Only time will tell if the Nacc will be the ‘big broom’ promised to sweep through our corridors of power

<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Thursday began with an insight into how business is sometimes done in the networked corridors of power. The Nine newspapers had leaked emails purporting to show that Liberal Stuart Robert, when he was on the government backbench, had provided private advice to a lobbying firm pursuing lucrative government contracts and access to decision-makers.

The lobbying firm in question was part owned by an associate of Robert, and oddly enough, had not made its presence felt on the formal lobbyists register. A spokesperson for Robert swiftly rejected “all assertions made in the article”. It is not suggested Robert was an employee of the firm or paid for his advice.

Before anyone could hum a few bars of Alanis Morissette, Thursday then moved on to the scheduled business of debating legislation to establish the first anti-corruption commission at the federal level. Successful passage of this legislation in the lower house was pre-ordained, because the work of reaching multi-partisan agreement was done before the bill reached the floor of the chamber.

But a number of protagonists proposed amendments, including the independent Helen Haines, who has been absolutely dogged in pursuit of a national integrity commission. None of these amendments would go anywhere, but Haines couldn’t resist the opportunity for glancing didacticism.

Haines called on major party colleagues to consider the volley of amendments on their merits, not through the prism of the whip’s instructions. “I do ask the parliament to think about this,” Haines said. “Think about this very carefully.

“Understand if you are on the government side, you won’t always be in government”.

Laughter ensued on the government side of the chamber. Possibly this laughter was rue, given the purgatory of opposition during the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments.

It could have been incipient hubris. Haines didn’t stop to split the difference. She continued, tongue firmly in cheek. “I know that’s a shocking thought for you.”

Haines then addressed the opposition benches. “Likewise on this side; you were in government last time.”

A hearty “hear, hear” of affirmation was heard deep inside the territory of the spurned. Haines took a breath, then took no prisoners. “Who knows when you will be again?”

Haines said the crossbench was in politics to “work with whoever is in this place … and we are here to make improvements to legislation, every time, in good faith. So I say to you, to all colleagues here today, look at this amendment. Don’t just follow along with what your party tells you to do. Think like an independent. Think like an independent and pass this amendment.”

The Liberal Bridget Archer – who has been almost as dogged as Haines in nudging this particular debate along – took the cue, backing various sorties to strengthen the new body while some of her colleagues raged against kangaroo courts destroying the lives of nice politicians who just wanted to give voters nice things.

But the amendments failed.

While the endpoint was fixed, the debate was genuinely interesting.

Related: Whistleblower protection must not be an afterthought – it is the main game of integrity | Kieran Pender

Haines and a number of other independents asserted their electoral mandate to restore trust and integrity in politics. It was clear the crossbench saw the national integrity commission as the “big broom” that would clean up politics and restore trust. Sitting at the dispatch box, the attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, concurred in very large part. This moment was totemic for him as well.

But the divergences can be reduced to a simple observation the attorney general made in response to one of the amendments. Haines proposed at one point that if the parliamentary committee overseeing the integrity commission made a recommendation about the organisation’s budget, the attorney general must provide a written statement of reasons to parliament if he departed from the committee’s recommendation.

Dreyfus responded to this by saying it was overkill. He said, at some point you have to rely on the processes of the parliament and the inexorable weight of political pressure to keep the bastards honest. You have to believe that politics can both fall in a hole and self-correct with the right incentives.

Consistent with her mandate, Haines looks at politics-as-usual and sees terminal decline in the absence of a profound system shock. Dreyfus is all for disruption, but sees a goodness renaissance waiting to bloom if there are better guardrails.

It’s an order-of-magnitude difference, not a rupture.

One of them will be right.