Federal ICAC back on the agenda in federal parliament

By Stephen Easton

Monday October 29, 2018

With the Morrison government losing its lower-house majority, Attorney-General Christian Porter is ready to discuss ways to strengthen the Commonwealth public sector integrity system.

Porter told Fairfax Media he was happy to discuss “all policy options” for strengthening the national integrity and anti-corruption framework with cross-bench MPs, walking back comments made by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack earlier on Friday.

“I would be very pleased to meet with any crossbenchers interested in the issue to discuss their views and the work conducted in this area by the government in considering ways to improve present integrity arrangements,” said Porter, in comments reported late on Friday night.

“It is important that changes in this area improve upon the current system, rather than adding complexity and confusion.”

The Attorney-General’s Department is already responsible for a pledge to “collaborate with the corporate sector, non-government organisations and the public to strengthen our national anti-corruption and integrity framework” as part of Australia’s Open Government Partnership action plan.

Not a priority for the government

“Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus was immediately sceptical of Porter’s comments and accused the government of feigning interest in stronger integrity arrangements because it had become politically expedient.”

The Deputy PM had been asked earlier in the day specifically about the establishment of a national ICAC-style corruption watchdog, which is back on the agenda in federal parliament following the government’s loss in the Wentworth by-election.

McCormack said he didn’t think it was necessary and was not a priority for the government.

While a federal ICAC is not on the Coalition’s to-do list, its weakened position in the House of Representatives means it is likely to spend more time discussing issues that interest cross-bench and opposition MPs.

Last week, Greens senator Larissa Waters counted the numbers and mused that a federal ICAC might already have majority support in the House, but decided a motion calling on the government to establish such an agency was the right course of action.

Independent MP Cathy McGowan went further, a private members’ bill to establish the body whether the government likes it or not, with the support of probable Wentworth victor Kerryn Phelps and Rebekha Sharkie, another independent who holds a formerly safe Liberal seat. Ever the wild card, Bob Katter could go either way.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus was immediately sceptical of Porter’s comments and accused the government of feigning interest in stronger integrity arrangements because it had become politically expedient.

Dreyfus said his opposite number declined an invitation to negotiate a way forward on the issue with Labor only 17 days ago, and had changed his tune following the loss of Wentworth, citing an October 10 letter in which Porter advances a very similar line to his comments on Friday.

In the letter, Porter wrote that he was “not close-minded” about what institutional arrangements might be used to strengthen the national integrity framework, but declined to discuss Labor’s broad proposal for a new national integrity commission.

He argued it was too light on details and said he wished to consider other ideas and analysis being undertaken by Transparency International Australia and Griffith University’s leading public integrity and anti-corruption researchers.

“Only time will tell if Porter truly is willing to do the work on a federal anti-corruption body – or if this is yet another ploy,” Dreyfus said.

The Attorney-General, meanwhile, says “this is the worst area to engage in policy on the run” and Phelps also favours moving slowly to develop arrangements supported by both major parties.

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