Barnaby Joyce does not think many Australians will actually care that a national anti-corruption watchdog is still a pipedream when they cast their vote.
The Deputy Prime Minister’s latest comments on why the Coalition has walked away from its 2019 election pledge to establish a Commonwealth integrity commission show the political calculation made in the lead-up to the 2022 poll.
“If you go down the streets of Muswellbrook, or Singleton, or here in Gladstone, or up there in the Territory, down Tennant Creek, or maybe over in Geraldton in Western Australia, or down in Launceston in Tasmania — you walk along and say, ‘What’s really pressing in your mind?'” he said.
“I think you’re going to be really surprised how few people say, ‘You know what’s really worrying me in Inverell today? An integrity commission.'”
The Coalition continues to blame Labor for the lack of action, demanding the opposition provides express support for its bill before it is introduced to parliament — despite not taking that approach with a range of other pieces of legislation throughout its three terms in government.
According to Vote Compass, 85 per cent of Australians believe corruption is a problem in this country, with just 1 per cent saying it is not a problem at all.
When will we see a federal anti-corruption commission?
Anthony Albanese has now committed to introducing a national integrity commission within the first six months of a Labor government, trying to capitalise on the Coalition’s decision by making its time line for action clear.
“It is one that will be real, as opposed to their model that has been rejected by everyone,” Mr Albanese said.
Scott Morrison maintains he will only introduce his bill with Labor’s support, and denies his failure to establish a commission is a broken promise.
When asked whether it would remain a priority for the Coalition, his response showed it was off his agenda.
“I’ll talk about what my priorities are: jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs,” Mr Morrison said.
What models for an anti-corruption commission have we seen so far?
The Prime Minister spends a lot of time spruiking his model for a Commonwealth integrity commission, arguing there are more than 300 pages of detailed legislation available for scrutiny.
The model, developed by former attorney-general Christian Porter and inherited by his successor Michaelia Cash, has two divisions — one looking at the public sector, and the other law enforcement, with the “powers of a royal commission”.
The public sector division can investigate public servants and politicians — but does not have the ability to launch investigations off its own bat, and it also cannot hold public hearings.
This is an area of significant contention, with Mr Morrison repeatedly citing the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) model as one to steer clear of, likening it to a “kangaroo court” in the way its hearings have been held so publicly.
Its scope for receiving complaints about alleged corruption and misconduct is fairly limited, it does not make findings of fact, and it also does not have the power to report to the public.
Mr Morrison has repeatedly criticised Labor for what he calls a “a two-page fluff document”, arguing there is very little meat on the policy bone when it comes to the opposition’s alternative pledge.
The Australian Labor Party’s website states it is in favour of an ICAC which has the power to launch its own inquiries, hold public hearings, and has a broader scope to investigate MPs and public servants.
What do the boffins say about the models?
The Centre for Public Integrity has described the Coalition model as the “weakest” in the country, after comparing it to the commissions in operation in each state and territory, as well as proposals from Labor, the Greens and independent MP Helen Haines.
It also raised questions about elements of Labor’s proposal — around it being able to conduct searches without warrants and receive anonymous complaints.
The Centre for Public Integrity said under the current Coalition model, there would be no ability to investigate matters such as the so-called sports rorts saga and it would not operate retrospectively.
The Law Council of Australia has also been critical of the Coalition proposal, saying the scope of corrupt conduct it could investigate should be expanded, and there should be more transparency in its investigations.
What are the penalties for corruption?
This is where it starts to get a bit more opaque — mainly because the anti-corruption commission does not really dish out penalties.
Rather, it makes recommendations and presents evidence to agencies such as the Director of Public Prosecutions to pursue the matters through the courts.
But this is another area where the Coalition model is criticised — because the public will not know if something has been dealt with by the commission until it gets to that prosecution stage.
This is something seen as a virtue by the Coalition, because, in its view, it upholds the principle of someone being innocent until proven guilty.
But Labor follows the principle of sunlight being the best disinfectant, wanting people to see how such an important organisation would operate.
What are the checks and balances without an anti-corruption commission?
This is something Mr Joyce touched on, saying ministers and public servants copped a grilling all already.
He cited processes such as Senate Estimates, where the government of the day and senior public servants received a grilling three to four times a year over their decisions.
The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) also has developed a reputation for putting government programs under the microscope, and criticising their management.
But Senate Estimates and the ANAO only go so far — they do not take the issue of dealing with allegations of corruption anywhere near as far as an integrity commission would.
Nor would they disappear with the establishment of an anti-corruption watchdog.
No-one has suggested getting rid of estimates or the ANAO, which could be a scenario if they were sufficient to provide the checks and balances needed to stamp out corruption and misconduct.
Written by Matthew Doran. Originally published via ABC news on 19 April 2022.