The Senate inquiry into whether the federal government needs its own independent commission against corruption has run its course, with the government and opposition senators agreeing on a weak set of recommendations and the cross-benchers all going their separate ways with stronger proposals.
The seven soft proposals move the discussion forward only slightly. Clearly both major parties are beginning to detect a slight rise in temperature from the increasingly boisterous campaign for a so-called ‘federal ICAC’ and feel a need to do something. But this report confirms neither wants to put in place an integrity commission with strong powers to investigate and expose corruption in the Commonwealth sphere.
Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, the Nick Xenophon Team and the Greens, on the other hand, all want a strong federal ICAC. Hinch kept his remarks short while the NXT and Greens made more detailed recommendations, and both propose a body that can hold its fact-finding hearings in public.
The majority report’s first recommendation demonstrates a recognition that the current system is weak, complicated and hard to navigate: “The committee recommends that the Commonwealth government prioritises strengthening the national integrity framework in order to make it more coherent, comprehensible and accessible.”
And it shouldn’t be too difficult for the Turnbull government to agree to give “careful consideration” to creating a new agency “with broad scope and jurisdiction to address integrity and corruption matters” — whatever that means — in line with recommendation two.
Third, the committee kicks the federal ICAC can down the road. As part of the Open Government National Action Plan, the Commonwealth pledged to work on strengthening the “national anti-corruption and integrity framework” and a major joint research project funded by the Australian Research Council called “Strengthening Australia’s National Integrity System: priorities for reform” is underway, led by Griffith University.
The Senate should wait until the OGP process is complete and a draft report from the research project is published in 2019 and then, once again, “review the question of a national integrity commission” in light of these developments, according to the committee’s Labor and Coalition members.
Next they recommend a “Parliamentary Counsel or Advisor” to help the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity and, if a federal ICAC ever is established, the committee thinks MPs and senators would need a new Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner to advise them on matters of ethics.
And when it is alleged that a parliamentarian “has acted improperly and contrary to parliamentary privilege”, the committee suggests the Senate and the House of Representatives “diligently use their Privileges Committees” to deal with the matter.
Finally, the senators suggest it would be a good idea to “strengthen the application of the Statement of Ministerial Standards, including measures to improve the identification, investigation and punishment of breaches”.
In the federal sphere, allegations of corruption and dodgy behaviour generally descend quickly into political battles, whether accusations are against public servants, politicians or even members of the judiciary, like former High Court judge Lionel Murphy, whose questionable behaviour from decades ago was exposed to light of day this week.
A raft of news stories feature a colourful cast of characters from decades past, some of whom have connections to more recent scandals, and Murphy’s supporters still say this information was always part of a witch hunt.
Without an independent agency that can get somewhere near the truth, in at least some cases, the public mostly just sees politicians hurling accusations and insults at each other, which is business as usual in Canberra.
As always the committee report provides a detailed and comprehensive account of all the evidence put before the senators and their deliberations.
In the end, however, the overall message is that neither party wants to give up parliamentary sovereignty to a new independent body with strong powers, but they’re happy to keep talking about the idea and are far more open to the idea of strengthening existing parliamentary mechanisms.