Why the resistance to a national anti-corruption commission?

Oct 16, 2020

Scott Morrison and Christian Porter are insisting that a new federal integrity body could not look at old corruption. What is that about? Is it because there are skeletons in too many people’s closet? Is it the extent to which Alexander Downer and other senior officials benefitted financially from their activities during the Australian Government’s shenanigans on behalf of Woodside and others over oil and helium, which should always have been Timor-Leste’s, in the Timor Sea?

Preposing the case for the commission feels like pushing against one of those beautifully crafted doors that will open to the slightest touch. Everyone supports a federal anti-corruption commission, including 85% of the population. Federal Labor came out in support in January 2018.

In December that year, Prime Minister Morrison, with Attorney-General Christian Porter at his side, announced he would move to establish one. An appropriate discount needs to be made for propensity of this Government to announce many more things than it ever gets around to doing. Indeed, the Big Announcement seemed to be a cunning ploy to buy time and do nothing. That seems a likely story with what Morrison and Porter called the Commonwealth Integrity Commission.

All eight states and territories have such an anti-corruption body. There seems to be a goodly amount of corruption and lack of integrity across the country to give them all plenty to do. So it would be surprising if the biggest spending Australian government by far – the Federal Government – was spared the cancer of corruption when it is part and parcel of public life in the states and territories.

In the latest case to hit the headlines, it has been shown that being a member of the NSW’s Parliament doesn’t preclude a person from finding the richest pickings in the federal arena – I refer to the activities of former NSW politician Daryl Maguire and his bags of cash for migration visas. His long-time squeeze, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, dismissed Maguire’s extra-curricular activities as just the sweet nothings of a big talker.

But in the federal sphere of migration, Maguire was apparently able to find those shopping bags full of cash that seem to proliferate around Macquarie and Sussex Streets in Sydney. That Maguire has fallen to a NSW probe says much about NSW having an ICAC and the Feds having nothing comparable.

While there is an Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI), few people would even know of its existence. It is this body that Morrison and Porter proposed to transform into the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. The ACLEI was established 14 years ago. Its latest annual report (2018-19) is an underwhelming document, with the Commissioner’s foreword reporting “five prosecutions arising from ACLEI investigations being concluded, all with convictions. A further five prosecutions were before the courts at the end of the reporting period, and two people were awaiting sentencing”. No further detail was given.

An internet news search for ACLEI reveals that one of its long-running investigations was against the former Australian Border Force commissioner, Roman Quaedvlieg. ACLEI found he acted corruptly, but he is not to be prosecuted due to insufficient evidence. There is apparently also an inquiry into Crown Casino’s arrangements to facilitate the entry into Australia of rich gamblers.

The case for ICAC-type bodies is made in an understated way even on the website of the federal Attorney-General’s Department: “Corruption has a corrosive impact on society. It undermines democracy and the rule of law, as well as distorting market forces and paving the way for organised crime and terrorism.”

To its great discredit, the Federal Government has been far more active in prosecuting public servants who have drawn public attention to corrupt and other highly inappropriate activity by their superiors and colleagues than in punishing the corrupt conduct.

If it is to continue without an effective anti-corruption body, the Commonwealth might like to find a Latin scholar to render a motto for the Coat of Arms. The present motto “Australia” is prosaic. In Latin, “Protect the guilty. Kill the messengers” would be apt and have gravitas.  Witness K, Richard Boyle, David McBride and many other whistleblowers dealt with in secret would be appropriately honoured.

Hark back to the days when demonstrations were lawful and shouted slogans succinct:  “We need an ICAC.  And we need it now.” But not just any ICAC. It needs sharp teeth, powerful jaws and eyes that can penetrate into murky places.

Morrison and Porter seem to be proposing a sleepy body similar to the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, with limited jurisdiction and few powers. Would Daryl Maguire have come to attention under such a body? Would Eddie Obeid and his colleagues? I doubt it.

Maybe Morrison and Porter just really don’t like anti-corruption bodies, and take the view that, if we have to have one at all, it should be as weak and hamstrung as possible.

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