John Hewson
A matter of integrity commission

In December 2018, 34 former judges wrote a letter to the prime minister expressing their support for the establishment of a national integrity commission with the power to hold public hearings.

Apparently, it was not Scott Morrison’s “job” to take advice from those who are experts in what they do. Those experts included former Fire and Rescue New South Wales commissioner Greg Mullins and various other fire chiefs, who warned of the coming Black Summer bushfires. Other experts included groups of university vice-chancellors, concerned with the government’s neglect of the impact of Covid-19 on their viability as an important sector in our economy and for our future.

Then there was the Australian Council of Social Service on the need to reset the JobSeeker allowance to somewhere above the poverty line. Similarly, there were the many climate scientists who had issued their warnings over many years, and again more recently in the midst of fires and floods. Morrison’s arrogance generally prevented him from even listening, let alone taking informed advice.

It is true that Morrison committed, before the 2019 election, to legislate a federal integrity body in the parliamentary term that has just ended. He clearly failed to do this. Instead he had former attorney-general Christian Porter release an “exposure draft” of proposed legislation, which fell well short of actually introducing finished legislation. Indeed, given the widespread condemnation of that draft, all Morrison did was highlight the inadequacies of his preferred approach. Some saw the draft as merely a protection racket for his ministers and their staff, largely ruling out focus on the spending rorts that had come to define the Coalition government.

It was most telling that during the campaign, being unable to defend his failure to legislate the integrity commission, Morrison attempted to turn the issue back on the opposition by blaming them for not supporting his draft. “Our position hasn’t changed…” he said. “Our view has been the same – when the Labor Party is prepared to support that legislation in that form, then we will proceed with it.” This take-it-or-leave-it attitude was supreme arrogance, and I believe a major factor in his election loss.

Morrison’s comments clearly revealed just how out of touch he had become on the issue of integrity. This was so eloquently described by Sir Gerard Brennan, former chief justice of the High Court. In his foreword to a recent and most important book by Stephen Charles and Catherine Williams, Keeping Them Honest, he speaks on integrity. Under the government Morrison led, integrity was “sapped by personal ambition and by the seeking of party and personal benefits. Private interests have increasingly influenced political and administrative action. Legality has taken the place of morality in defining permissible limits of political and administrative action. The decline in standards opens the way to corruption, and the absence of a political mechanism for alerting the community to corrupt conduct facilitates the concealing of corrupt practice.”

This became most conspicuous in the attitudes and practices of Morrison and his team in the final days of the campaign. It was obvious they had become so arrogant that they no longer cared what people knew or thought of their lack of integrity and their corruption of the processes of government. This was most noticeable to me in their comments about the allocation of flood relief money in northern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland, where again there had been favouritism to key seats, similar to the colour-coded allocations of sports rorts revealed much earlier.

Quite simply, this had become normal government practice for Morrison and his treasurer, Josh Frydenberg. They didn’t believe they had to be particularly accountable. Tellingly, in the dying days of his tenure as member for Kooyong, worried about the inroads Dr Monique Ryan was making against him, Frydenberg cancelled a series of previously announced car park projects, effectively conceding the loss-of-integrity argument. Clearly voters had strong views about integrity and accountability, finally holding the government to account for these and other excesses and leadership failures.

Even before the election, there was considerable reason to doubt Morrison’s bona fides on a national integrity commission. His refusal to revise his exposure draft, the stunt to try to shift the blame to Labor for its delay, and the delays in addressing the bill from Indi independent Helen Haines, all demonstrated that he had no intention of working on the issue in a bipartisan way. With Morrison, it was always someone else’s fault. In his party room, he ignored the mounting support for the issue in general and the Haines bill in particular. Tasmanian Liberal Bridget Archer actually crossed the floor of parliament in support of the Haines bill. She claimed this was “one of the most important things” parliament needed to do.

With the election message on the integrity issue clear, all attention is now on Anthony Albanese and his attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, who have promised to legislate the issue before Christmas and who are known to be much tougher than Morrison. The key issues are: the genuine independence of such a commission; its powers, namely matching those of a royal commission; capacity to take references from the public, outside the political arena; capacity to hold hearings in public when it is in the public interest to do so; and the adoption of a broad definition of corruption.

These are generally agreed key elements. A somewhat more controversial element relates to the scope for retrospectivity.

The public and media comments suggest the definitions of “corruption” and “corrupt behaviour” should be wide, certainly wide enough to catch all aspects of the Morrison government’s exploits, including, importantly, the various sports, car park and community grants made in an attempt to influence the electoral outcomes in particular seats; the Leppington land purchase at some 10 times its market value; the various ministerial appointments of consultancies and board or tribunal positions to mates; post-political appointments of parliamentarians and senior bureaucrats that can carry serious conflicts of interest or provide access to classified materials; cash compensation and out-of-court settlements to ministerial staff and bureaucrats for undisclosed reasons, including accusations of buying silence; the misallocation of legal services to serve particular political ends; and, broadly, the corruption of the processes for notionally independent reviews to achieve a particular political outcome.

In terms of the scope for retrospectivity, there is considerable interest in the commission being able to stretch its tentacles back to the Howard government’s bugging of the Timor-Leste government to gain an edge in negotiating the allocation of resource rights in the Timor Sea – all to the benefit of large donor Woodside. This was an activity that would probably have carried criminal consequences in both Australia and Timor-Leste. Neither Howard nor his Foreign Affairs minister at the time, Alexander Downer, have been held to account. By contrast, the whistleblower, Witness K, and his lawyer, Bernard Collaery, have been the subject of lengthy legal proceedings, mostly in secret in the ACT courts. This was little better than a desperate attempt to cover up the issue, which a commission would have exposed.

Morrison tried hard to discredit the idea of a national ICAC by drawing a comparison with the NSW ICAC, which he tried to dismiss as a “kangaroo court”. He claimed the reputations of individuals were being trashed in a trial by media. This is, of course, desperate nonsense – to start with, it is not a court; and would he really suggest that the likes of Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald should not be pursued by it? What about Barry O’Farrell and Gladys Berejiklian?

Another important issue here is whether so-called pork-barrelling should be treated as corruption.

It should be recalled that initially, under pressure over the various rorts, then Finance minister Simon Birmingham, someone who should have known better, tried to “normalise” the pork as just a feature of government. This is a diminishment of the whole enterprise. The Morrison pre-election budget, which he claimed was a “plan” for our nation’s future, was merely the largest pork barrel in the country’s history.

Finally, there is the important question of the nature of essential parliamentary oversight of an integrity commission. This is certainly an important ingredient to assure its accountability. Probably there should be some joint house/senate committee of review, perhaps with input from the auditor-general.

All up, if the Labor Party sticks with its election commitments we should have a national integrity and anti-corruption commission with real teeth to deal with “serious and systemic corruption” by Christmas. Haines has revealed recently that she has proposed a basis on which she could work with the attorney-general to finalise the commission, namely through a joint select committee co-chaired by her and Dreyfus, which would take the matter forward in parliament on the basis of the Labor draft legislation.

While a commission is an important end in itself, there is still much to be done to genuinely clean up politics and to preserve Australia’s democracy, especially in relation to campaign funding, truth in advertising, imposing spending limits on advertising and imposing penalties for bad political behaviour. There is still a need for a code of conduct for all parliamentarians.

However, it must be said that overall, our democracy worked well at the last election. We were able to get rid of a bad government quite seamlessly and have moved to a structure where communities will have a stronger voice and government will be more accountable.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "A matter of integrity commission".

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