Scott Morrison juggled issues about the best model to hold Australian public servants and politicians to account as questions about a federal integrity commission overshadowed a Liberal bridge-building announcement for Bennelong.
Answering a question about the NSW ICAC on Tuesday, Morrison persisted with the line that a similar model would not work at the federal level because he had seen the commission ‘destroy people’s reputations and careers before making a finding’.
The PM also argued that state government integrity captured gaming, gambling, development consent and horse-racing issues which did not apply to the federal jurisdiction and would be therefore inappropriate to be probed for corruption in the same way.
“The principal issues you’re dealing with at a federal level are issues around taxation, competition policy, you’re dealing with law enforcement integrity, you’re dealing also with immigration decisions,” Morrison said.
“When it comes to issues of decisions made by the federal government, all the things I’m referring to, those decisions are made at arm’s length by officials.”
The Coalition had already committed $50 million to expanding the role of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, the PM said, noting a second phase of the government’s own federal integrity model – 347 pages of draft laws – dealt with broader issues of criminality across the public service.
“[This legislation covers] the entire public service, the vast majority of which don’t have any coercive powers in relation to the decisions that they take, which is another difference between the federal and the state jurisdictions,” the PM said.
“What may or may not work at a state level is not a guide to what should be done at a federal level and I don’t believe the NSW ICAC model is the right model for the federal jurisdiction,” he added.
Morrison was recently sledged by outgoing anti-corruption commissioner Stephen Rushton, who derided those who referred to his agency as a ‘kangaroo court’, labelling them ‘buffoons’. The prime minister has previously called the NSW ICAC a kangaroo court.
During the press conference, the PM took his own swipe at any person in the legal fraternity who may be critical of his views, saying he would leave them to their jabots and mistakenly referring to barristers as a group of elites on Macquarie Street (he meant Phillip Street in the nearby Sydney legal precinct).
“I have serious criticisms of the NSW ICAC model. I’ve never been a fan of how it has conducted itself,” Morrison said.
“And I don’t care if barristers and lawyers [sic] sitting around in the barristers’ chambers disagree with me. They disagree with me all the time.”
NSW premier Dominic Perrottet attempted to clear the air, telling the press pack he shared the same views as Morrison on issues of integrity. But the men were happy to disagree on the efficacy of the NSW integrity commission model, he said, accepting models for such agencies were not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.
“I believe the prime minister and I are completely on the same page in relation to driving integrity in public office, whether that’s politicians, or the public service.
“What we both agree on is that there should be integrity agencies in place that ensure the best standards in public life,” Perrottet said.
“Ultimately, here in our state, the ICAC has played an important role in maintaining high standards in public office and in the public service,” he said.
Morrison used the press conference in the electorate of Bennelong to make an election pledge in partnership with the NSW Liberal government – a $220 million upgrade to Epping Bridge.
The Liberal candidate for Bennelong, Simon Kennedy, joined the NSW premier and prime minister for the morning announcement. He has been put forward by the party in place of outgoing candidate John Alexander.
The PM said the works would help to alleviate traffic congestion and address commuter safety concerns.
“This is going to mean quicker travel through a usually congested part of Epping,” Morrison said.
Urban infrastructure minister Paul Fletcher said the upgrade would include building an extra westbound lane and wider footpaths over the rail line near Epping Railway Station.
“People [will] spend less time in traffic on the way to work or the school drop off, and more time at home with loved ones or productively at work,” Fletcher said.