Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Who’s afraid of an integrity commission?
The prime minister has his reasons

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s announcement yesterday that Labor will establish a National Integrity Commission has been greeted with that most perfect reaction: no argument. This morning the commission was being described as a “no-brainer”, and for once the Greens, who have advocated such a national anti-corruption agency for almost a decade, are even getting a bit of credit for policy leadership (in the Oz, no less).

The prime minister, however, has historically taken a grim view of “star chambers”. This goes right back to his experience in the 1980s as in-house legal counsel to his mentor, the late media mogul Kerry Packer. Packer was facing sensational allegations put to the Costigan Royal Commission, which was set up to inquire into the Painters and Dockers Union – but wound up uncovering white-collar crime including massive tax evasion through the notorious “bottom of the harbour” scheme. The allegations against Packer are irrelevant here, but no charges were laid, and Turnbull wrote later that the Costigan inquiry was “one of the blackest episodes in Australia’s legal history”. During questioning after a significant speech on the rule of law at the Sydney Institute in July 2015 – when he was positioning for the Liberal leadership – Turnbull said: “I had a client many years ago called Kerry Packer, who thought he was a pretty powerful guy. He was brought to the brink of ruin by a royal commission that ran off the rails, the very brink of ruin. He was denied due process, denied natural justice, denied his rights. He had the resources to be able to take it on, but it was a very close-run thing.”

Similarly, NSW Liberals were furious in 2014 when the Independent Commission Against Corruption, charged with investigating corrupt former state Labor ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, among others, started to uncover evidence of possible corrupt dealings in the Liberal Party. This forced a string of resignations from the state government, including the then premier, Barry O’Farrell (for misleading the inquiry over the gift of a $3000 bottle of wine), and a setback for Senator Arthur Sinodinos, who stood down while the commission investigated Australian Water Holdings (there were no findings against him).

The resentment still burns among Liberals, especially when it comes to hearing damaging allegations in public – even though this is seen as fundamental to the effectiveness of any anti-corruption agency. So new attorney-general Christian Porter was exceedingly cautious on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast program this morning, saying that the government was “not close-minded” on a National Integrity Commission, but that the devil was in the detail, and that the model itself had to be debated in a transparent consultation process and not jumped upon by press release. Porter hinted at his concerns, including how the jurisdiction of the commission would operate, who would oversee it, and how it would exercise its discretion over when to hold private versus public hearings: “One of the difficulties that’s arisen in many of the states is that that discretion is so much at large that careers have been ruined in public hearings from which little has eventuated”.

Malcolm Turnbull has obviously left much of his principled civil libertarian persona behind since he became prime minister, and his government would have registered the broad public support for an anti-corruption commission. While Turnbull and co. are clearly reluctant to give Shorten any credit by immediately backing his move, and without pausing to deal with the furphies of Barnaby Joyce, there are serious questions that need to be carefully considered in the design of any new National Integrity Commission (exactly what the Senate select committee did last year). It’s easy to imagine the Coalition giving in-principle support to the idea, and then lining up with powerful mates to limit the powers of the new body and make it part of a push-back against Labor for being (that most moronic of accusations) “anti-business”.

Speaking of accountability: even as a Senate inquiry heard yesterday that the government’s new treason laws could make it a crime for journalists to possess classified information, two locked filing cabinets stuffed with the most sensitive “AUSTEO” (Australian Eyes Only) documents have found their way to the ABC via a second-hand shop in Canberra. The government should get its own house in order. Perhaps once the National Integrity Commission is established, we should consider setting up a National Incompetence Commission.

since this morning

Amid blanket coverage of US president Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, headlines include that Guantanamo Bay will remain open and Trump is crowing about ending the war on “beautiful, clean coal”.

Former treasurer Wayne Swan may run for the ALP’s national presidency.

    in case you missed it

    Bill Shorten has ruled out abolishing the private health insurance rebate, although he described private health insurance as a “con” yesterday.

    IR and the notion of the living wage were the most interesting aspects of Shorten’s press club speech, according to Laura Tingle [$].

    A Greens preselection war has erupted in the Melbourne seat of Batman, according to Guy Rundle in Crikey today [$].

    The AFR’s Tony Boyd writes that ASIC’s rate-rigging case against CBA in combination with the AUSTRAC prosecution could cost the bank $700 million [$].

    In another take on “American carnage” from last week, how extreme capitalism has blown apart society in the US – the world’s first rich failed state.

    by James Boyce
    Decoding the dual-citizenship crisis
    Australia’s founders would be shocked at today’s interpretation of the Constitution

    by Richard Dennis
    Canberra needs a watchdog
    Who is keeping an eye on our federal politicians?

    Paddy Manning

    Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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