The establishment of a federal anti-corruption commission will be a major electoral issue.
During the election campaign, calls for a robust, targeted anti-corruption body have played a prominent role.
Currently, at the federal level, there is no such body equipped to stamp out government corruption and reprimand officials who commit corruption.
The Labor Party, the Greens, “teal” independents and some smaller parties – including the Animal Justice Party, Federal ICAC Now and the Reason Party – spent much of the campaign outlining the urgent need to end government corruption. to be tackled by an independent, well-equipped and specialized agency. Many of these parties have also put forward their respective models for a potential anti-corruption agency.
The electorate overwhelmingly supports the development of such an institution. A recent Australia Institute poll found that 75 percent of Australians think a Commonwealth Integrity Commission should be established. Only seven percent of those surveyed were against such a move.
This poll, whose results have been consistent with previous polls, indicate that Australian voters are aware of the issue of corruption – the misuse of entrusted power for personal gain.
Several scandals related to potential corruption cases have engulfed the coalition government during its nine-year tenure, including “sports disruptions”, “parking disruptions”, the Western Sydney airport deal and the water buyback scheme.
In the 2019 election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised that his administration would establish a federal integrity commission before the end of her term. That promise remains unfulfilled, with the 2022 elections just a week away.
In the past month, the prime minister has expressed further doubts about whether his government would ever set up an anti-corruption body, stating that it would demand the Labor Party support its current proposal. Labor has staunchly opposed the coalition’s model, saying it doesn’t go far enough to fight government-based corruption.
Prime Minister Morrison’s public statements about the potential “risks” of establishing an integrity commission have shown that he and his government are, at best, recalcitrant actors. He has described the New South Wales (NSW) Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) as a “kangaroo track”an attack that was reprimanded by Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet and one of his commissioners, Stephen Rushton, SC.
He has also questioned whether a “federal ICAC” would be headed by “faceless officials” and can produce a “public autocracy”†
Best practice models: looking at the commission proposals
The coalition has proposed implementing a Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC), which has been characterized by associate professor Yee-Fui Ng as a ‘weak, watered down’ fashion model.
With regard to the Labor model, Associate Professor Ng suggested that:
“Labor proposes a robust committee with strong powers, coupled with checks and balances to ensure it does not abuse its powers.”
The coalition’s proposal requires that a ‘reasonable suspicion of corruption amounting to a criminal offence’ existed before the CIC could launch an investigation.
The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) proposed by Labor instead states that: ‘accusations of serious and systemic corruption’ exist as a prerequisite for starting an investigation.
Associate professor Ng indicated that the coalition ‘bar for research’ is too high, while that of Labour ‘proportionate’†
Furthermore, the coalition has moved away from supporting public hearings in government corruption cases, while the Labor NACC would have the power to convene public hearings to investigate corruption.
Openness and transparency are usually pillars of effective oversight mechanisms, say judges, civil society and legal academics.
The coalition’s CIC was also unable to receive and handle complaints from members of the public. Labor’s model would enable its NACC to consider and take action on reports of corruption by the public and whistleblowers.
The Labor model, as well as some minor parties, would support a future commission to investigate corruption cases retroactively.
The prospects for an effective Anti-Corruption Commission
Given the prime minister’s recent comments and his government’s track record, it seems highly unlikely that a re-elected coalition will form an anti-corruption body during her next term in office. It seems even less unlikely that the government would set up a committee that would meet the demands of civil society, the federal parliament and the electorate at large.
By contrast, Labor has pledged to: ‘lay a strong, transparent and independent’ anti-corruption body by the end of the year.
The Greens, “blue-green” independents and some other small parties have made anti-corruption pledges a central premise of their policy platforms. A parliament with more of these parties and members – including a minority cabinet in which these figures maintain the balance of power – would increase the chances of realizing an integrity committee.
Establishing an effective anti-corruption commission can help build public trust in government, reduce economic waste and create the conditions for governments to act in the public interest.
Nicholas Bugeja is a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Arts graduate from Monash University and an assistant editor for Independent Australia.
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