The Politics    Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Integrity matters

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during Question Time, November 23, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during Question Time, November 23, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Labor is opting for an integrity commission model that appeals to those who don’t really want an integrity commission

Labor’s proposed national anti-corruption commission looks to be arriving not a moment too soon, with Australia’s faith in government on the decline. Only 41 per cent of Australians believe the government can generally be trusted to do the right thing, down from 44 per cent last year and 56 per cent in November 2020. Other recent surveys on trust and corruption show similarly damning results. This was a theme of many speeches in the House of Representatives today, as MP after MP stood to discuss the importance of restoring public trust, and of returning a sense of integrity to Canberra. Everyone seemed to agree that corruption is Bad, and that integrity is Good. But if that is the case, why is the Coalition still trying to weaken the proposed model, arguing that a watchdog that experts think is too weak is actually too strong? And why is Labor opting to rely on the votes of a party that, deep down, doesn’t really want a commission at all, rather than on those who were elected on platforms of integrity?

The Opposition is still seeking amendments – “safeguards”, as shadow attorney-general Julian Leeser calls them – to the government’s bill, despite the fact that the “exceptional circumstances” test for public hearings is assumed to have been put in there to secure Opposition support. Listening to Coalition MPs’ equivocating speeches today, one was reminded of how hard the former government had worked to avoid introducing a watchdog, only begrudgingly putting forward the weakest possible model (one that it never actually introduced to parliament, as the prime minister noted today). Corruption is wrong, Coalition MPs said, but this was frequently followed by a “but” – or several, as was the case of former deputy PM Michael McCormack, who went on an extended rant about how humans make mistakes (including the media, he noted pointedly). Many of the speeches seemed more concerned with protecting reputations than with stamping out corruption, even as the elected representatives insisted that they had nothing to hide.

Members of the integrity-focused crossbench, meanwhile, are still pushing for the “exceptional circumstances” clause to be removed, even knowing that they don’t stand a chance against the combined forces of Labor and the Coalition. Indi MP Helen Haines, who spearheaded initial efforts to legislate the body, and whom Prime Minister Anthony Albanese paid tribute to in his speech today, argues that the threshold is alarming and unnecessary. “This is not just a fine legal point,” she said today. “It’s a threshold question for public trust and the principle of transparency.” Goldstein MP Zoe Daniel has warned Labor that the strength of the commission will be its legacy. “Get it right and the electorate will applaud,” she said. “Get it wrong and the major parties, and indeed this parliament, will pay the price.”

Is Labor getting this wrong by making a trade-off in order to secure broad parliamentary support for the bill? Government MPs argue that they have “struck the right balance”, putting forward a bill that all parliamentarians can get behind – which is something of an acknowledgement that this was done to secure the all-important bipartisan support. “Exceptional circumstances” are just two little words, which are open to interpretation, and the power to hold a public hearing still rests in the hands of the commissioner, as Albanese sought to emphasise today. But at the end of the day, it’s hard to escape the fact that the government has opted to ignore experts and defang its watchdog in order to appease those who have made it clear they would rather not have a watchdog at all. No wonder Australians have so little faith in their elected representatives.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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