It’s not hard to tell when Prime Minister Scott Morrison gets a media question he doesn’t like this election campaign. Just watch his response to the queries he’s getting, again and again, about a federal integrity commission.
Ask him about his stance on the issue, and his voice drops a few decibels, his eyelids flutter, his eyes fall to his papers, and he speaks deliberately – with forbearance, almost – about a topic that riles up no small amount of contempt in him.
Mr Morrison makes no secret of his hostility for the NSW model for an integrity watchdog, calling the state’s Independent Commission Against Corruption a “kangaroo court” and warning that a federal agency with too much power would create a “public autocracy”.
By now voters will have no doubts about where the Prime Minister stands on a federal ICAC. But anyone listening to him oppose the alternative models for a watchdog will hear a familiar but flawed argument; one he makes based on a superficial and ultimately irrelevant distinction.
Mr Morrison argues that federal government officials don’t have the same exposure to opportunities for corruption as their state counterparts. For this reason, he says, a NSW-style ICAC is not suited federally.
“At a state level, you’re dealing with development consents, you’re dealing with gaming, you’re dealing with gambling and horse racing and a range of other issues which are very different sets of issues, and service delivery, to what you’re dealing with at a federal level,” he said on Tuesday.
On the federal level, he says, officials deal with taxation, competition policy, law enforcement integrity and immigration. All issues, he assured journalists, the government has in hand by putting agencies like the ACCC and Tax Office under the watchful eye of the federal law enforcement integrity commission.
What Mr Morrison glossed over were the vast sums of money that pass from federal government hands to private sector companies, and community organisations, via multiple federal departments and agencies, often without much chance for public scrutiny.
There is no shortage of such transactions, and some of them (purchases of military hardware, in particular) involve spending in the billions.
Centre for Public Integrity research director Dr Catherine Williams says she has seen no evidence to suggest that corruption differs between a state and federal level.
“Given that the amounts of money being spent at a federal level are so significantly greater than the amounts of money being spent at a state level, I would say that there is a clear need for an integrity commission to exist at the federal level,” she says.
The federal government is a major purchaser of services, skills, advice and defence equipment. It leases vast amounts of office space. At the other end of these deals is someone making money. Unfortunately, that comes with the risk of corrupt behaviour.
It is possible to over-hype arguments for a federal ICAC, and to overstate the risk of corruption at the Commonwealth level. However, recent audit reports, and questions about the politicisation of the public service, have raised enough concern that the public wants its demands for a federal ICAC taken seriously. Anthony Albanese summed up the sentiment in the leaders debate on Sunday, simply saying there was “a stench” around Canberra (or more accurately, federal politics).
In arguing against the kind of ICAC his political opponents want, Mr Morrison might be fighting a lost battle.
Written by Doug Dingwall. Originally published in the Canberra Times on May 11 2022.