Australia

Scott Morrison defends delay on corruption watchdog promised nearly two years ago

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday. Source: AAP

The Morrison government received a draft of a bill to establish a national anti-corruption commission in December last year.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended delaying establishing a national corruption watchdog despite his government receiving a draft bill more than nine months ago.

Senior officials from the attorney-general's department presented the minister with an exposure draft of the legislation in December.

Mr Morrison said coronavirus was taking precedence over the corruption commission he promised to establish almost two years ago.

"I was not going to have one public servant diverted from the task of ... dealing with this pandemic," he told parliament on Wednesday.

He said Labor leader Anthony Albanese had failed to recognise Attorney-General Christian Porter's work on reforming the industrial relations system.

"The attorney-general has been involved for many months now, and bringing both employers and employee representatives together to fashion a set of proposals, to get more Australians back to work. "

Attorney-General's Department deputy secretary Sarah Chidgey said an exposure draft was sent to Mr Porter in December.

"Part of the consideration with COVID is making sure that it's an appropriate time to conduct a comprehensive consultation process," she told a Senate estimates hearing.

"That has been part of the reason for delaying release of that exposure draft."

Labor senator Murray Watt was flabbergasted by the delay.

"Wow. So he's been sitting on it since last year?" he said.

Mr Albanese, meanwhile, tweeted that Australia needed a federal anti-corruption commission to bring back public accountability.

The coalition committed to establishing a federal anti-corruption commission almost two years ago.

A corruption scandal engulfing former NSW Liberal MP Daryl Maguire and a controversial federal land purchase have reignited calls for a national body.

Government minister Zed Seselja said Mr Porter would release the exposure draft soon.

"We have been dealing with the COVID crisis and the attorney-general in a range of capacities of course has been dealing with that response," he said.

Senator Watt questioned if the coalition had decided fighting corruption could wait.

"The government's argument as to why it has not been able to deliver a Commonwealth integrity commission that it promised nearly two years ago is that there's just too much going on," he said.

Department secretary Chris Moraitis said some resources had been diverted to industrial relations reform and bushfires, which the government considered more pressing.

He said the department had progressed work relating to the commission as far as it could and was now waiting for the exposure draft's release.

The committee also heard the 76 integrity commission staff referenced in the federal budget was an error.

"It was an oversight from previous budget measures that shouldn't have been included in that paper and would ordinarily have been edited, but that was missed," Ms Chidgey said.

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