Why Scott Morrison and his government oppose a NSW-style anti-corruption watchdog

Scott Morrison has again dismissed calls for a federal NSW-style anti-corruption commission, saying it wouldn't be a "good call" to follow the same model. Here's how his government's proposed commission compares to the NSW ICAC.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media at the Lodge in Canberra.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media at the Lodge in Canberra. Source: AAP

Calls have intensified for the introduction of a national integrity commission following Gladys Berejiklian’s sudden resignation as New South Wales premier amid an investigation by the state's anti-corruption watchdog.

Senior members of the coalition, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, are adamant its plan to introduce legislation for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC) this year won’t follow the NSW model.

They've voiced concerns the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption’s (ICAC) powers have seen lives “destroyed over trivialities” and without the presumption of innocence.

In contrast, critics have complained that the federal government’s proposed CIC would not go far enough towards addressing accountability concerns at a federal level.

'Not a model we would ever consider'

The NSW anti-corruption watchdog is investigating Ms Berejiklian over potential breaches of public trust linked to her secret personal relationship with former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire.

The former NSW premier resigned last week after ICAC revealed it would hold public hearings into the matter, where Ms Berejiklian - who denies any wrongdoing - would be compelled to give evidence. 

PM fends off suggestions for federal ICAC

Mr Morrison has pointed to Ms Berejiklian’s downfall as evidence of why the NSW-style integrity commission should not be adopted to investigate federal politicians.

“It is certainly not a model that we would ever consider at a federal level and I think that has been on display for some time,” he told the Seven Network on Tuesday. “You have got to have processes that assume people are innocent before they are thought to be guilty and that is a real problem."

“I'm sure there are millions of people who see what has happened to Gladys Berejiklian and will understand that that’s a pretty good call not to follow that model." 

Labor and the Greens have seized on the investigation into Ms Berejiklian to reignite their calls for a national integrity commission that can enforce accountability.

Greens Senator Larissa Waters said Mr Morrison’s suggestion that the NSW ICAC assumes guilt before an investigation is “patently wrong” and designed to justify his “pathetically weak proposal”.

“The Australian public knows that corruption and lack of integrity are rife at the federal level, and they know the Government's long overdue proposal is deliberately weak,” she said.

“It wouldn’t hold public hearings nor be able to initiate investigations without a referral from the government - a toothless watchdog by design.”

How does the NSW ICAC work?

The ICAC's powers include being able to compel witnesses to answer questions in private and public hearings, compel public officials to provide information, obtain search warrants for properties or use surveillance devices, and intercept phone calls.

The anti-corruption watchdog is no stranger to controversy, with Ms Berejiklian now the third Liberal premier along with Nick Greiner and Barry O’Farrell to see their state political demise because of the body.

Two former Labor ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald also faced being jailed in the wake of corruption findings uncovered by ICAC.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said this week the ICAC was "not the great sort of righteous process - it's a little bit Spanish Inquisition".

“We elect politicians, not bureaucrats - people should be the final arbiter," he told the Seven Network.

Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, Liberal Senator Amanda Stoker, has also taken issue with the ICAC.

"Its broad sweeping powers of inquisition and compulsion have seen lives destroyed over trivialities, careers ended over investigations that have gone nowhere," she told ABC radio.

"We need to also ask who's going to watch these all-powerful armies of lawyers who are able to hide under the veil of independence."

What is the federal government proposing?

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash is working through findings from public consultation ahead of a bill introducing the government’s proposed CIC, which is due to go before parliament before the end of the year.

The proposed body was first announced almost three years ago, but the plan was not revived until December 2020, when the federal government released a draft bill for public consultation.

The government says its proposed model would have greater investigative powers than a royal commission to hold hearings and compel witnesses to testify.

It says it would also allow for the entering and searching of premises, require people to surrender documents, use telecommunication interceptions, and have individuals arrested. 

But the Centre for Public Integrity - a group of former judges and prosecutors - has rejected the draft as not fit for purpose because it does not allow the commission to launch its own investigations, nor does it allow members of the public to refer suspected corruption. There also won’t be any opportunities for public hearings, the centre says.

It also said that the model’s definition of corruption is too narrow and the threshold for referral of public officials would be too high.

The proposed legislation also now faces the challenge of only having four more sitting weeks of parliament for it to pass before Christmas, with the next federal election due by May.

Senator Stoker has dismissed criticism the government has been sitting on legislation.

"We are really keen to get this done and to get it done in a way that made sure we get all the advantages of having an integrity body and avoid the pitfalls of those bodies that, I would suggest, have become almost rogue in the way that they operate," she said.

Labor’s Treasury spokesperson Jim Chalmers said a national integrity commission was needed to enhance accountability at a federal level.

“We know why Scott Morrison doesn't want a national anti-corruption commission and that's because he knows that his cabinet minister would be in strife,” he told reporters.

“He knows that we would be getting the sorts of outcomes that we've seen in NSW.”


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Published 5 October 2021 at 6:22pm
By Tom Stayner
Source: SBS News