MPs contradict Morrison on federal ICAC

Centre for Public Integrity

Written by Finbarr O’Mallon on April 15 2022. Originally published in the Northern Beaches Review.

Government frontbenchers have tried to walk back the prime minister’s lack of commitment to establishing a federal corruption watchdog if he wins next month’s election.

Scott Morrison this week backflipped on a 2019 election promise to establish a federal anti-corruption agency this term and would not commit to trying to set one up if the coalition wins another term in parliament.

But frontbenchers Stuart Robert and Simon Birmingham have both said the coalition would consider trying to establish one again if they win in May.

“We will come back again and we will seek, through a bipartisan level, to get that going,” Mr Robert told Nine’s Today program on Friday.

Mr Birmingham told Sky News that if the coalition won in May it would have a mandate to implement its proposed model which has been slammed by legal experts as lacking teeth.

“We’re not going to legislate for the type of reputation-destroying, star chamber model we’ve seen in NSW,” he said.

It comes as integrity experts on Friday backed a model which would host public hearings, something the government is opposed to under its model, with Mr Morrison saying the agency would be a “kangaroo court”.

But the Centre for Public Integrity said a federal model would be ineffective without public examinations.

It pointed to the fact the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption had only held 42 public inquiries despite nearly 1000 private examinations between 2012 and 2020.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Public hearings expose corruption, and many investigations would not be successful without them,” director Geoffrey Watson said on Friday.

“Far from overuse, NSW ICAC holds public hearings only in a fraction of its investigations when it is in the public interest to do so.”

Federal government ministers blasted the NSW model last year after the resignation of then-premier Gladys Berejiklian when she was summoned to face the state watchdog over grants paid to a club in her secret lover’s electorate.

The Morrison government’s model would also mean the federal agency would not be able to investigate tip-offs from the public or issue public findings.

Mr Morrison promised to introduce a federal anti-corruption body during this term of parliament at the 2019 election.

The coalition’s model has been tabled in parliament but not brought out for a vote, with Mr Morrison instead blaming Labor for not promising to pass the criticised model unamended.

“I am not going to introduce a kangaroo court,” Mr Morrison said on Thursday.

Earlier in the week he wouldn’t commit to trying to establish one if he wins the upcoming election.

Labor has promised to introduce a stronger federal model if elected in May, with politicians to be subject to public hearings and the agency able to act on tip-offs.

The Centre for Public Integrity has pointed to previous comments from former executives at state corruption watchdogs.

Former NSW ICAC Commissioner David Ipp said the state watchdog’s work cannot be done without public hearings.

Former Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission head Stephen O’Bryan has said public hearings were vital and an “invaluable tool” for highlighting corruption and warning against it.

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