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John Alexander wants the attorney-general to build a new cross-party integrity commission, worried the issue will ‘end up like climate change’. By Karen Middleton.

The Liberal pushing for an integrity commission

John Alexander, who will not contest the next election in his seat of Bennelong.
John Alexander, who will not contest the next election in his seat of Bennelong.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

Retiring federal Liberal MP John Alexander is pressing for a bipartisan committee to review all state-based integrity commissions across Australia and produce a national version that takes the best of them and jettisons the worst.

Alexander is seeking a meeting with Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, urging her to establish a committee involving MPs from across the parliament to work together to break the integrity commission deadlock.

He believes it should involve independent MP Helen Haines, who has designed a federal integrity commission model and put legislation before parliament, and the Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer, who crossed the floor in the final parliamentary fortnight to support Haines’s call to debate it. He also wants the shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, involved.

Alexander is frustrated that the parliamentary year ended in stalemate over a federal integrity commission, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejecting Haines’s proposed model but refusing to proceed with his own. Alexander is also deeply disappointed at the partisan pointscoring.

“That is adolescent politicking at its worst,” he tells The Saturday Paper.

“It doesn’t represent the people who voted for us.”

He argues all parties should now work together to find a compromise. “I am more entrenched in that view now – more so than ever,” he says.

Unless something is done to bring the sides together, he says, the proposed commission will join the ranks of the most intractable political issues and nothing will be achieved.

“My fear is if you put it up for debate, everybody will debate it forever and a day and it’ll end up like climate change,” Alexander says. “There’s an opportunity for our leaders to be leaders. It’s up to them not to disappoint their electorates and to lift their game.

“Now let’s sit down and work through it, line by line, and achieve a result because that’s what the people of Australia want. It would serve both major parties better.”

On November 25, Scott Morrison launched a blistering attack on the credibility of the highest-profile existing state-based integrity commission, the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption. Morrison called it a “kangaroo court” and a “disgrace” for its interrogation of prominent people through public hearings. Under his proposed model politicians would only be questioned in private.

This week, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet rejected those comments.

“I think it is important that as leaders when we do speak about integrity agencies, we instil public confidence, not take it away,” Perrottet told the National Press Club when asked about Morrison’s remarks.

He also defended the NSW ICAC. “I think it’s incredibly important that we have strong integrity agencies in our state,” he said. “I believe the ICAC here in NSW plays a very important role in preventing corruption and uncovering corruption.”

John Alexander supports holding public hearings. “Let’s balance that with the rule of ‘first do no harm’,” he says, arguing that further protections could be built into a new model to avoid it being used for smear.

But he fears the government’s persistent delays suggest a lack of any real commitment to the promised integrity commission. “Why aren’t they doing it? If you really wanted it done, you’d find a way.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "The Liberal pushing for an integrity commission".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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