Glaring omission in the budget. Funding for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission.

Jun 1, 2021

There is much in the 2021-22 federal budget that will deliver positive outcomes for many Australians. This warrants acknowledgement, even by those who find it difficult to concede the benefits particular policies will deliver to many in the Australian community. In several areas, the public interest has taken precedence over party-driven ideological preferences. This indicates a partial understanding by the government of the public office-public trust principle.

I say partial, as the government’s adherence to this principle is not consistent. If it was, the budget would have allocated funds to the establishment and running of a long-promised Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC). The fact that it does not detracts considerably from the credibility of the government’s claim that it understands the need to prioritise transparency and accountability in public life and will implement policies to achieve such an outcome.

Why any well-advised, integrity oriented government made the unwise decision not to allocate funds to a CIC in the recent budget is a question that must be explored.

A somewhat simplistic explanation is that the government is not well-advised and/or does not consider enhancing integrity-related policies a priority.

This leads one to ask if the government truly believes that failing to do what it promised some 2 ½ years ago will result in the majority of voters endorsing its lack of action at the ballot box.

Perhaps the government believes that failing to allocate funds for a CIC will be overlooked or not considered important by the vast majority of voters in the forthcoming election.  If that is the case it may be mistaken, as experts in the anti-corruption/accountability area are determined to keep the spotlight on the government’s mishandling of the CIC for as long as it takes to make it do the right thing by the Australian people. The government may also be overlooking the community’s persistent calls for an effective federal anti-corruption body.

At the risk of repeating what I and many experts have said on numerous occasions, the mishandling of the CIC extends to the inadequate, opaque nature of the proposed model as it relates to every MP, their staff and the vast majority of public servants, including those at the senior level who advise and assist ministers to arrive at policy decisions.

There is no credible reason why the government could not quickly remedy its on-going mishandling of this important public policy. It could address the consistent criticisms of the model and adopt the recommendations of the vast majority of anti-corruption specialists who are in fierce agreement over what is required to deliver an effective federal anti-corruption commission. It starts, of course, by scrapping the Christian Porter-inspired model and allocating the resources needed to fund a credible CIC.

The mismanagement and maladministration surrounding the CIC extend to the public consultation process which is still being undertaken years after it began in December 2018. A badly handled public consultation process means that the CIC model continues to sit at the “Claytons” end on any integrity-related continuum.

Some public consultation processes have lasted one hour with approximately 7-8 people expected to give a 5 minute opinion on aspects of a very complex, divided and totally inadequate model.  On one occasion participants were asked by the Chair to address particular matters that have already been thoroughly explored over many years by every Australian state and territory.

The excuse that even more time is needed to conduct further analysis is an obvious delaying tactic.

This government and previous governments have demonstrated they can act quickly to introduce legislation when they want.  National security-related laws are proof of that.

Perhaps the government, their political staff and many public servants are afraid of what might be revealed by a remodelled, appropriately funded CIC.  The old adage “if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear” is touted by governments when it suits their political agenda.  It is applicable in relation to a CIC.

This matter will not go away, indeed the reverse is the case.  In several Australian states, the establishment of an effective anti-corruption model became a significant election issue.  Those who care about accountability, openness and transparency at the federal level, and there are many, will ensure that it is front and centre in the forthcoming federal election.

It is time for the government to admit that the Porter-promoted CIC model is so badly flawed as to be an embarrassment to any government that professes to be concerned about effective accountability in the Australian public sector. It is not too late for it to right the wrongs of the past 2 ½ years. One option is for the government to move quickly with the legislation needed to establish the type of anti-corruption body that Australians have been and still are demanding.

Another option that would not involve further unnecessary delay is for the government to support Dr Helen Haines’ Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill 2020. It appears Dr Haines may have the necessary support in the Senate to take her Bill forward but alas not in the House of Representatives.  Hopefully, there are two or three government members who are prepared to demonstrate, through actions rather than words, their commitment to the tenet that public office is a public trust. It will be telling to observe if any have the courage to support the Haines’ Bill; a Bill founded on the Beechworth Principles.

There are five elements to these Principles.

  1. “Broad jurisdiction to investigate the people it needs to.
  2. Common rules so that everybody is held to the same standard of behaviour.
  3. Appropriate powers, so that it can actually do its job.
  4. Fair hearings, so that investigations are done openly when in the public interest.
  5. Accountability to the people, so that the Commission answers to public, not political interests”.

Surely, it is not too much to expect the government or at least two or three of its members in the House to supports a Bill that embodies these public-interest inspired values.

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