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Rachel Withers on the calls for a national anti-corruption commission, and why it’s taking so long to set one up.

Why Scott Morrison is scared of an anti-corruption commission



The resignation of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, following the announcement of an investigation by the state’s ICAC, has renewed calls for a federal anti-corruption watchdog.

In the lead up to the last federal election Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to implement such a body, but the model he’s put forward has been criticised for being too weak.

Today, contributing editor to The Monthly Rachel Withers on the calls for a national anti-corruption commission, and why it’s taking so long to set one up.

 

Guest: Contributing editor for The Monthly, Rachel Withers

 

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

The resignation of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, following the announcement of an investigation by the state’s ICAC, has renewed calls for a federal anti-corruption watchdog.

 

Archival tape -- Anthony Albanese:
“Well tick tock Mr Morrison. We need a national anti-corruption commission, one with teeth.”

 

Archival tape -- Jim Chalmers:
“We know why Scott Morrison doesn’t want a national anti-corruption commission, and that’s because large swathes of his cabinet would be before it.” 

RUBY:

In the lead up to the last federal election Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to put an anti-corruption commission in place.

 

But the model put forward has been criticised for being too weak.

 

Today, contributing editor to The Monthly, Rachel Withers on the need for a federal ICAC - and the Coalition’s reluctance to implement one. 

 

It’s Tuesday October 12.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:

Rachel, recent events in NSW have really reignited the debate over political corruption in Australia - how widespread it might be, and what we should be doing to combat it. Tell me about how that conversation is playing out. 

 

RACHEL:
So it's really highlighted the fact that despite every Australian state and territory having some kind of anti-corruption body to investigate its politicians and public servants, there is still no body at the federal level to investigate federal MPs and senators. 

 

There has been growing momentum for a national corruption commission for a while, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been promising to introduce one for years now, but still hasn't gotten around to it. 

 

But the interesting thing with the resignation of Gladys Berejiklian is that for some people, it's been further proof of the need for a national corruption commission and one that has actual powers to investigate and MPs. But for others, including the prime minister, it's evidence that the New South Wales model is too powerful, that it goes too far. 

 

RUBY:
OK, so before we get into the political machinations of all of that and what a potential national anti-corruption body might look like? Can you talk me through how these commissions that we do have, the ones at the state level, how they actually work, what is their remit and what is their scope? 

 

RACHEL:
Yeah. So we've got one in every state and territory, as I mentioned. But the very first corruption commission and perhaps the most well known is the New South Wales ICAC which was established by the then liberal premier, Nick Greiner, in 1988. 

 

Archival tape -- Nick Greiner:
“As premier I will tackle corruption wherever it occurs, in politics, the courts, the police force or in business.”

 

RACHEL:
In the years leading up to the 1988 election, there was a string of corruption allegations in New South Wales, including bribery of ministers and public officials, perverting the Court of Justice. 

 

Archival tape -- Nick Greiner:
“With your vote I'll clean up the management NSW, I can’t promise the world but I can promise that.” 

 

RACHEL:
So Greiner campaigned on a platform of anti-corruption, including a pledge to establish the Independent Commission against Corruption.

 

Archival tape --
Nick Greiner is the man best qualified to be our next premier, because together we can clean up NSW.

 

RACHEL:
The New South Wales ICAC has the power to investigate state politicians, local councillors and public servants. It can hold public hearings, and it can receive complaints from anyone and decide completely independently who to investigate. 

 

One example of that is that in 1992, the New South Wales ICAC decided to investigate Nick Greiner, the premier who established it. And following that investigation, Nick Greiner resigned. 

 

Since then, the NSW  has seen the demise of three New South Wales liberal premiers Nick Greiner first obviously.

 

Archival tape -- Barry O’Farrell:
“Can I actually finish the questions? I did not receive a bottle of 1959 Grange. I did not receive that gift.”

 

RACHEL:
Then we had Barry O'Farrell who famously resigned over a very expensive bottle of wine he failed to declare

 

Archival tape -- Barry O’Farrell:
I've been advised overnight that to this morning at ICAC, a thank you note from me in relation to the bottle of wine will be presented. 

 

RACHEL:
And now Gladys Berejiklian, and a string of other senior politicians on both sides of politics.

