parties or independent members that were to be ‘targeted’ by the Coalition at the 2019 Election”.
In other words, the Auditor-General, an independent officer of Parliament, is saying the minister sought to prioritise the electoral benefits for the government over the sporting infrastructure benefits for the community.Advertisement
Senator Bridget McKenzie has strongly rejected those criticisms, saying projects selected were eligible, and that the program had been very popular – suggesting its use as a slush fund had been successful.
The misuse of money and power for political gain is corrupt by any standard, except the standard appearing in the government’s proposed model for a federal anti-corruption commission, the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. It is now two years since Attorney General Christian Porter says he began carefully considering options for an anti-corruption agency, and a year since the government announced the CIC model.
Since then there has been nothing except weak proposals and more delays. There is good reason for that. The government does not want this sort of corruption investigated.
The form of the CIC proposed by Porter would produce a feeble and ineffective anti-corruption body. The jurisdiction of the CIC would be divided into two halves. That which deals with parliamentarians, their staff and public servants would be the weaker half. Its jurisdiction would be limited to investigating criminal offences, and it would will conduct no public hearings. Before it could conduct an investigation, the commissioner must have a reasonable suspicion that the conduct in question constitutes a criminal offence.
There would be no public report, unless the CIC referred a brief of evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions and a prosecution was commenced. The CIC would have little or no ability to discover public sector corruption, and no corruption would be exposed by it.
If the sports grants made under McKenzie’s leadership were referred to the CIC in the form now proposed by Porter, the CIC, in the absence of any evidence of a criminal offence, would have no jurisdiction to investigate those grants. No public hearing would take place, and no public report or knowledge of the events examined would become public unless a prosecution was launched.
The case for an effective national integrity commission grows stronger by the day. This sports rort scratches the surface of a much wider corruption risk in our government and public sector. A national commission with a broad jurisdiction and strong investigative powers, including public hearings, is needed to investigate allegations and expose corruption to the public.
There are ample precedents on which Porter could draw to fulfil his promise of introducing a CIC, as each state in Australia has established an anti-corruption commission. The Centre for Public Integrity, the Australia Institute and Transparency International have all done work on designing a national integrity commission.
The existing state anti-corruption commissions are all much stronger than the proposed CIC. Why propose the nation’s weakest watchdog? Why the delay? What does the government have to hide?
Stephen Charles, QC, a former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal, is a board member of the Centre for Public Integrity.