Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

‘Now more than ever’
A national integrity commission can’t wait till the pandemic is over

Independent member for Indi Helen Haines. Via Facebook

Four months into the pandemic, Scott Morrison said, quite rightly, that decisions taken over the next five years will shape Australia for the next three decades. For that reason, it is imperative that the Commonwealth government introduces an anti-corruption watchdog now, while those key decisions are being made, and not some time in the future when the pandemic has abated and the country’s response is set in concrete. So today, Helen Haines, the independent member for the regional Victorian seat of Indi, put two new bills on notice in the lower house: the Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill 2020 and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Standards Bill 2020. Haines’s move follows her February declaration of five key criteria for a credible oversight body (known as the “Beechworth Principles”, named after a 200-strong meeting in the town’s historic courthouse) and months of talks with MPs across the political spectrum. “As an independent, I can speak candidly with fellow parliamentarians about their concerns,” Haines said in a statement, “including the reach of a commission’s powers to consider public referrals and hold public hearings into alleged corruption.” Haines’s bills will be seconded by fellow independent Zali Steggall, the member for Warringah, and is supported by crossbenchers Rebekha Sharkie and Andrew Wilkie, as well as the Greens.  

Haines’s bill is not yet drafted, but she has previously boiled the Beechworth Principles down to five questions: “Does this proposal have broad jurisdiction? Does it put everybody under a common set of rules? Does it have appropriate powers to fulfil its purpose? Will it hold fair hearings? And is it accountable to the people?” Haines has the support of the Australia Institute’s National Integrity Committee of former judges, which has its own principles for designing a national integrity commission. The institute today released polling showing that 74 per cent of Australians support the establishment this year of a national oversight body (sometimes called a federal ICAC), including 77 per cent of Coalition voters.  

Haines’s move is a signal that the crossbench and Opposition will not wait indefinitely for Attorney-General Christian Porter to introduce the government’s own legislation, which was first promised two years ago. At a Parliament House press conference this morning, Haines said there was a surprising amount of support for a national oversight body among Opposition and government backbenchers, and she did not pull her punches.

“I’m not here to grandstand about this,” she said. “I’m here to bring a sensible bill that does not, in any way, water down the key principles that I have introduced and that my colleagues stand for and that so many people stand for. One where people can come on board and say ‘yep, that’s a fair bill, that’s going to restore trust in this parliament’. This is a suite of bills that is going to give us the opportunity to … get on with the business of legislation, which is what we’re here for. We shouldn’t be in the business of constantly debating scandal. Quite frankly, as a relatively new member of parliament, it’s just a waste of time. I came here to debate public policy, not to debate scandal. A federal integrity commission that everyone can come on board with can put that behind us. Those kind of episodes can be referred through and dealt with in a way that’s procedurally fair and that brings outcomes that are of benefit to the whole nation.”

Standing alongside Haines was the executive director of the Australia Institute, Ben Oquist, who said: “We’ve got massive decisions being made by government – a national COVID coordination commission that has been set up in a hurry, riddled with potential massive conflicts of interest, for example, not least in the gas industry. We need a national oversight body more than ever.” 

Haines and Oquist were joined by Zali Steggall, who yesterday flagged she will soon reintroduce her own climate change bill mandating a target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Today Steggall said that too many decisions about the pandemic response were being made behind closed doors, particularly by the COVID-19 advisory body chaired by former Fortescue Metals chief executive Nev Power.

“There are issues of lack of disclosure of conflicts of interest,” said Steggall. “There is no transparency, there is no provision of documents or reports or advice … It is all behind closed doors and it is done in circumstances where people with a clear interest – being from the gas industry – are recommending billions of dollars of public money be invested in that same market that they stand to profit from. The Australian public is extremely cynical and extremely sceptical that all of this will be properly scrutinised, so it’s vital – more than ever – that a federal integrity commission be implemented, and it needs to have teeth. There needs to be an independent referral pathway and the ability to hold public hearings when there is a need to do so.”

The crossbench may represent a way through the politics of the pandemic. 

“Recessions hit the poor hardest, which is why Australia followed many countries around the world in implementing a wage-subsidy scheme. But a scheme designed to reduce inequality is being misused by a small number of firms, who are channelling it to executive bonuses.”

In a speech to parliament, shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh spotlights the worst corporate offenders accused of misusing the JobKeeper scheme.

“Assuming this draft code becomes law, we will reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram. This is not our first choice – it is our last.”

Facebook Australia managing director Will Easton threatens to ban news from being shared on its apps, in a major attack on the federal government’s proposed mandatory bargaining code, which would force Facebook and Google to pay for content.

Scott Morrison’s snapback to normality
For months the prime minister has been projecting a return to normality, but what kind of Australia is waiting for us on the other side of the pandemic? Today, Sean Kelly on the type of society Scott Morrison envisions, and what might lie ahead.


The number of active aged-care home services that were not inspected by the federal regulator (as at May 12), out of a total of 2241.

“We have found that there is a major disconnect between commentary on the rental market and how it’s actually working for those who are hardest hit by the pandemic. Many will be surprised to learn that affordability has not improved for people on low incomes. Instead, it has crashed … Now, renters again find themselves on the brink. Rent deferrals and eviction moratoriums are ending soon, with many in arrears for thousands of dollars. Some are facing cuts to JobSeeker, while others – age pensioners, people with disability, and those earning the minimum wage – were left out of the government’s response altogether.”

Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers, in the introduction to the “Rental Affordability Snapshot” for August 2020, argues that increases to JobSeeker and other payments should become permanent, and they must be expanded to everyone in need.

The list

“Scott Morrison’s firmly stated belief that the economy would ‘snap back’ was an act of hope. But it was also a failure of imagination, an inability to imagine the world might do anything other than return to what it was already. And it is this same failure of imagination that is observable in the policies the government has announced or hinted at announcing soon. They are, almost without exception, rehashes or expansions of policies the government had been pursuing before the crisis hit. This is the true meaning of ‘snapback’, and the strongest sense in which it is still the government’s approach: pretend the virus hasn’t happened. Go back to whatever you were doing before it arrived. Don’t attempt for a moment to imagine a new way that things might be done, even if the evidence that a shift is unavoidable – and possibly helpful – is staring you in the face.”

“While Facebook, Google and ‘the internet’ may be responsible for the collapse of the traditional media business, blaming them is like holding a shark responsible for biting. Technology was always going to reveal mass-market advertising as a blunt instrument. Printing every single advertisement for a second-hand car, and attempting to distribute this to every single person in the market, may have seemed great at the time, but time makes fools of all of us, especially if we’re Fairfax executives. Spraying ads for holidays to Fiji across the media was never going to be as effective as simply catching those who googled ‘flights to Fiji’.”

“Slated as one of the most diverse casts in the history of Australian drama, Hungry Ghosts employs more than 30 Asian–Australian actors and more than 325 Asian–Australian extras. Văn-Davies leads an ensemble cast featuring Jillian Nguyen, Ferdinand Hoang, Suzy Wrong and Gabrielle Chan. Văn-Davies admits that as an actor of colour ‘you feel this intense burden of representation when you are the sole representative [of your race]’. Yet in the variety of generations, experiences and personalities of its Vietnamese–Australian characters, the Hungry Ghosts script ensures that no single narrative is positioned as the Vietnamese–Australian story.”

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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