 

Archival tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:
“It pains me to announce that I have no option but to resign from the Office of Premier” 

 

RUBY:

Right, so it seems pretty clear then, why we need to have ICAC's in place to catch corruption, and it seems like every state and territory at some point has recognised that need. So why is it then that we haven't seen a national anti-corruption body established, what's going on? 

 

RACHEL:
Well, the short answer is that neither side of politics has actually pushed one. They have long been calls for a federal ICAC as its known. And over the last few years, we've seen multiple motions moved in the House and the Senate by non-government MPs to establish an integrity commission. 

 

Archival tape -- Parliament tape:
“Thank you, deputy speaker. I present the National Integrity Commission Bill 2018 and explanatory memorandum.” 

 

RACHEL:
We saw both the independent MP Cathy McGowan and the Greens introduce their own bills for a National Integrity Commission in 2018 based on the New South Wales model. 

 

Archival tape -- Parliament tape:
“Prime Minister What would it take for this parliament take to establish a national integrity commission?” 

 

RACHEL:
And that same year we saw the Labor party actually commit to introducing one within 12 months of being elected. Then in the lead up to the last federal election the Morrison government finally committed to its own vision of an anti-corruption commission. The attorney general at the time, Christian Porter, said that it would be an investigative body with serious investigative tools. 

 

Archival tape -- Christian Porter:
“What we have been interested in is a government. Is not producing a show agency, but this is meant to be a serious investigative machine for law enforcement.” 

 

RACHEL:
But despite that pledge and the fact that the Coalition went on to win that election, it's now been three years and we still don't have a federal anti-corruption commission or even legislation before the parliament to introduce one. 

 

There is draft legislation that was released, but many experts and politicians are warning that the model in that legislation doesn't have anywhere near enough power to do what it needs to do. 

 

RUBY:
We’ll be back after this.

 

[Advertisement]

 

RUBY:
Rachel, we're talking about the federal government's proposal for a federal ICAC. You've said that there are experts and politicians who are warning that the proposal at hand is to wake. So can you outline to me exactly what that proposal is and the ways in which it falls short? 

 

RACHEL:
Yeah, so the coalition is proposing a body called the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. 

 

Archival tape -- Christian Porter:
“The Commonwealth Integrity Commission, as you'll see in the legislation, will have greater powers than a Royal Commission.” 

 

RACHEL:
It would be a two division model which would have a law enforcement division and a public sector division. But the division covering politicians, the public sector division wouldn't hold public hearings and it wouldn't make public findings. It would only refer issues to the DPP. 

 

Archival tape -- Christian Porter:
“We do not consider that a body with this type of power should be having, at its discretion, the ability to hold public hearings. Now that's the government's position.” 

 

RACHEL:
The government's model would not allow for retrospective enquiries, and it would not allow the commission to initiate its own investigations or act on public tip offs only on the instruction of agency heads of government. It would only investigate conduct considered to be a criminal offence, which wouldn't actually cover a wide range of conduct that we would consider corrupt or questionable from politicians. 

 

A comparison released by the Centre for Public Integrity, which has been a longtime critic of the government's model, found that the coalition commission would be the weakest in the country. And perhaps most importantly, it wouldn't have the ability to investigate any of the Coalition's most egregious recent scandals, from sports rorts to commuter car parks. In summary, it's nothing like what we've seen in New South Wales. It's something much, much weaker. 

 

RUBY:
OK, and so the New South Wales ICAC's recent decision to investigate the now former Premier Gladys Berejiklian, what impact has that had on this federal proposal? Has it changed things at all? What are we hearing from the Morrison government? 

 

RACHEL:
Well, I think for the public, it has re-inspired that conversation. But for the Morrison government, it's been quite the opposite. 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Oh, look, it's certainly not a model that we ever consider that at a federal level, and I think that's been on display for some time.”

 

RACHEL:
Morrison has been very explicit in saying that he thinks what happened to Gladys Berejiklian was unfortunate and that it proves why the federal government shouldn't model its commission on New South Wales. 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“And I'm sure there are millions of people who've seen what's happened to Gladys Berejiklian will understand that that's a pretty good call not to follow that model.” 

