Labor’s announcement on Tuesday backing a federal anti-corruption watchdog, the National Integrity Commission (NIC), is a welcome one, but as a corruption researcher I have a strange feeling about it.

Call it morbid skepticism, but Labor’s call for what amounts to a permanent royal commission into federal corruption raises a few questions along with the hopes. The first question is about just why Labor is doing it.

Consider their bizarre argument that there is no federal corruption in Australia, but that an NIC is important to prevent federal corruption in the future, while also admitting that the NIC is necessary to restore the public’s faith in federal politicians because people believe pollies and public servants are corrupt anyway. Makes sense, right?

It’s a strange argument to make, but understandable for legal and political reasons — and vitally important for seeing how this country’s ruling class deals with these issues. (It will surprise just about no one to discover that there’s a big gap between how Australia’s ruling class and everyday Australians perceive corruption.)

The second question is, beyond all the motherhood statements, what’s in the details? What is Labor actually calling for, and where does it come up short? My concerns with those details come down to three themes: it has too much bipartisanship, not enough independence, and too much emphasis on the private, instead of the public.

[Have dodgy pollies really cost Australia $72 billion?]

Too bipartisan

Labor is calling for a “Bipartisan Joint Standing Committee” to oversee the NIC and appoint its commissioners. That sounds good in theory, but that doesn’t cut out opportunities for collusion between the major parties.

It could just be a word in a press release, but having an all-party committee like other parliamentary joint standing committees is important. And since the NIC would be so critical to how government works in Australia, I argue you need more than a Labor-Coalition-and-a-Green membership: bring in the feral Senate crossbenchers.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. After all, Labor’s announcement does specify that an NIC “should be above politics and agreed by all parties”.

Then again, an announcement email signed by shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus calls for the Coalition “to join us, and establish this body together. It should be bipartisan, and apolitical”.

Either way, “bipartisan” isn’t enough.

Not enough independence

As the example of the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) shows, even the most effective anti-corruption commission can be decapitateddefunded and defanged by the government of the day.

It’s not just a matter for corruption-fighters either. It applies to independent commissions in general: you don’t have to look farther than what happened to former federal human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs. Independence for the NIC must be guaranteed.

Indeed, guaranteed independence means making sure the NIC has sole power over who to hire and who and what to investigate — and to follow those investigations wherever they lead (that is, inevitably, into the private sector), to compel testimony, to make findings of fact. It means arms-length funding, so the purse strings can’t be cut. It also means very clear detailing of the remit of the NIC’s powers from the beginning, and strong post-investigation oversight by the standing committee.    

Keep it as public as possible

Perhaps the most important point is whether or not the NIC would be a strong anti-corruption commission, like NSW’s ICAC — or a weak one, like Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC).

Ultimately, what makes for a strong anti-corruption commission is the ability to make their process as public and transparent as possible. To have the power to make findings of fact and to do it on the presumption that everything will be made public, especially hearings, is what guarantees effectiveness along with due process.

That’s because one of the odd things about corruption is that those who do the accusing have the same problem as the accused — they are all equally vulnerable to charges of perceived or “apprehended bias”, which is just as powerful and potentially destructive as actual corruption.

As we all know, it isn’t enough to do justice; justice must be seen to be done.

Yes, private hearings will occasionally be necessary, but public hearings and transparent accountability to the public must be the presumption, and that presumption must be clearly specified in law. Labor’s call for the NIC to have “discretion to hold public hearings” is vague, but promising.

Labor does deserve credit for coming as far as it has. Considering the Coalition alternatives — either Malcolm Turnbull’s support for a toothless IBAC model or Barnaby Joyce’s helpful comment that the Senate is working just fine safeguarding the feds from corruption and that there’s no “real sense in Australia of concern with the political system” — Labor is at least leading the debate in the right direction. Hell, on this issue, Bill Shorten is like Pericles compared to some these blokes.

But Labor wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for a group of principled and committed activists, from former jurists on the National Integrity Committee to passionate academics and organisations like the Australia Institute and Transparency International Australia, working together to drive progress.

More need to be done, but all together, it’s not a bad start.

*Robert Lamontagne is a former member of the Labor Party in the ACT and Queensland. His corruption research is funded by the government’s International Postgraduate Research Scheme. One of his doctoral supervisors sits on both the Australian and international boards for Transparency International. He has no financial interests in any of the organisations mentioned.

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