Malcolm Turnbull’s gift of $440 million to a small charity run by Business Council members and finance and fossil fuel industry heavy hitters demonstrates just how badly we need a federal misconduct and corruption body.
With the government stonewalling on attempts to find out more information about the circumstances of the gift — and it is literally a gift — to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF) and the chair and other senior members of the charity board refusing to appear before an inquiry into the matter, voters have only been able to learn about the handout via the slow process of Senate estimates and, now, a Senate inquiry in which Labor and Greens senators have pursued foundation staff.
The likes of Kristina Keneally and Peter Whish-Wilson have done a good job but ultimately they are engaged in a partisan inquiry. A genuinely independent inquiry by someone without an agenda to score political points is needed, if only because of the sheer scale of the handout and the involvement of the Prime Minister himself. That can only be provided by a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) — which, incidentally, the Greens have been calling for for years. Labor endorsed the idea — finally — at the start of last year.
Apart from its independence, a federal body — with adequate powers — would also have the advantage of being able to summon Turnbull, Frydenberg and GBRF chair John Schubert to a hearing; while a Senate inquiry could eventually compel Schubert, House of Representatives members only attend Senate inquiries if they want to and Turnbull is likely to share Paul Keating’s lack of interest in “slumming it” before a committee — possibly correctly, if you value the prerogatives of the directly elected house.
Nor can the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) summon anyone — elected or not. Its powers are restricted to examining documents — and in any event you could probably write the ANAO’s conclusions about Turnbull’s handout without the effort of audit — how there was no overall program design, how there was no contestability in determining who should receive funding, how there were no clear goals in relation to the funding, no performance indicators devised, no examination of the recipient’s capacity to meet those goals, no evaluation process determined prior to allocation — all the ways that sound like bureaucratic jargon but are actually central to how a government hands money to external parties to do things in a way that minimises the risks of political interference, delivery failure and taxpayers getting less value for money than they should.
My guess is that the handout involves no illegality or misconduct — but ticks every single one of these boxes for how not to allocate taxpayer money, and could serve as the best How-Not-To example for the ANAO since the Regional Rorts affair. Having had some experience in grants, procurement and probity within government, it’s certainly the worst case of administrative integrity I’m aware of since Michael Wooldridge and the MRI machines.
A federal misconduct body would also be able to partly deal with the problems around Labor MP Emma Husar, who faces accusations not merely relating to her treatment of staff but her use of parliamentary resources. The government established an independent parliamentary expenses authority last year in the wake of the resignation of Sussan Ley; such a body could be rolled into a federal ICAC. Rather than an internal party inquiry into Husar — via which her opponents have distributed damaging claims, including entirely fabricated salacious allegations against her that have been circulated by the media — the claims relating to misuse of resources should have been immediately referred to an ICAC body. Ditto Barnaby Joyce (about whom, to date, no misuse of entitlements or expenses has been demonstrated).
A federal misconduct body won’t prevent misconduct, rorting and criminality. As New South Wales MP Daryl Maguire has shown, not even the NSW ICAC deters some politicians from behaving in egregious fashion. The point is to give voters — who are increasingly convinced the political system works in the interests of the powerful, not themselves — the comfort that politicians must face genuine and independent accountability for their actions. Beyond questions about Turnbull’s handout or lurid media claims about Emma Husar, this is the compelling issue in a polity where voters are growing increasingly disaffected.
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