The establishment of a federal anti-corruption commission is emerging as a key electoral issue.
Throughout the election campaign, calls for a strong and fit-for-purpose anti-corruption body have featured prominently.
Currently, there is no such body at the federal level equipped to root out government-based corruption and reprimand officials who commit corrupt acts.
The Labor Party, the Greens, “teal” independents and some minor parties, including Animal Justice Party, Federal ICAC Now and Reason Party, have spent much of the campaign highlighting the urgent need for government corruption issues to be addressed. by an independent, well-resourced and specialized agency. Many of these parties have also articulated their respective models for a potential anti-corruption body.
The electorate overwhelmingly supports the development of such an institution. A recent poll by the Australia Institute found that 75 per cent of Australians believe a Commonwealth Integrity Commission should be established. Only seven percent of those surveyed opposed such a move.
This poll, the results of which were consistent with previous polls, indicates that the Australian electorate is aware of the problem of corruption: the abuse of vested power for private gain.
A number of scandals related to possible corruption issues have engulfed the coalition government during its nine-year term, including “sports rorts”, “parking rorts”, the Western Sydney airport deal and the water buy-back scheme.
In the 2019 election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised that his government would establish a federal integrity commission before the end of his term. That promise remains unfulfilled, with the 2022 election just a week away.
In the past month, the Prime Minister has raised further questions about whether his government would ever set up an anti-corruption body, saying it would require Labor to support his current proposal. Labor has strongly opposed the Coalition model, saying it does not go far enough to tackle government-based corruption.
Prime Minister Morrison’s public statements about the possible “risks” associated with the creation of an integrity commission have indicated that he and his government are diehards at best. He has described the New South Wales (NSW) Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) as a “Kangaroo Court”an attack reprimanded by Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet and one of his commissioners, Stephen Rushton, SC.
He has also questioned whether a “federal ICAC” would be in charge of “faceless officials” and could produce “public autocracy”.
Models of good practice: Looking at the commission’s proposals
The Coalition has proposed giving effect to a Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC), which has been characterized by Associate Professor Yee-Fui Ng as a ‘weak, diluted’ model.
In relation to the Labor model, Associate Professor Ng suggested that:
“Labor proposes a robust commission with strong powers, along with checks and balances to ensure it does not abuse its powers.”
The Coalition’s proposal requires that a ‘reasonable suspicion of corruption constituting a criminal offence’ exist before the CIC could launch an investigation.
Instead, Labor’s proposed National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) stipulates that ‘accusations of serious and systemic corruption’ exist as a prerequisite for an investigation to be initiated.
Associate Professor Ng indicated that the Coalition ‘bar for research’ is too high, while Labor is ‘provided’.
Additionally, the Coalition has moved away from supporting public hearings on government corruption issues, while Labor’s NACC would have the power to call public hearings to investigate corruption.
Publicity and transparency are often the cornerstones of effective oversight mechanisms, judges, civil society and legal scholars say.
The Coalition’s CIC was also unable to receive and act on complaints from members of the public. The Working model would allow your NACC to consider and take action regarding reports of corruption from the public and whistleblowers.
The Labor model, as well as some smaller parties, would support a prospective commission to examine corruption issues retrospectively.
The prospects for ensuring an effective anti-corruption commission
Given the Prime Minister’s recent comments and his government’s record, it seems highly unlikely that a re-elected Coalition will hand over an anti-corruption body during its next term. It seems even less unlikely that the Government will establish a commission that will satisfy the demands of civil society, the Federal Parliament and the electorate in general.
On the contrary, Labor has promised ‘legislate a powerful, transparent and independent government’ anti-corruption body before the end of the year.
The Greens, “teal” independents and some other minor parties have made anti-corruption commitments a central tenet of their political platforms. A parliament with more of these parties and members, including a minority government in which these figures hold the balance of power, would likely increase the likelihood of an integrity commission.
Establishing an effective anti-corruption commission can help increase public confidence in government, improve economic profligacy, and create the conditions for governments to act in the public interest.
Nicholas Bugeja is a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and Graduate of Arts from Monash University and Assistant Editor of Independent Australia.
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