The Albanese government heads into its first parliamentary session next week promising to deliver its election promises. This is laudable. The devil will be in the detail. And devil is the right word when it comes to the details of the promised integrity commission.

There is a blindingly obvious rot at the centre of the ALP that should be the first order of business for a new federal integrity body. It’s the cash-for-policy corruption that allows the country’s most law-breaking union to send money to the ALP in return for a policy that neuters the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the body entrusted to investigate and prosecute criminal behaviour in the industry.

If that corrupting flow of money is not caught by the word “corruption” then Labor’s promise to improve integrity in politics will be revealed as an election lie.

As recently as April, the country’s highest court described the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union as relying on a business model of breaking the law. In a unanimous decision, the High Court held “where it is evident that a contravention (of the law) has occurred as a matter of industrial strategy pursued without regard for the law, it is open to a court … reasonably to conclude that no penalty short of the maximum would be appropriate”. It said “the CFMEU’s continuing defiance … indicates that it regards penalties previously imposed as ‘an acceptable cost of doing business’ ”.

This ruling means courts will be able to impose maximum penalties on the rogue union for even minor breaches in an effort to deter future breaches of the law by the union. Courts will be able to do so only if prosecutions are brought against the CFMEU. The ABCC is responsible for investigating alleged wrongdoing and bringing prosecutions to court.

A month earlier the Federal Court imposed a $170,000 fine on the union for contravening right-of-entry provisions during construction work at the Kiama Aged Care Centre in NSW. Federal Court justice Anna Katzmann described the CFMEU as “a notorious repeat ‘offender’. It has an extensive history of contravening industrial laws.”

The CFMEU’s chief policy demand from Labor is the abolition of the body that polices and prosecutes it. The same union sends money to the ALP. As David Penberthy revealed last week, the militant Victorian branch of the CFMEU donated $125,000 to the South Australian Labor Party before its election victory in March.

If a person or body, including a union, gives money to a political party, it is only natural that it attaches a policy demand to that donation. The corruption arises when a policy so obviously against the public interest is agreed to by the party receiving the money. Imagine if banks and financial services bodies donated money to a party and demanded the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority’s abolition or the defunding of the Australian Securities & Investments Commission. Imagine if law-breaking casino companies gave money to a party while demanding the abolition of casino authorities.

Imagine if an incoming government, and recipient of any of these donations, succumbed to the attached demand. This is what Labor has done, taking money from the CFMEU and agreeing to abolish the body that has, with the courts, revealed its law-breaking business model. Abolishing the ABCC will supercharge the CFMEU’s law-breaking business model.

It beggars belief that the Albanese government would countenance increasing costs and lowering productivity in the construc­tion sector, which is the certain consequence of abolishing the ABCC. This will add to galloping inflation, effectively taking money from the pockets of average workers and putting it in the pockets of CFMEU members.

The Centre for Public Integrity tabled political donations in January for the 10-year period from 1998-99 to 2019-20. It revealed the CFMEU topped the list of biggest donor-reported donations to the ALP, giving more than $7m. Separately, the ALP reported receiving $58.6m in the same period from the party’s biggest donor, ALP Holdings Pty Ltd. ALP Holdings receives funds from state ALP branches. In other words, when the CFMEU don­ates to a state division of Labor, the money filters through to federal Labor via ALP Holdings.

The CPI is led by chairman Anthony Whealy QC. Before the election, Whealy and teal candidates were vocal about the need for a federal integrity commission to deal with pork-barrelling. The former ICAC assistant commissioner lambasted the Morrison government for turning its back on a commission. Whealy 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.

The same question should be aimed at the new Labor government. After all, teals put the creation of an integrity commission at the centre of their campaigns. They promised voters they were independent, not Labor stooges. Now is their chance to deliver.

As teal MPs take their seats in Canberra next week and ponder what they will ask at question time, let me help with questions that flow from their promises to be independent and to improve integrity in politics. The member for Wentworth, Allegra Spender, will surely ask: Will the Albanese government create a federal integrity commission with the legal powers and the political backbone to investigate cash-for-policy that has allowed the CFMEU to channel money into the ALP in return for a policy that neuters the construction industry cop from uncovering and prosecuting unlawful conduct by the country’s biggest law-breaking union?

Monique Ryan, the teal MP from Kooyong, will be preparing to ask this question to reinforce her campaign for integrity in politics: Will Labor’s promised federal integrity body have power to investigate Labor’s other major cash-for-policy rot, the money sent to Labor by more circuitous routes from industry super funds in return for harebrained legislative changes revealed last Friday afternoon that reduce the obligations of super funds to reveal the full details of how they spend members’ money?

It is time to test the mettle of Labor and the teals to deliver a federal integrity commission that will investigate cash-for-policies. Anything less will be a massive policy failure.

Written by Janet Albretchsen. Originally published in the Australian 20 July 2022.