Two-thirds of voters back federal corruption watchdog with stronger powers

Centre for Public Integrity

Written by James Massola and originally published in the Age on October 31

More than two-thirds of Australians support the creation of a powerful federal anti-corruption watchdog, with Coalition voters slightly more in favour than those who support other parties.

Changes designed to bolster the proposed watchdog’s powers look increasingly likely after criticism from legal experts and lobbying from Liberal MPs, with Attorney-General Michaelia Cash expected to bring a revised bill to cabinet within weeks.

Overall, 70 per cent of voters agreed with the need for a national integrity commission, while just 5 per cent disagreed and 25 per cent of voters were neutral or undecided.

Significantly, close to 70 per cent of voters also support a commission being able to independently decide when to investigate potential corruption and hold public hearings.

The results of the Resolve Political Monitor, conducted for The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age by research company Resolve Strategic, will increase pressure on the federal government to deliver a watchdog with stronger powers just as Senator Cash finalises details of the draft legislation, which was a 2019 election promise from Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The findings also come as former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian faced a grilling on Friday before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption over her relationship with former state MP Daryl Maguire and his lobbying for projects in his former electorate.

The Resolve Political Monitor poll of 1603 voters was conducted from October 21 to 24.

Under the federal government’s model – dubbed the “weakest watchdog in the country” by the Centre for Public Integrity – the proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission would not be able to launch its own investigations, hold public hearings, issue public findings or examine breaches of ministerial standards.

Liberal backbenchers Jason Falinski, Katie Allen and Dave Sharma told The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age they were among the government MPs working closely with Senator Cash to strengthen the bill.

The MPs indicated the draft model would be improved to address concerns about its weaknesses and that it would be introduced before the end of the year. However, any changes will have to be signed off by cabinet and the party room.

Mr Falinski said the MPs wanted changes that included “anyone being able to forward a complaint to the commission and for the agency to be able to commence an investigation on its own, without reference from a federal agency”.

He said he did not support public hearings, but his colleague Liberal MP Celia Hammond has previously called for public hearings to be allowed in certain circumstances.

Mr Sharma confirmed he held discussions with Senator Cash and that “the current model could be improved, to broaden the scope of its jurisdiction and ensure public confidence in the model, but also to strengthen safeguards and protections”.

Dr Allen said she had “been working closely with the Attorney-General to make sure the legislation gets the balance right and to make sure that an appropriate approach that increases the trust of the public [in the commission] is balanced with ensuring it doesn’t become a politicised weapon”.

Among LNP voters, 71 per cent backed an integrity commission – which Mr Morrison promised to legislate before the last election – while 7 per cent opposed it and 23 per cent were undecided.

For Labor voters, 68 per cent supported a commission and 6 per cent opposed it, while among ‘other’ voters there was 70 per cent support and 4 per cent opposed it.

More significantly, 42 per cent of all voters stated all hearings for such a body should be public and 35 per cent said hearings should be a mixture of public and private, while just 11 per cent agreed that all hearings should be private.

On the commission’s investigative powers, 25 per cent of voters agreed the body should have the power to decide what to investigate and 43 per cent agreed the commission should be set up so that it could be directed to investigate potential corruption, or to make its own decisions.

Just 14 per cent supported a model where what the commission investigates is decided by others.

Senator Cash told Senate Estimates on Tuesday that further refinement of the proposed laws setting up the commission was being undertaken and “ultimately it will be a decision for cabinet” when the bills are introduced, and what form they take.

Centre for Public Integrity chair Anthony Whealy QC said in the current proposed model “the definition of corruption is too narrow, there is an impossibly high threshold for investigations to commence, no whistleblowers are allowed and virtually no own-initiative investigations”.

“Then there are no public hearings, no public reports and no public criticism of parliamentarians or their staff allowed.”

The former NSW Supreme Court judge added that “we don’t want to unfairly damage people’s reputations but you don’t do that by denying the effectiveness of the body”.

Earlier this month the Prime Minister said the NSW ICAC was “not a model that we ever consider at a federal level” and “that there are millions of people who’ve seen what’s happened to Gladys Berejiklian”.

Asked on Thursday – before Ms Berejiklian’s ICAC appearance but after former colleagues testified that she should have revealed her secret relationship with Mr Maguire – if he stood by those remarks, Mr Morrison said: “I don’t have any regrets about that in terms of the statements I’ve made previously”.

“We’ve been setting out our model, if that model is not accepted by others in this parliament, well, that’s a matter for them,” he said.

“We have a lot of other institutions here at the federal level that I think are being ignored by others who have a very important role. I’m not about to let or support a system that, you know, takes us down the path where it’s trial outside of proper processes.”

In response to that, Mr Whealy said the Prime Minister “doesn’t understand how the ICAC works, or at least he pretends he doesn’t. ICAC is not a criminal court, and nor would it be at a federal level. It would be a standing Royal Commission into corruption”.

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