 

RACHEL:
So we saw the state watchdog described as a witch hunt, the Crucible, a kangaroo court or in the words of the deputy prime minister, the Spanish Inquisition. 

 

Archival tape -- Deputy Prime Minister:
“An ICAC out of control means that the bureaucracy reigns supreme and politicians are basically terrified to do their job.”

 

RACHEL:
And then speaking on Radio National, we had the assistant minister to the Attorney-General, Amanda Stoker, who promised that legislation for a federal commission was well advanced, was painting her own New South Wales bogeyman. Describing ICAC as a monster.

 

Archival tape -- Amanda Stoker:
“We need to also ask who's going to watch these all powerful armies of lawyers who are able to hide under the veil of independence?” 

 

RACHEL:
Implying that it was the overzealous commissioners, not the politicians, who were the ones in need of watching here. 

 

Archival tape -- Amanda Stoker:
“I would suggest they have become almost rogue in the way that they operate.”

 

RUBY:
Mm-Hmm. OK. And so do you think that there is any merit at all to this fairly convenient argument that the New South Wales ICAC has gone too far? That it should really serve as a warning because most honest politicians might be too scared to do their jobs if a federal ICAC was put in place? 

 

RACHEL:
Yeah, look, I have to say this there's no merit to any of that, and especially not in the way the federal government is trying to spin it. There's been a lot of upset over Berejiklian's resignation, which came as a bit of a shock to the people of New South Wales, even though, you know, she had already been facing questions about her conduct at ICAC. 

 

But this idea that ICAC has gone too far or that it presumes guilt before innocence, or that it's this terrifying body that just decides on a whim to end politicians careers, on a hunch. None of that is is accurate or true.

 

Berejiklian has been under investigation for a while. Reportedly, she herself chose to resign while maintaining her innocence. And ICAC wouldn't just be turning to public hearings if it didn't have something to go off. 

 

So there's a good reason for all of this. But what really doesn't have any merit is the way that the federal government is trying to use this shock announcement to downgrade their own model or to reject the very valid criticism of their model.

 

RUBY:
Mhm. And so, Rachel, it was before the last federal election that Scott Morrison first promised to introduce this kind of commission. We're now getting ready for the next federal election. So what is likely to happen? Will we get a national ICAC any time soon, whether that is this more watered down model or something with more teeth? 

 

RACHEL:
Well, we could get something the Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash, has promised to introduce actual legislation by the end of the year, although we've heard that before, and Morrison could get the numbers in parliament to establish his model. 

 

But it's not likely because we've got some very outspoken independents on the crossbench who are opposed. Labour says it doesn't go far enough. The Greens say it doesn't go far enough, and there's concern that if Parliament was to back a weaker model, it effectively kills off the momentum for something more substantial, and a weaker commission could actually be a smokescreen to accountability. 

 

Then again, it's something that is also shaping up to be an election issue that if the government doesn't have something in play by then, that the election might be run on this integrity line. But ultimately, it's just not in their interests to have a strong federal ICAC, especially considering some of the conduct that they've engaged in themselves in the last few years. So the federal government, will be hoping to get through, I think, the weakest possible body that it can to end this debate, but one that's not going to ultimately come back to bite it. 

 

RUBY:
Yeah. I mean, is it really that simple and transparent? This is not something that would benefit the federal government, even though it is something that would benefit society at large. 

 

RACHEL:
I would say so, yeah.

 

And you know, I think the fact that their model specifically couldn't investigate the kinds of behaviour, the kinds of conduct that they've engaged in themselves really speaks volumes. 

 

RUBY:
Rachel thanks so much for your time.

 

RACHEL:
Thanks Ruby.

 

[Advertisement]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news today,

 

NSW officially ended its lockdown yesterday, with bars, restaurants, gyms and hairdressers reopening with density limits. 

The state government also announced it would provide a public health exemption for The Everest horse race this weekend, lifting it’s crowd capacity to ten thousand people.

 

And Victorians aged over 60 can now receive both Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations at state-run clinics.

 

As of Monday, 86 percent of Victorians aged 16 and over had received at least one vaccine dose.

I’m Ruby Jones, See ya tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am

Guest

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today and the 2021 Mumbrella Publish Awards Columnist of the Year.