If we had a strong corruption watchdog, Morrison and half his Cabinet might find themselves looking for new jobs.
By Larissa Waters
They say a week is a long time in politics. Well, one thousand days is a really long time in politics, yet that’s how long it’s been since the Morrison government promised a federal corruption watchdog.
Since then, the promises have remained empty – the government has failed to introduce legislation.
It took ten years of political pressure by the Greens and civil society to get the government to accept the need for a corruption watchdog. When they finally did, their proposed model was so weak it was resoundingly panned by experts. The planned Commonwealth Integrity Commission lacked autonomy, the threshold for investigation was so high that most bad behaviour of politicians would slip through the cracks, there were no public hearings, and it failed to protect whistleblowers.
Nearly two years after that initial limp proposal, the government finally released draft legislation – which ignored all the previous feedback and repeated the same mistakes. The Centre for Public Integrity reviewed key submissions on the legislation and found that all but two considered the model to be flawed and inadequate.
Seven months later and with an election looming, there is still no sign of final legislation.
Meanwhile, the Senate passed my Bill for a strong, independent, transparent National Integrity Commission. Independent Helen Haines MP introduced a similar Bill for the Australian Federal Integrity Commission. The government has refused to allow either Bill to be debated.
Every new scandal reminds us that Australia needs a national body to fight corruption. A watchdog with teeth to look into slush funds, pay outs, favours for mates, and dodgy property deals, and to hold politicians to account.
The federal government is the only jurisdiction in Australia that is not overseen by an integrity commission, and that absence has real consequences for all of us. It’s a key part of why all the polls show declining public trust in politics and politicians.
We need to clean up politics so Australians can be confident politicians are working in the public interest, rather than the interests of their donors and their re-election campaigns.
The government isn’t opposed to climate action because they don’t understand the risks, they’re opposed to climate action because their mates in the fossil fuel sector make generous political donations.
The latest example is the Beetaloo Basin grants. First, the government stacked the Covid recovery committee with fossil fuel interests who, surprise, surprise, developed a plan for a ‘gas-led recovery’. Next, the government earmarked $50 million of public money to hand out to mining companies to frack for oil and gas in the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory, despite the strong opposition of Traditional Owners and the implementation of fewer than half of the actions the NT Fracking review said were needed to manage the impacts of fracking. Despite the fact that opening up the Beetaloo Basin for dirty gas would increase Australia’s greenhouse emissions by 6% in the middle of a climate crisis.
Then the government awarded the grants on a “first in, first served” basis, where the first company to put their hand out for $21 million is Empire Energy, a company chaired by “doyen of the Liberal party” Paul Espie (who’s personally donated almost $400,000 to the Liberal and National parties and chairs the Liberal-funded Menzies Centre) and which just happened to meet with Energy Minister Angus Taylor weeks before the grants opened. Faced with questions about this dodginess, the government has done what it so often does - obscured details of meetings and denied any wrongdoing, hoping that their bluster will hold until the community moves on to the next scandal.
Beetaloo is the latest example, but just one of many in the 1,000 days since the government promised a national integrity body and failed to deliver. There’s also SportsRorts, the rorted car park fund, buying Leppington Triangle land owned by Liberal donors at a hugely inflated price, the Paladin contracts and more. Not one Minister has paid any lasting price for those scandals - Bridget McKenzie stood down from her role briefly over a conflict of interest, but has now been reinstated to the Cabinet.
The reality is if we had a strong corruption watchdog, Morrison and half his Cabinet might find themselves looking for new jobs.
That’s why Morrison deflects, delays and changes the subject. He’s not just failing to restore integrity to federal politics, he’s actively standing in the way of accountability and transparency to protect his mates.
An integrity commission should be the centrepiece of a comprehensive plan to clean up politics and restore public confidence in our democratic system. We need stronger donation laws to stop big money buying policy outcomes and elections, and we need to stop the revolving door with big business and industry so politicians don’t make decisions with their eye on a cushy post-parliamentary lobbying job.
We need electoral spending caps to reduce the influence of big money in politics and open the parliamentary door to a diverse range of voices, and we need truth in political advertising to make sure political debate isn’t riddled with scare campaigns and disinformation.
The Australian community is crying out for actual consequences for politicians who abuse their positions for personal or political gain. A strong, independent integrity commission must be delivered as a matter of urgency.
At the next election, we have the chance to give the Morrison government, the most secretive government we’ve had, the boot and clear the way for real action on integrity. I’m hopeful. After all, a few months is a long time in politics.