News Paul Bongiorno: Patience wearing thin as we’re no closer to a federal anti-corruption commission

Paul Bongiorno: Patience wearing thin as we’re no closer to a federal anti-corruption commission

Paul Bongiorno
Rorts and scandals – welcome to another day unchecked in Canberra, Paul Bongiorno writes.
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If you can believe the Prime Minister, the huge apparatus that is the Commonwealth government is incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

Scott Morrison explains his failure to deliver a Commonwealth integrity commission by now on not wanting to divert one public servant from the task of managing the pandemic.

The promise was made in 2018 and even before the COVID-19 virus struck, Attorney-General Christian Porter was claiming complexity and the need for extensive consultations to get it right.

The time for written submissions on his draft legislation ended last Friday and 300 were lodged.

Attorney-General Christian Porter continues to consult on an integrity commission. Photo: AAP

Mr Porter says his department is now sifting through them and some will be published on the department website “where appropriate and authorised by the author”.

Opinion polls before and after the May 2019 federal election found overwhelming support for an integrity commission with strong powers.

An Australia Institute poll in on the eve of the election in April 2019 found 80 per cent of Australians wanted a real anti-corruption watchdog with teeth and the support was across the political spectrum.

An Essential Poll in November found support had not waned, with an 81 per cent result.

The difference between the competing models was stark: Labor’s was closer to the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) in NSW while the Liberals’ effort severely nobbled independent and public scrutiny of politicians and senior public servants.

Geoffrey Watson SC, former counsel assisting ICAC, says the draft bill is “designed to cover up corruption, not expose it”.

But even so, the surprise election result suggests voters weren’t much concentrating on corruption as a vote-determining issue.

Perhaps because Australians are already cynical of politicians and their distrust has been more than vindicated at ICAC over the years with politicians of all stripes being caught out and exposed.

But since the election the scandals and rorts of the Morrison government have piled up seemingly without consequence as secrecy and brazen disregard for earlier conventions of behaviour are ignored.

There is a searing compilation of all of this by Nick Feik in the latest edition of The Monthly.

There he documents the abuse of taxpayers money to buy political favour, or to look after mates, or the abuse of ministerial office for personal benefit.

Labor’s newly appointed shadow minister for government accountability Kristina Keneally believes the wheel is turning and voters can’t help but notice that Mr Morrison is not delivering on a key promise to bolster  government integrity.

Senator Keneally says people hate waste and extravagance.

She and her colleague Pat Conroy have homed in on Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s administration of the Safer Communities grants program and his use of a VIP jet at the cost of $36,000 to fly to Tasmania to hand out $194,000 before a 2018 by-election.

Senator Keneally says to put this in context “the aged pension is about $24,000 and Dutton spent one and a half times what some people have to live on for a whole year and all for a 24-hour trip to make highly political announcements in a by-election”.

The minister did this in defiance of departmental guidelines and before applications were called.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says Mr Dutton’s actions were within the rules.  Photo: AAP

In Parliament the Prime Minister said this pork barrelling was consistent with the rules and that “settles the issue”.

After the sports rorts imbroglio, the government now builds in ministerial discretion as the final arbiter over the expenditure of billions of dollars.

The government writes the rules, in other words, to suit itself.

When Labor in Parliament linked another Safer Communities grant to an organisation that had donated to Peter Dutton, Mr Morrison accused the Opposition of “throwing muck around”.

Mr Porter says the written submissions on his integrity legislation “aren’t the sum of the consultation process”;  he and the department have had more than 35 consultations with a range of stakeholders and these consultations are continuing.

When they will end is anybody’s guess.

But there is little room for optimism that a prime minister so averse to scrutiny, transparency and accountability is in any hurry.

Maybe Mr Morrison is counting on voters at the next election to be just as distracted as they were at the last one to hold him to account on integrity.

Senator Keneally believes he would be in for a rude shock is this is the case.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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