Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The politics of integrity

The Morrison government is running away from a national integrity commission at breakneck speed. Its reluctance is made all the starker by its unrestrained willingness to seize on the embarrassment caused to its Labor opponents by Australia’s toughest anti-corruption body, the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption.

The prime minister delighted an auditorium full of party delegates last weekend when he said “none of us in this room are surprised with what came out of ICAC”. The allegations of the Labor Party receiving $100,000 in cash from a banned property developer have already cost the state party boss her job. Huang Xiangmo is alleged to have personally delivered the cash to Labor’s Sussex Street HQ in an Aldi shopping bag. Huang is the same benefactor involved in the demise of former Labor senator Sam Dastyari. He has been barred from entry to Australia and denied citizenship because the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation considers him a security risk and an agent of foreign interference.

On Tuesday, under the protection of parliament, a fired-up Morrison rejected Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s attack on Energy Minister Angus Taylor, saying he would not be “lectured by someone who used to work in the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party”. He said Albanese had a desk in the headquarters of a party that “stinks with corruption”. He said the Labor leader “is presiding over a party that is chaos and confusion and even corruption”.

Albanese reminded the prime minister that 10 NSW Liberal MPs, including two ministers, had to resign after ICAC found they had accepted donations from banned developers. And it seems some never learn. The Daily Telegraph revealed on Wednesday that Chinese property developer Ming Shang, a business partner of state Liberal minister John Sidoti, donated $1750 to the MP at a fundraising dinner. Sidoti’s business dealings have now been referred to ICAC.

Is it any wonder innocent bystanders hold politicians in such low esteem? It is all the more curious that the Morrison government voted 10 times against integrity and accountability in the senate and the house of representatives this week. Not only did they vote against a Greens bill to set up a strong, independent national integrity commission, they applied the gag in the house and sent the bill off to the never-never.

The bill’s sponsor, the Greens’ Larissa Waters, said Morrison “could have legislated a corruption watchdog today, but instead continues to run a protection racket for big corporates and donors”. Attorney-General Christian Porter told parliament that, well within 12 months, he will come up with his draft bill for the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. If the commission is anything like the one flagged in the election campaign, it will be a toothless and invisible watchdog. It is almost an admission they have a lot to hide.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus told the National Press Club that Labor was committed to setting up a strong, independent anti-corruption commission. It is the first policy to have survived Labor’s shell-shocked post-election review. Its economic and tax policies are expected to receive a radical overhaul, a prospect causing much angst in sections of the party.

The Greens model would be able to investigate the allegations made against Angus Taylor, who would not be able to wave away the conflict of interest that he admitted to during an ABC Radio interview and repeated in the parliament. Nor would the government be able to gag further probing, as it did in parliament, using its slim majority as a shield.

Just as the government’s finger-pointing over developer donations came back to bite within 24 hours, so, too, did its virtue-signalling over Labor’s links with business figures connected to the Chinese government.

The newly elected Gladys Liu, the first Chinese-born member of the house of representatives, displayed extraordinary ineptness in an interview with Sky News’s Andrew Bolt. She gave the interview without checking with the prime minister’s office. Bolt’s performance reminded everyone of Malcolm Turnbull’s lament: with friends like Andrew Bolt, who needs enemies?

Bolt cut to the chase immediately, asking Liu if she was on the committee of an organisation linked to China’s foreign interference operations. He was incredulous when she answered that she couldn’t remember. “How could you not recall a membership of 12 years?” She was reluctant to criticise Beijing’s actions militarising islands in the South China Sea and she defended Xi Jinping from Bolt’s accusations he was a dictator.

The next day, with the help of the PMO, Liu tidied up her act in a statement. She now remembered belonging to a Chinese government organisation, but didn’t throw any real light on whether she shared its purpose of influencing foreign governments.

On Wednesday, the speaker of the house, Tony Smith, ruled four of Labor’s questions about Liu to be out of order. Smith was well aware the opposition was flouting standing orders to capitalise on Liu’s situation. Still, it looked as if Liu was being protected, which would not be lost on Labor. One question went directly to a Herald Sun report that said the Liberal Party returned $300,000 in donations from dinner guests associated with Liu because of security concerns. Liu told Bolt the story was “made up”. Dreyfus asked Morrison, “Is she correct?” We may never know.

None of this was in Morrison’s plan for the resumption of parliament after the winter break. Instead he intended to cause as much mischief as he could for Labor, which is still licking its wounds and struggling to get its mojo back. He told the NSW Liberal Party State Council last weekend he was going to set Labor some tests “because I’m just trying to help. I know they’re struggling to work out who they are and what they’re about.”

Better to do that, of course, than to admit that the only real promise of the election campaign – to deliver a strong economy as only Liberals can – is proving elusive. Instead of strengthening, the economy is actually weakening, with stagnating wages growth and fragile business confidence. “Look over there” is a time-honoured strategy when you are being mugged by an uncomfortable reality.

Bowled up for the parliament to debate were the old conservative staples of union-bashing and welfare-baiting. Labor’s Graham Perrett wasn’t far off the mark when he described the reheated industrial relations bills as “wedgislation” – intended to create division between the Labor Party’s base and the broader electorate.

The most blatant example of this was the reintroduction of the bill to create mandatory jail terms for child sex offenders. The last parliament rejected the idea. Like many in the legal profession, Mark Dreyfus, who is a QC, is appalled by the plan. But some of his caucus colleagues fear that if Labor rejects the bill they will hand the government a very big stick. No one wants to be painted as being weak on vile child abusers.

Sharing Dreyfus’s concerns are the Law Council of Australia and Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, who is prepared not to vote for the bill next week. Broadbent fronted Porter when the attorney-general briefed a backbench committee on Monday night. He said he believes mandatory sentencing interferes with the separation of powers and takes away important judicial discretion. Porter scarcely concealed his political intent, slapping down Broadbent for sharing “the views of Dreyfus”. In fact, these are views held by both sides of the house for the past 19 years, after a Liberal backbench revolt stymied a similar attempt at mandatory sentencing for teenage Aboriginal offenders.

It wasn’t only Labor resisting Morrison’s “tests”. Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie had strong second thoughts on government proposals to drug-test Newstart recipients. She sees it as another way of taking support away from the most indigent and vulnerable. She rejected claims it would be a way to help addicts recover. Based on her son’s experience, she said, the proposed rehabilitation programs were woefully inadequate for the task.

But as Morrison’s attempts to box in Labor hit turbulence this week, he was determined to follow his mentor and hero John Howard and define Albanese before the Labor leader gets the chance to do it himself. Albanese is planning a series of “vision statements”. According to one insider, the inspiration for them is Howard’s “headland speeches” ahead of the 1996 election win, which were short on detail but outlined the values basis for his policies.

The first one will be on the subject of work, but won’t be delivered until the election post-mortem is completed in October. Albanese wants that to mark the end of mourning. His message to caucus members and none too subtly to party president Wayne Swan, who argues for a retention of Shorten’s tax and redistribution agenda, is: “If you do the same thing in politics, you can expect the same outcome.”

There are lessons all round but the Morrison government is yet to demonstrate it has read the mood on the urgent need to restore confidence in our politicians.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 14, 2019 as "Tied and tested". Subscribe here.

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