Written by Centre for Public Integrity Board Member Stephen Charles QC. Originally published for 9Fairfax on Sept 18 2021
The Coalition has been promising Australia a federal integrity commission for nearly three years, and Christian Porter (when attorney-general) produced an exposure draft for a commission over 12 months ago.
Why do we not now have an integrity commission?
The Coalition alone opposes reform of political donations. Recent High Court decisions show that it would be possible to control such donations by reducing the reporting threshold, capping individual and aggregated donations, and requiring donations to be disclosed immediately.
Large donations to political parties or ministers are frequently bribes for access and influence. The Coalition is by far the largest recipient of them. Blind trusts for ministers do not provide an answer, they merely hide the donor’s identity, which increases the problem.
A well-established definition of “corruption” (used by Transparency International) is the abuse of entrusted power for personal, private or political gain.
Before the last election, the Coalition government distributed $100 million of taxpayers’ money under the Sports Grant Program. On the above definitions taken with the Auditor-General’s Report, this exercise has been exposed as electorally biased, in other words as political corruption.
When the Prime Minister and others in his Cabinet were confronted with this, their uniform response was that the minister was simply doing her job, spending money at her discretion in the public’s interest.
Then we had the car parks rort. Again the Auditor-General’s Report has exposed in scathing terms the much more serious political corruption involved. A much larger sum has been used (or promised) at the discretion of Coalition members to fund projects in Liberal-held or marginal seats at the 2019 election.
The Auditor-General asserts that projects were not selected on merit, there was no consultation with state governments or councils, and in the absence of a cohesive plan, federal MPs were allowed to put forward their preferred projects. Input was even allowed from Liberal Party candidates in marginal seats.
When challenged, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said of this that the Coalition was “delivering the election promises we took to the Australian people” and “the Australian people had their chance and voted the government back in at the last election.”
In other words, the Coalition offered the Australian electorate bribes before the 2019 election, and some voters accepted them carrying the Coalition to a narrow election win.
So, we now know that the Coalition engaged in spending, and made spending promises, before the last election which, on the Auditor-General’s findings amounted to flagrant political corruption; and that it will do so again at the coming election.
The Coalition’s proposal for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC) is divided into halves. The first strong half deals with law enforcement bodies such as the Federal Police and the Border Force.
It allows any whistleblower to complain to the CIC (even anonymously), the definition of “corruption” is broad, investigation hearings are usually public, and reports of investigations will be public and may include findings of corrupt conduct.
The much weaker half deals with the remaining public sector, including parliamentarians and their staff. Whistleblowers cannot complain directly to the CIC, the definition of “corruption” is highly restricted and requires reasonable suspicion of a criminal offence, there will be no public hearings at all, and any reports made by this half will usually not be made public, and must not include even an implied criticism of a parliamentarian or his staff.
There is no justification whatever for the almost total disablement of the CIC division dealing with parliamentarians; what this demonstrates is the Coalition’s strong opposition to transparency and accountability and that ministers’ actions are not to be exposed to public examination or criticism.
The CIC model would not permit investigation (certainly not in public) of the sports rorts, the car park rorts, or a minister delivering a favour to an electoral donor.
One of the prime purposes of a national integrity commission is to prevent all parties in Parliament from misusing taxpayers’ money in “pork-barrelling” or for private or political gain.
The government’s long delay in acting on the CIC, and the spinelessly weak second half of the proposed CIC, demonstrates that the government’s purpose is certainly not to investigate, discover and expose impropriety, but rather to shield parliamentarians and ministers from investigation and exposure.
The very strength of the law enforcement half underlines the rank hypocrisy shown in the weak second. Why are law enforcement officers of any seniority to be exposed in public investigations, but never parliamentarians or ministers?
Here is the explanation for the Coalition’s delay, and why we do not now have a national integrity commission. The Coalition will not establish an effective integrity commission before the coming election.
And the Coalition’s exposure draft for a CIC is a fraud and a sham.
Stephen Charles QC is a former Court of Appeal judge. He chaired the Baillieu government’s expert panel on the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission and is currently a board member of the Accountable Round Table and the Centre for Public Integrity.
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