Paul Bongiorno
Prisoners of the Crown

Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie has returned to the senate convinced that people don’t trust politicians. That’s the message she received anywhere she went in the island state during her enforced exile from parliament over citizenship eligibility, she says. And that’s why she and other crossbenchers in both the house of representatives and the senate are calling for the urgent establishment of a national integrity commission.

The independents grabbed centre stage this week, not so much for playing any key role in helping the government but rather for the way the major parties backed and filled over sensational accusations against Crown Casino. First aired on Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes, they were added to by the station’s new stablemates at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. The reports go to dealings with Chinese criminal triads, money laundering and sex trafficking. In a statement, Crown said it “absolutely rejects” the allegations and described them as “ill-informed”.

In his pep talk to troops before they take a belated winter break, the prime minister proudly proclaimed that the reason the Coalition won the election was “we believe what Australians believe”. Scott Morrison said it was important when parliamentarians return to their electorates that they show their constituents the conservatives are “on their side”. Lambie and the independents are far from convinced. The Greens’ Adam Bandt told parliament that the Liberals and Labor were “running a protection racket for ministers and former ministers who have ties to Crown Casino”.

The tone was set by longtime anti-gambling campaigner Andrew Wilkie. The independent member made full use of parliamentary privilege to add to the accusations. He said a Crown informant had told him police officers referred to the casino as “ ‘the Vatican’, an independent sovereign state all its own, where the laws of Victoria and the laws of the Commonwealth do not apply”. Wilkie, backed by Rebekha Sharkie, unsuccessfully moved for a joint parliamentary inquiry. Labor and the government voted it down.

Spurring the move was the answer Bandt received when he asked the prime minister on Monday about the allegations made by former Border Force chief Roman Quaedvlieg that two ministers and one MP had “lobbied Home Affairs to ensure that high rollers can fly into the country and drive to Crown Casino with a minimal amount of clearances”. Bandt asked if Morrison could give assurances that ministerial guidelines had not been breached, and that no Home Affairs officials had “acted improperly in these matters”.

Morrison said his government takes allegations of illegal activity very seriously and that law enforcement agencies are hardworking. He dodged the issue of ministerial behaviour, saying “there has been nothing presented to me that would indicate there are any matters there for me to address”.

On Tuesday, Attorney-General Christian Porter came armed with a countermove to Wilkie’s parliamentary inquiry. He conceded the allegations had raised “sufficient concerns ... to at least warrant further investigations”. He said he had already referred them to the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI). This agency can look at the performance of the federal police, customs officials and other federal law enforcement bodies, but not ministers or politicians. The shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, welcomed the referral and said it was a more effective way of investigating the “allegedly shocking behaviour” as it had the powers of a royal commission.

Dreyfus says the course chosen by Porter is a good first step. He agrees with the crossbench that the time has well and truly come for a national integrity commission. He noted in parliament, during the debate on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill to nobble the unions, that no mention has been made of the foreshadowed integrity commission. It is not listed for debate this year. “Perhaps it’s gone into the wastepaper basket,” he posited.

On Thursday, Porter announced an integrity commission bill was being drafted but details won’t be finalised until the end of the year. The model the Liberals took to the election was weak and refused to give its proposed commission the independence to initiate its own inquiries, especially in regard to politicians. The chair of the Accountability Round Table, Fiona McLeod, SC, a Labor candidate at the last election, says the ACLEI is no substitute for a national commission along the lines of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales. There are “gaps in our integrity oversight framework”, she told ABC Radio’s RN Breakfast, saying this was “of great concern”.

McLeod pointed out that the business model of Crown, and indeed casinos around the world, is to attract as many “high rollers” or “whales” to their tables as possible. According to the Nine newspapers, Crown was spectacularly successful in the instance of Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo. He gambled $800 million a year at the casino. Huang was a generous donor to both the Liberal and Labor parties and the central figure in the demise of Labor senator Sam Dastyari’s political career. Dastyari alerted Huang to the fact he was under ASIO surveillance.

Casinos are huge businesses: Crown is said to be the biggest private employer in Melbourne. The Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott governments treated Crown as if it were any other huge enterprise bringing millions in investment and spending into Australia. Porter reminded parliament “a variety of passport holders, particularly referenced in the white paper on developing northern Australia, are themselves able to access and facilitate quick visa processing. There’s nothing new in that.” But Crown’s privilege was axed three years ago after Beijing arrested 19 Crown employees for illegally promoting gambling in an effort to keep attracting mega-punters to enjoy the facilities at its Australian “resorts”.

Fiona McLeod says casinos are “notoriously used to wash money and the question remains: how do we, the Australian public, have confidence that our integrity mechanisms are able to address corruption issues like this when they come up?”

Bill Shorten promised to begin restoring confidence in politicians by prioritising the establishment of a robust national integrity commission. Labor is expected to revive that policy ahead of the next election. In the meantime, Anthony Albanese has told some of his restive MPs and senators they had better get used to backing what they consider to be flawed government bills.

Albanese angered Left powerbroker Kim Carr by comparing Labor’s position now with that after the 2004 election, when John Howard had a majority in both houses of parliament. Carr says it’s simply not true. Even if it were, Labor won the next election, in 2007, in a landslide. Morrison does not have a majority in the senate and needs four of six crossbench senators to pass a bill if Labor and the Greens are opposed. Carr says Labor should not run up the white flag on reform or adopt a small-target strategy.

Carr spells out his arguments in the John Curtin Research Centre’s journal, The Tocsin. His article is titled “We can’t start with a blank sheet of paper”. He takes aim at what some in the party see as Albanese’s preferred strategy, a view bolstered by the fact Labor staffers were told this week that focusing on the government’s negatives is the pathway to winning the next election.

Carr says an analysis of the election results does not support the argument that a reform agenda “risks almost certain defeat”. He says the Liberals’ scare tactics worked best in seats where voters owned the least number of shares and the fewest investment properties. Gilmore, which Labor won, is his prime example. The New South Wales seat, he says, has “one of the highest densities of self-funded retirees in the nation”.

Carr blames a failure of messaging. The results, especially in Queensland and Western Australia, say “that we paid insufficient attention to the anxieties and insecurities that working-class families have about the future”. These insecurities were exacerbated by Clive Palmer’s $60 million lies: “Palmer was able to say things that no respectable political party could say.”

Albanese defended his tactics in the caucus meeting. He praised Labor’s two-week focus on the emissions reduction and energy minister, Angus Taylor, for an apparent conflict of interest. “We targeted one of the slowest members of the herd and he has been exposed,” Albanese said. Taylor is still there thanks to the backing of the prime minister and the government’s numbers in the house, plus the protection offered by Pauline Hanson in the senate. She declined to supply her party’s two votes for a senate inquiry into Taylor.

Hanson believes land-clearing restrictions are getting in the way of farmers’ bottom line, anyway. Taylor’s family-run farm is being investigated for the alleged poisoning of protected grasses. Labor’s Tony Burke says Taylor had given three different reasons for seeking a meeting with the Environment Department in 2017 but the only consistent interest is Taylor’s own.

Mark Dreyfus seized the opportunity of the debate over the government’s “ensuring integrity” bill to use Taylor’s behaviour as an example of what should be sent to a national integrity commission if indeed one existed.

Dreyfus noted that the commission the Liberals promised offered protections to besieged politicians. He told parliament “they are so allergic to ensuring integrity … in their own ranks they can’t even bring themselves to talk about an election commitment”.

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

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.