Watchdog with teeth

“No government can maintain its claim to legitimacy while there remains the cloud of suspicion and doubt.”

These were Nick Greiner’s words as he introduced the Independent Commission Against Corruption bill in the New South Wales parliament in 1988. He was then premier, recently elected on a promise to end the corruption plaguing the state.

In his assessment of the years that preceded his government’s election victory, Greiner was excoriating  – a minister of the crown jailed for bribery, inquiries into current and former ministers for corruption, former judges jailed for perverting the course of justice, a police force dogged by convictions and dismissals. The list went on.

In establishing ICAC, he sought to rehabilitate government in the eyes of the public. “That they will have an institution where they can go to complain of corruption, feeling confident that their grievances will be investigated fearlessly and honestly.”

In the decades since, ICAC has seen monumental success and failure in NSW. By no stretch of the imagination has it stamped out corruption in the state, but its reputation has always been formidable. No one covets the prospect of facing an ICAC investigation.

An independent watchdog, with real power, which can do its work in public, changes the mathematics of corruption. The balance tips slightly towards risk from reward. The time has come to establish such a watchdog federally.

For too long, the Coalition has leaned its weight into resisting this push for transparency.

In 2014, when debating against the establishment of a national independent commission against corruption, Matt Canavan said, “Transparency International, I believe, is one of the more renowned bodies in this field that assesses these issues, and Australia is ranked ninth out of 177 countries on corruption issues.”

In 2018, Transparency International Australia called on the Coalition to make clear its stance on a federal ICAC. “The government is yet to decide whether it should respond to overwhelming public demand for a corruption watchdog,” the organisation’s then chair, Fiona McLeod, SC, wrote. “It will soon have to pick a side.”

This week, Christian Porter promised an integrity commission is in the works. Whether it will have any teeth remains to be seen.

It is a weak government that sides with shady business dealings, corrupt officials, special-interest groups, bribery and the revolving door between lobby groups and parliament.

No government can claim to serve the public while it denies them the right to seek justice. No government can maintain its claim to strength while it remains fearful of truth. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 3, 2019 as "Watchdog with teeth".

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