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Govt can't keep using pandemic as cover against integrity commission

Opinion

The Morrison Government is stalling on setting up a federal integrity commission, despite having draft legislation since last year. But pressure is building, writes Michelle Grattan.

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The government can act super-fast on integrity issues when it wants.

On Thursday a Senate estimates committee was told the government-owned Australia Post bought Cartier watches worth $3,000 each for four senior employees as rewards.

Scott Morrison said he was “appalled” – immediately the government ordered Post’s CEO Christine Holgate to stand aside (or quit entirely if she preferred) and launched an inquiry, which will report to cabinet.

But when it comes to structural reform to improve integrity, the pace has been snail’s, the slowness justified by COVID.

On any reasonable timetable parliament would be voting about now to set up a national integrity commission.

Instead, draft legislation sits in the files of Attorney-General Christian Porter. In Senate estimates this week it was confirmed he’s had it since December last year.

The government was not inclined to conduct the necessary detailed consultations during the pandemic, Porter told parliament. Morrison said he wasn’t having a single public servant diverted from COVID.

Now COVID is more or less under control, and Morrison this week indicated to the Coalition parties he intends to run full term – that is, into early 2022.

So he has all next year to get this commission legislated and ready to start, assuming he really wants to.

He’d prefer not to be going down this path. The Coalition has been cornered by the politics into committing to a commission. Even Labor, which has become a passionate advocate, didn’t see the need for a federal body until recent years.

The New South Wales’s ICAC hearings about disgraced former state Liberal MP Daryl Maguire and premier Gladys Berejiklian have reignited the debate about integrity and a federal body.

More directly, a recent report from the federal Auditor-General exposed that the Commonwealth paid $30 million for a parcel of land later valued at only $3 million, near Badgerys Creek, site for Sydney’s second airport.

The sale, now being investigated by the police, didn’t reach ministerial level.

But the other major scandal uncovered by the Audit Office this year had a minister at its core. “Sports rorts” claimed the scalp of Nationals’ Bridget McKenzie, though Morrison forced her out on a technicality and never admitted the political rorting.

Issues of accountability and transparency tend to be “nerdy” except when they break into spectacular headlines. But they’re at the heart of achieving good government.

Ministerial standards in practice vary from time to time but federally they’re lower than they used to be (for example in periods of the Fraser and Hawke governments and the first days of the Howard government). The inclination of governments is to hang onto ministers, however compromised. McKenzie was only chopped when it was politically impossible to sustain her.

The top of the public service has also become increasingly politicised, reducing the checks in the system. On the other hand, Senate estimates hearings have proved themselves invaluable forums to mine information that’s embarrassing or worse, as we saw again this week.

Though the government says it is committed to an integrity commission, it has blunted its proposed teeth, so far as they would apply to politicians, their staff and public servants.

The commission would have a law enforcement division and a public sector division – the latter (which we are concerned with here) covering federal parliamentarians, staffers and bureaucrats.

While Porter says its powers would be “greater than a royal commission” the hearings in this division would be in secret. Those who favour secrecy argue it is necessary to avoid the “kangaroo court” aspect of ICAC; others believe open hearings are in the public interest and the threat of them can be a deterrent.

Crossbenchers have been strong proponents of integrity measures.

On Monday Helen Haines, independent member for Indi, will introduce her private member’s bill for an integrity body; she describes it as “a consensus bill with strong safeguards”.

Senate independent Rex Patrick (formerly of Centre Alliance) says the pandemic is no excuse for the government failing to table its draft legislation immediately.

“They haven’t progressed it fast enough”, he says. “Their heart isn’t in it. They are trying to hide behind COVID.”

Patrick believes the commission should be able to hold open hearings at the discretion of the commissioner. But, he says, a threshold should be met before people’s names become public.

If anyone needed evidence of the Morrison’s government’s lack of enthusiasm for scrutiny bodies, they’ve only to consider the treatment of the Audit Office in this month’s budget.

The office unsuccessfully sought $6.3 million extra funding for 2020-21. Its finances are complicated – the best measure of what is happening to it is actually how much work it can do.

Its target is 48 performance audits a year. Auditor General Grant Hehir told Senate estimates: “We are forecasting that in 2020-21 we will produce 42 audits, falling to 40 in the following year, and then, by 2022-23, down to 38”.

In what might be less-than-welcome news for the government, Hehir noted in the Office’s annual report that its program in the longer term “will need to address the delivery of the intended outcomes of the COVID-19 response, including at a macro level, and we will plan for audits of recovery programs”.

Given the Coalition’s attacks on Labor’s programs responding to the global financial crisis, it will be interesting to see how its programs fare under forensic scrutiny.

Labor’s Julian Hill, deputy chair of the parliamentary joint standing committee of public accounts and audit, accuses both that committee (which receives the Office’s draft budget estimates) and Morrison of failing to stand up for the Office.

He claims the government has cut the Office’s funds in “revenge” for it exposing sports rorts, the Badgerys Creek land deal and defence spending blowouts.

Hill proposes changes to strengthen the independence of the Auditor-General – who is already an “officer of the parliament” but sits within the Prime Minister’s department administratively and has to look to the PM to support budget pitches.

The Audit Office deserves a big shout-out this year. But it can’t fill the gap that exists because of the absence of an integrity commission.

Surely the government can only dally on that for so long, shielded by COVID.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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