The Politics    Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Corruption spreads

By Paddy Manning

Image of Attorney-General Christian Porter.

Attorney-General Christian Porter. Image via ABC News.

So where the bloody hell is our federal ICAC?

The stench of corruption is once again hanging over the federal parliament, from the cash-for-visas scheme promoted by disgraced former NSW MP Daryl Maguire, to the $30 million Leppington Triangle land acquisition (now the subject of an investigation by the Australian Federal Police), to the response to independent Andrew Wilkie’s motion for a royal commission into criminal activities involving Crown Casino. The questions go right to the top: Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked whether his government had representations from Maguire about visas. He did not deny it, saying he received a lot of representations, “including on those which the member has referred to”. The PM was then asked about evidence given by the AFP in estimates today, indicating that it would engage with the NSW ICAC on whether Maguire was involved with the Leppington deal. Deputy Prime Minister and Infrastructure Minister Michael McCormack endured a barrage of questions from Labor’s shadow infrastructure minister, Catherine King, asking whether he still considered the Leppington deal a “bargain”, as he did in September. McCormack dissembled – admitting that the land was purchased for more than it was worth and was subject to police investigation – but said it was still a good thing that the purchase was going ahead since it would enable the development of Western Sydney Airport. “It will cost a lot more in the future,” McCormack said, in a feeble defence of the indefensible. Once again, the stench begs the question: where is the government up to with a federal integrity commission? Attorney-General Christian Porter today gave a detailed, but inadequate, answer to that question. 

It is not so surprising that the deep corruption exposed by the ICAC investigation into Daryl Maguire – who was, until recently, the long-time partner of the state premier, Gladys Berejiklian – might have federal implications. Maguire’s whole business model was blatantly corrupt (he’s admitted to “monetising” his position as an MP), and it would be surprising if he did not try every angle with every political connection he could muster, including in Canberra. It would make sense if those connections were strongest with federal Coalition MPs based in NSW, including Morrison (a former immigration minister) and McCormack, whose electoral office is in Wagga Wagga.

Maguire was already known to be angling for a sales commission on a land property deal near Western Sydney Airport on behalf of landowner Louise Waterhouse, who he once met in the lobby of Berejiklian’s office. Auditor-General Grant Hehir told Senate estimates that he had referred the Leppington purchase to the federal police – the first time he had done so in his five years at the Australian National Audit Office. The AFP’s deputy commissioner, Ian McCartney, told Senate estimates earlier today that police would be engaging with ICAC on both the Leppington deal – to see whether Maguire had any role – and the cash-for-visas scheme. 

Meanwhile, as the NSW probity hearings continue into whether Crown is fit to hold a gaming licence at its new Sydney casino, former Howard-era communications minister and Crown Resorts chair Helen Coonan has conceded the company facilitated money laundering at its Melbourne casino. Yet when Wilkie moved for a suspension of standing orders to debate a proposed royal commission into Crown, both government and the Opposition opposed it. “Government and Opposition partially-owned subsidiaries of the gambling industry QED,” tweeted senior journalist, commentator and academic Tony Walker.    

So where the bloody hell is our federal ICAC? Independent MP Helen Haines asked the attorney-general today why there was such a lengthy delay in legislating a robust integrity commission, “when scandals like the Western Sydney Airport demand action on integrity, now”. Porter answered the question respectfully, and in detail, explaining that it was not appropriate to bring on the legislation while Victoria was in the middle of a second wave of COVID-19, and that the beefed-up Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity – which got a funding boost in the budget – would be operating from January 1. He also discussed the Coalition’s model for the new ICAC in more detail than he has lately:  

We’ve been very clear what our model for the integrity commission would look like. We’ve said quite clearly there’d be two divisions. There’d be a law-enforcement integrity division. There’d be a public-sector integrity division. Each of those divisions would have powers greater than a royal commission. The law-enforcement division would maintain discretionary capacity to conduct public hearings. The public-sector division would run compulsory private hearings to investigate matters and build a brief to form the basis of a prosecution. Each division would have its own powers. Both divisions would have powers to investigate a broad, existing suite of public sector offences. They could look at past conduct in that regard. The new commission would also be empowered to investigate with respect to newly created offences as well as existing ones. But the government’s view, not one shared universally, is there could not be retrospective application of new criminal laws or new standards of corruption.

It’s not good enough, but it at least shows that the government has made some progress with its bill. Now it just has to introduce it. Absolutely ASAP.

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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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