The view from Billinudgel

What’s not to like about a federal integrity commission?
Punters may be disappointed by what it uncovers

Our political leaders have begun the new year with predictable set speeches.

Malcolm Turnbull said the rewards were coming through and we must press on with the same policies, especially the big corporate tax cuts – second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse.

The Australian noted approvingly that our prime minister was channelling Donald Trump; but the Coalition house journal was scathing about what it claimed was Bill Shorten’s channelling of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn over the suggestion that those left behind might need a leg-up.

“Class war”, screamed the wealthy and powerful elitist commentators, who prefer to wage their own class wars espousing the politics of greed. In reality there was nothing very unusual in like-minded politicians singing to the same song sheet, and even using some of the same words.

And in any case, the real announceable in Shorten’s address was his promise to establish a National Integrity Commission. At first glance, this appears to be a no-brainer; the states already have something similar, and the voters overwhelmingly want Canberra to follow suit.

The feeling is that if the feds resist the idea – as they have for years – they must have something to hide. There may have been a few issues over some of the state models, but nothing that can’t be fixed. So what’s not to like?

Well, there’s the massive disillusionment that will come when the punters find that the spectacular scandals they were expecting do not materialise – and they are getting very little bang for the millions Shorten has allotted to set up his scheme.

This is not because the feds are less vulnerable to corruption than their state counterparts are (although many of them would like to believe that is the case), but simply a result of the way federation works.

At the local government level, the domain of developers and land speculators, the scope for problems is endemic; at the state level, the fact that the government delivers many of the services paid for by the commonwealth means that tenders, contracts and deals can seem dodgy. But in Canberra, the emphasis is on the big picture – usually too big for conniving politicians and bureaucrats to interfere with.

Gough Whitlam once told me that, during his long career, he had only once suspected serious corruption at the federal level. My own experience of nearly 20 years in the press gallery revealed a few examples of suss immigration permits. But apart from that it was about rorting travel allowances, failing to declare donations and assets and, at worst, avoiding customs duty when returning from overseas junkets. Highly reprehensible, and deserving of more stringent punishment than was usually meted out, but hardly the fodder of a full-time National Integrity Commission.

For a normal person, one federal issue does remain: the mere idea that rich corporations and individuals can hand over large sums of money to politicians and the parties they represent in the hope of reward is unconscionable and seemingly corrupt, and no amount of tweaking and spin will fix this. But it remains legal, and the major parties have shown no real inclination to confront the absurdity.

A National Integrity Commission can only draw attention to such travesties. It needs the parliament to produce results and reforms. And good luck with that.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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