The Politics    Thursday, December 13, 2018

Integrity on ice

By Paddy Manning

Integrity on ice

AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

Experts fear the PM’s new anti-corruption agency will be a toothless tiger

Seeing the writing on the wall, the Coalition has proposed a new federal anti-corruption agency, the Commonwealth Integrity Commission, to pursue criminal offences in law enforcement and the public service. Initial reactions suggest the commission’s powers are weak, that it will be poorly funded, and may not be established before the next election. The Guardian reported last month that the attorney-general, Christian Porter, had been working on a proposal to convert the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity into a federal anti-corruption office under Malcolm Turnbull’s stewardship. That is the model announced today in a consultation paper that calls for submissions by February 1. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who proposed a commission at the start of the year, has responded [$] that the CIC is “too little, too late” and “not a fair dinkum anti-corruption commission”. The new body is a step in the right direction, and the model may be improved during consultation, but it is hard not to see this as a pre-emptive strike by a minority government fearing it would have a tougher ICAC forced on them by independent Cathy McGowan, Labor and an increasingly feisty crossbench.

As The Australian reports, the proposed commission would have no public hearings, no power to make findings of corruption, would not be retrospective – meaning the current government will be exempt from investigation – and can only investigate cases referred to it by other government agencies. Instead of making findings, it would build briefs to hand over to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. Instead of a kangaroo court that would conduct politically motivated show trials, Porter told reporters in Sydney today that the CIC would be “an investigative body, with serious investigative tools, that is well-resourced, specialised and the peak body for building briefs against people who have acted corruptly and moving those briefs to the DPP”.

Sydney Morning Herald  investigative reporter Kate McClymont today tweeted that “this govt planned federal ICAC is NOT a good model” and that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant, so it would be a travesty for a federal anti-corruption body not to hold public hearings. Transparency please!” Former NSW ICAC commissioner David Ipp basically agreed, telling The Guardian:

It is very easy to create a commission that, on its face, will placate the public’s demands for an ICAC-like body, but which in reality will be a fangless institution, the task of which will be to create a mirage of having an anti-corruption institution which in truth will do little to disturb the status quo. That will occur if the commission lacks the necessary powers, funds and professional and dedicated staff. One can see that with the anti-corruption agencies in South Australia, Tasmania and to a major extent in Victoria.

Think tank The Australia Institute, which has campaigned strongly for a federal ICAC, released a statement this afternoon describing the CIC as “well short of best practice”, particularly in its “inability to take public complaints and make its own referrals; the lack of public hearings; the limited jurisdiction and insufficient funding”. Quotes by two members of the institute’s National Integrity Committee, former judges Anthony Whealy and Stephen Charles, were quite damning. Whealy said the requirement to reach a threshold of “reasonable suspicion” of a criminal offence before it can begin an investigation would “rule out all the sorts of corruption exposed by NSW ICAC”. Charles said the proposal “brings with it the danger that the Baillieu Government fell into in 2013, when the anti-corruption commission they brought in was shown to be a paper tiger because it was afraid of what the IBAC might do if given the proper powers”.

Nonetheless, the proposal is a victory of sorts for Labor, given the PM had previously described the federal ICAC as a “fringe issue” and Tony Abbott had called it a “very, very bad idea”. Mark Latham used to lay claim to governing from Opposition – forcing John Howard to shut down the overly generous parliamentary super scheme, for example. Today Bill Shorten can do the same, although it didn’t get Latham very far.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

since this morning

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.

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