Scott Morrison’s excuses for failing to establish a federal integrity commission don't hold water

Katharine Murphy
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The speaker of the House of Representatives, Tony Smith, didn’t like Anthony Albanese’s opening jab in question time on Wednesday: “where the bloody hell” was the federal integrity body the government has long been promising but serially failing to deliver?

The speaker thought Albanese’s framing was “ironical” (and possibly provocative, given “where the bloody hell” was a marketing line developed during the prime minister’s Tourism Australia days).

Smith – not widely known for his “ironical” tendencies – was correct on both counts.

But Albanese’s question was apposite. The government bowled up several answers to Albanese’s opening question on Wednesday. The first excuse was anti-corruption bodies are complex, and we need to consult widely before rushing to legislate.

That’s reasonable enough. These bodies are complex, and considered consultation is always better than drawing up a complex proposal on the back of a beer coaster.

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The second explanation/justification/excuse was: it’s difficult to conduct a proper consultation period during a pandemic. Hmm. Maybe. A bit. But we all have Zoom, and we know how to use it. One of the special bequests of the pandemic: Zoom, and the mastery of Zoom backgrounds.

The third explanation/justification/excuse was “don’t you realise there’s a crisis, Anthony, you fool”. Supplementary to that side swipe from the prime minister was this: “I was not going to have one public servant diverted from the task [of managing the pandemic to deal with ICAC].”

Scott Morrison has never lacked confidence, but it is brave of the prime minister to construct a defence that his own government can’t multitask. This is particularly brave when Morrison and Co have spent all the months of the crisis demonstrating they are pretty efficient at multitasking.

This government can walk and chew gum at the same time. We’ve watched them do it for months.

Another fact inconvenient to the official explanation/justification/excuse: this government has managed to pursue several reforms this year that aren’t related to managing the Covid crisis.

Just a few standout examples. The government is in the throes of overhauling the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – a complex undertaking requiring wide-ranging consultation. It is also pursuing a change the mandate of its clean energy bodies to allow for investment in gas and carbon capture and storage.

Then there’s the foreign veto power proposal giving the commonwealth the ability to cancel various sub-national and university agreements it views as contrary to the national interest. I don’t think that proposal was preceded by a huge amount of consultation, but the change is certainly consequential and unrelated to Covid-19.

The government has also had time to pursue powers allowing it to remove mobile phones from asylum seekers in immigration detention. No clear Covid angle there, but certainly time diverted in a quest to try and cajole the Senate crossbench into supporting the legislation. There are other examples, like doubling university fees for some future humanities students.

Should I keep going? I can. But it is probably unnecessary, because you get the drift.

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Then there’s the inconvenience of the timelines. A cabinet submission outlining a proposal recommending that the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity be converted into a federal integrity commission with two wings – one for law enforcement agencies and the other for public servants and politicians – was being worked up in the weeks before Malcolm Turnbull was removed as prime minister. So that preparatory work was happening back in 2018.

The government had an exposure draft of its preferred legislation ready in January this year. While the draft was ready, the attorney general proffered another excuse in January for why he would be hastening slowly.

“Rather than starting the consultation process during the holiday period, which is not an ideal time to start a process of public scrutiny, I have decided to release the full 300-plus pages of the draft early in the new year,” Christian Porter said back then. Guys, don’t you know it’s Christmas?

Porter has been one of the busiest cabinet ministers during the pandemic. I’ve witnessed his frenetic juggling of responsibilities ranging from emergency public health regulations to reforming labour market rules allowing businesses to function during the crisis. When parliament sits, Porter runs the government’s tactics too.

But voters know an excuse when they hear one, particularly when they hear a sequence of ad-hoc, dog-ate-my-homework improvisations orbiting around the persistent absence of a national integrity body.

Before senior players in the government started their flourishing cottage industry in self-exonerating talking points and excuses (perhaps an unheralded subset of the Coalition’s modern manufacturing strategy), Morrison and Porter were more direct about what the hold-up was.

Back in 2018, Porter said reforming the current anti-corruption functions was not the “first and foremost priority” of the government. Morrison once dismissed a federal integrity commission as a “fringe issue”.

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The problem for the government is while creating a body charged with policing their beat apparently isn’t a priority, the problems keep piling up.

Sports grants. The unsolved mystery of how Angus Taylor came to use completely false figures in a political attack against the Sydney lord mayor, Clover Moore. A persistent head-scratcher: how did the government come to roll out a potentially unlawful program in robodebt?

More recently there’s the persistent stink around the Leppington land purchase, where officials paid $30m for land worth $3m – a process so freewheeling and so dubious it prompted the Australian National Audit Office to refer the transaction to the Australian federal police. Grant Hehir, the commonwealth auditor-general, told Senate estimates this week that was the first time in his tenure where he had referred an issue to the police for investigation.

So a quick hint for the prime minister: ensuring our institutions work in the interests of voters, ensuring public servants actually serve the public, ensuring there are consequences when powerful people abuse their power and cross lines that should not be crossed, is not a fringe issue.

It is one of the most important issues there is. And I reckon voters know it.