The Greens have been calling for a federal anti-corruption commission for years, meeting fierce resistance from the major parties. Now, finally, a refreshed crossbench may breathe new hope into the endeavour. By Jim Middleton.

Hope for a federal ICAC

At last, some good emerges from the debauched raids on the taxpayers of New South Wales by notorious former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid.

In the wake of Obeid’s conviction for misconduct in public office, Bill Shorten finally plucked up the courage to ignore internal ALP opposition and open the door to the missing link in Australia’s mosaic of anti-corruption enforcers, a federal anti-corruption commission.

As the election campaign wound down, the opposition leader did little more than dip his toe in the water, stating that if he became prime minister he would support the reignition of a senate inquiry into the pros and cons of a national integrity commission, a corruption watchdog the Greens have advocated for years and the major parties have resisted.

Peter Slipper, Craig Thomson, Securency, Manildra, the Free Enterprise Foundation, Australian Water Holdings – the diary of dodgy dealing goes on and on.

In the past few weeks alone, you can add to that the revelations that Parakeelia, the Liberal-owned software provider, has funnelled $1 million of taxpayers’ money to the Coalition and that the department of immigration has referred 132 allegations of corruption – many of them disputed – to the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity.

These have been matters of passing interest in this election build-up, crowded out by the half-truths of scare campaigns promoted by both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten.

There is some remorse within the upper echelons of the Labor Party that its longstanding refusal to endorse a federal anti-corruption or integrity commission denied them the ability to campaign on corruption and to boost its chances at the ballot box today.

The opportunity was passed up at last year’s ALP national conference, when a motion to embed a federal integrity commission in the party platform was withdrawn at the last minute.

Then shadow special minister of state Gary Gray, who has since retired from parliament, argued an ICAC-like body was only needed “where there is a lack of institutions to protect the integrity of public processes and the public interest”. “This is not the case federally,” he added.

The immigration department cases alone would suggest otherwise. This week, the ABC’s 7.30 revealed widespread visa fraud, including allegations of shonky migration agents with links to the department, openly boasting they could get around the requirements of Australia’s 457 temporary work visa scheme. 

George Williams, dean of law at the University of New South Wales, has long argued for a national integrity commission to fill the gaps the state anti-corruption bodies are unable to address.

“The arguments for such a body are overwhelming,” he says. “The litany of corruption and other scandals over a long period of time demonstrates that there is a need for a co-ordinated, national approach to anti-corruption. Past assumptions that corruption was limited to the state and territory level can no longer be sustained.”

Williams says it’s surprising that the long list of scandals has not led to change. “I think that, more than anything else, demonstrates just how powerful the vested interests are in this area.”

Among those vested interests are the major parties. The Coalition is adamantly opposed to anything like a national ICAC, and until this week Labor has rejected repeated efforts by the Greens to establish such a body.

The reason was simple. The right wing of the NSW ALP is so seared by the damage to its standing as a result of various ICAC findings that it cannot divorce factional political pain from the general betterment of government.

One figure who stood out from the ALP crowd was John Faulkner. As Kevin Rudd’s special minister of state, Faulkner fought against often virulent resistance from within Labor for greater transparency and accountability in politicians’ use of taxpayers’ money.

Today, he remains convinced that the absence of such measures is destroying Australian democracy. Similarly, he argues that a national integrity or anti-corruption commission is one of the missing links, denying genuine accountability at the national level. But within the Labor Party he remains close to a lone voice. 

During the last serious debate on the issue in the senate, in May 2014, Faulkner carefully declared that he thought the idea of a national integrity commission “had merit” – carefully because he knew the private member’s bill promoted by then Greens leader Christine Milne had not been discussed by caucus and would not be supported.

“In my view, the sorts of issues being raised at the NSW ICAC do not miraculously stop at state or territory borders,” Faulkner said, “and it is reasonable that this parliament consider how we can strengthen the Commonwealth government’s integrity and its resistance to corruption.” 

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus would not say whether Shorten’s campaign team contemplated making more of Parakeelia and the immigration rorts during the election, or whether the issues were left so as not to divert attention from Labor’s assault on the government over Medicare.

As the election campaign started to wind up, Dreyfus was handing out how-to-vote cards at a pre-polling centre in his Melbourne electorate of Isaacs and lashing out at the Liberals and Parakeelia. “On the face of it, this is a gross misuse of taxpayers’ funds to raise money for the Liberal Party and it comes on top of revelations that Parakeelia itself may have breached the Corporations Act.” 

Reflecting the reservations within the Labor Party over a federal anti-corruption body, Dreyfus was circumspect: “Labor abhors corruption in all its forms and in all walks of life. In the last parliament, Labor supported a senate inquiry to consider establishing a federal ICAC.” 

That inquiry came to a premature end, with its hearings incomplete and without a report, when parliament was prorogued ahead of the election.

In the 2010 hung parliament, the Greens signed a formal five-page, seven-point agreement with Julia Gillard. The agreement promised at point 4.3(b) to establish “within 12 months a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner”.

It would “provide advice, administration and reporting on parliamentary entitlements” and also “investigate and make recommendations ... on individual investigations” as well as “provide advice to parliamentarians on ethical issues”.

Labor never honoured the undertaking. “We worked hard to pursue the idea,” Ben Oquist, chief of staff to then Greens leader Bob Brown, says, “but in the end to no avail.”

Enthusiasm for a national anti-corruption commission is at its highest among the Greens and Nick Xenophon’s NXT, followed closely by former Palmer United Party members Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus, and the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir. All have campaigned for a national anti-corruption commission, but the issue has gained little traction. 

The Greens’ Richard Di Natale and Nick Xenophon are keeping their cards close to their chests, with the South Australian independent refusing to say whether he would use the issue as a bargaining chip to enable the government to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission should Turnbull not have a joint sitting majority in his own right after the election.

Opinion polls suggest the prospects of another hung parliament have receded as the election campaign descended from the warm spring weather of May into the freezing depths of winter, but if there were another hung parliament, crossbenchers would have real power in both the houses and a commission would have the best chance of emerging.

For all that, Di Natale, Xenophon and Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie are not prepared to make a federal ICAC a condition of guaranteeing supply to an aspiring prime minister, should they be in a position to do so. 

Even though the Greens are the one party that has campaigned hard on the issue, Di Natale says: “No, we’re not going to put ultimatums forward. I don’t think that lays the groundwork for a negotiation in good faith.”

The Australian Democrats discovered the price of good faith in their GST negotiations with John Howard after the 1998 election. Then leader Meg Lees had laid down a set of conditions under which the Democrats would agree to support a GST, but gave several of them away in the negotiations. Lees lost her leadership and 10 years later the party had lost its last seat in the senate.

For Greens supporters, accountability may not share the high priority of the environment, but the same may not be the case for Xenophon, who has made transparency and good governance his watchwords.

As Williams points out, only if the crossbenchers in the house of representatives are prepared to use their muscle should they get the chance is there any prospect of the establishment of an anti-corruption commission with teeth at the national level.

In 2010, the Greens had it in writing, but in the end even that amounted to nothing, as did Wilkie’s agreement with Gillard on gambling reform.

Coalition politicians have often cited Australia’s standing in Transparency International’s global corruption perception rankings as evidence there is no need for a national integrity commission.

Trouble is that since 2012, Australia has slipped seven places to 13th worldwide, with the Berlin-based organisation citing lack of action and complacency by successive governments to curb public-sector corruption as the reasons.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2016 as "Integrity on the line".

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Jim Middleton is a Sky News correspondent and vice-chancellor’s fellow at Melbourne University.

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