Attorney General Christian Porter has pushed back at criticism the promised Commonwealth Integrity Commission was put on the backburner, arguing legal complexities such as retrospectivity mean the government was “not inclined” to release draft legislation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking during Question Time on Tuesday, Porter said the government has already begun work on the “dual structure” of the proposed integrity commission through an expansion of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI), but had not opened public consultation on new legislation because “most of Australia”, including the “large and critical” Victoria, were still struggling to contain coronavirus.
“That sort of consultation around draft legislation is going to be critical, as I think the member appreciates, because of the incredible importance, whatever view you might take, of issues such as retrospectivity, which is probably one of the more difficult issues that any parliament will ever have to resolve with respect to standards such as criminal standards or indeed declarations of corruption,” Porter said.
The comments come after a Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet official confirmed in Senate Estimates hearings on Tuesday they were sent draft legislation for the commission last year, while government talking points leaked last week said the draft was “ready for release” before the pandemic.
The Coalition promised to introduce an integrity commission before the last election, and pressure has mounted in recent weeks amid integrity scandals at the state and federal levels, including NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings and the referral of the Leppington Triangle land purchase to federal police.
Opposition MPs have argued the commission has been put on the backburner, saying the government has introduced other complex bills unrelated to COVID-19 recovery since January.
Questioned during Senate Estimates on Wednesday, Attorney-General’s Department secretary Chris Moraitis said resources have been focused on industrial relations reforms.
“The most significant consultation we’ve undertaken is in the industrial relations space and that’s been a massive undertaking for us,” Moraitis said.
“The government regarded that as a priority the last few months, I’ve diverted some resources to that, had it been possible to release the exposure draft in the last few months, certainly we would have pivoted our staff to help with that, but we were under intense pressure … we’ve done the best we can in the circumstances.”
The department confirmed on Wednesday Porter was handed an exposure draft Bill in December last year.
While there has been public criticism over the scope of the proposed commission, the government says its nevertheless moving ahead with implementing its model through a $9.9 million expansion of ACLEI.
As previously reported, the government directed $700,000 in additional funding for ACLEI in 2020-21 to continue its activities until “subsumed” by the proposed CIC, having allocated $104.5 million to the commission in last year’s budget.
It was estimated 76 public servants would staff the commission, but the department later clarified average staffing levels were published in the budget in error.
Porter said ACLEI fits into the proposed CIC model, which is structured into two divisions— law enforcement and public sector integrity— and an expanded remit for the agency that will see it regulate the ATO, ASIC, APRA and the ACCC, will be operational from January 1, 2021.
“The first stage, as part of this dual structure, is actually underway in this budget,” Porter said.
The government has previously come under criticism for its funding of integrity and accountability agencies across the Commonwealth, with the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) flagging up to 20% less performance audits over the forward estimates due to a lack of resources.