The case for a truly independent, federal Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission is beyond question – yes, the focus must be on both integrity and anti-corruption.

If, in today’s COVID world, we could do a “pub test”, the message would undoubtedly be that people simply can’t understand why the major parties haven’t got together and established it years ago. Rather than sustaining some mindless game of political point scoring, while the bad behavior and corrupt activities roll on.

The low point of this mindless political debate was reached in question time this week by Scott Morrison.

He demonstrated a complete lack of integrity in seeking to explain/excuse his delay in advancing the draft legislation – which he has had on his desk since last December – and against his two-year old commitment, claiming the coronavirus was taking precedence over the corruption commission.

“I was not going to have one public servant diverted from the task of … dealing with the pandemic,” Morrison said. His demeanor was arrogant, mocking, and condescending.

This response attracted an understandable horselaugh from the opposition, having often expressed concern that the government “can’t walk and chew gum at the same time”, especially with such an important issue. And with so many scandals emerging that would warrant the immediate attention of such a commission, plus warnings of the huge corruption risks posed by his government’s multi-billion dollar pandemic response.

While Morrison might, as most of us do, teach our children that “bad behaviour is bad behaviour” and should carry significant consequences, he operates in government as if he is somehow beyond reproach, beyond accountability, entitled to ignore standards of behavior that even his “Quiet Australians” expect him to set and enforce.

Recall his squirming and obfuscation over the sports rorts and other misallocations from various “regional and other slush funds” and, more recently, the obscene land purchase at Badgery’s Creek, highlighted by the Auditor-General. Morrison’s response was to cut funding to the Auditor-General in the recent budget.

It looks like Morrison has made a captain’s call that this will wane as an election issue, especially recognising the fairly widespread loss of moral compass across so many areas of Australian society.

For example, I have a longstanding business colleague who laments that those businesses that have done consistently well have basically “gamed” the system.

The Hayne Royal Commission identified the culture of greed that defines our banks – yet no criminal penalties imposed. We have energy companies operating as both generators and retailers, able to game both the wholesale and retail markets at the expense of households and business.

There are defence contractors that treat procurement projects as gravy trains, as we have seen on a lower scale, with child, aged, and disability care providers. In this pandemic, we have seen reports of abuse of JobKeeper, even to the extent of paying bonuses to senior executives – and hosts of other examples.

The nature of politics has changed dramatically from the days when a principal, and principled, motivation of candidates was to give something back to our society after a successful career. Today, the end game is more about power, influence and, sometimes, money.

Many are obviously in it more for themselves, so we see abuses of expense accounts and entitlements; money/resources channeled to branch stacking and other party political activities; policy favours for mates rather than in the national interest; political games rather than good governance; post-politics payoffs – and, again, many more.

Against all this, Morrison has a unique opportunity to be guided by his Christian values and principles and to lead by example, setting and enforcing clear behavioral standards and launching a commission with real independence, funding and teeth.

While the commission’s role and powers will inevitably be debated, it must be well resourced and truly independent, able to initiate its own inquiries (rather than be confined to government referrals) and encourage whistleblowers and anonymous tip-offs.

It must be able to be retrospective, especially when you think back to scandals such as the wheat board paying bribes to Saddam Hussein, the Reserve Bank paying bribes to promote its polymer notes, the government spying on the East Timor government under cover of an aid program to the benefit of corporate mates … the perpetrators of which have been able to skate by, and in some cases their activities are still being covered up. COVID is no excuse for further delay.

 Here’s John’s Citizens’ Guide to assessing Morrison’s Bill…

Is it truly independent?

Is it adequately funded and is that funding not subject to political influence?

Are its processes and investigations fully public and transparent?

Does it cover activities of politicians, their staff, government employees and consultants, and all government institutions?

Can it initiate its own references and investigate references from whistleblowers and anonymously from the general public?

Is it retrospective so unexamined scandals can be brought to light?

Can it initiate charges directly rather than via public prosecutors?

Is the list of 143 offences adequately proscriptive?

Is the government accepting submissions from all relevant stakeholders as a basis for the consultative process?

Will it be possible to defend these submissions in public?

(So far it’s doubtful it passes the Pub Test! ed.)

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader. 

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