An impressive lineup of 31 legal jurists have signed an open letter calling for a federal integrity watchdog, issuing the statement ahead of Saturday’s election.
The group of retired judges published a letter sent to Scott Morrison, Anthony Albanese and the leaders of the minor parties on Wednesday. The letter argues that without a federal integrity commission, the politicians risk a ‘serious erosion of our shared democratic principles’.
“Without the commission we envisage, the right of Australians to have their taxes employed for the maximum national advantage will not always prevail over the corrupt exercise of power,” their letter read.
“We are retired judges who believe that a national integrity commission is urgently needed to fill the gaps in our integrity system and restore trust in our political processes. Nothing less than halting the serious erosion of our shared democratic principles is at stake.”
Scott Morrison addressed the letter at a press conference on Wednesday, dismissing the argument but conceding the judges could speak about whatever they liked.
“They are entitled to their opinion — it’s a free country, I’m happy for them to make their contribution,” Morrison told reporters in Geelong.
“But what I do know is that we have a policy of 347 pages with extensive powers, which is part of our program to ensure that we can put an integrity commission in place.”
Throughout the election campaign, the Coalition has resisted calls for a federal ICAC of the kind most eminent legal figures in Australia say will achieve the best protections for integrity. The APS and public servants based in Canberra have also been used as the prime minister’s punching bag during these debates.
On Monday, Morrison told the ABC’s 7.30 program that media reports of government pork-barrelling did not need a federal integrity commission to review the conduct as it was a matter for bureaucrats.
“I don’t think public servants sitting in Canberra have a better idea about what people need in their communities than their members of parliament who work in those communities every day,” Morrison said.
“I’m sorry, politicians, elected leaders, ministers, ultimately make decisions because we’re the ones accountable to the public — not public servants. Not Sports Australia.”
It seems as though the government would prefer integrity issues be resolved at the voting booth, where voters pick to keep their elected representatives in power based on how corrupt or otherwise the conduct of politicians appears to be, rather than with the benefit of a transparent federal ICAC.
Earlier in May Morrison went in to defend the Coalition’s weaker, narrower model for a federal integrity commission by taking another swipe at the legal fraternity. He admonished any lawyer who may be critical of his views, saying he would leave them to their jabots.
“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.”
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.
Remarking further on the Coalition’s draft legislation proposing a weaker ICAC with fewer powers, Morrison said such a body would investigate the conduct of the APS — not political decisions.
“[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.