It’s not as if we’re short of emblems, summations and demonstrations of why voter trust in our system of government is collapsing, but Scott Morrison’s “Commonwealth Integrity Commission” is better than most. It literally embodies exactly the rotten state of contemporary politics and voters’ belief the system works only for vested interests.
As any number of observers have noted, there is no capacity for public hearings by the body’s proposed public sector integrity division (the other planned area is the existing, useless Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, which will be moved into the new commission). The reason Scott Morrison presumably doesn’t want public hearings is that he saw too many MPs and powerbrokers from his own NSW Liberal division exposed by the NSW ICAC for crimes, misconduct and taking dodgy donations; he, like the rest of us, watched in agony as Barry O’Farrell — the best Australian premier in a generation — was caught out by it.
It didn’t matter that ICAC had exposed far worse crimes by Labor ministers; that, along with Fairfax’s Kate McClymont, ICAC had revealed the true extent of how utterly corrupt the NSW Labor Party was. So Morrison has gone for News Corp’s preferred model, in which there’s no danger of a politician being filmed walking down Northbourne Avenue into the CIC.
It will all be behind closed doors, exactly the way politicians want it. We won’t even know if a prime minister, or a leader of the opposition, or a senior public servant, is under investigation. That’s why the Murdoch outlets were cheering the announcement today — ironically, 24 hours after they were ranting about the limitations of suppression orders.
And that’s exactly one of the key problems voters perceive with our current political system: that so much is hidden from citizens. Donations. Meetings. Lobbying. And corrupt conduct. The exercise of power in Australia is hidden, confirming the sense that it is exercised by and for the powerful only.
Those who act to expose the exercise of that power — e.g. Witness K and Bernard Collaery — face exemplary punishment. Far from addressing voter concerns about the secrecy under which vested interests wield power, Morrison’s non-integrity commission will simply entrench them. Even if Morrison’s farce of a body establishes that a public official has acted corruptly, it can’t do anything except send the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions — who is handpicked by the Attorney-General of the day.
But, as so often things do with this wretched government, it gets worse. Much worse.
What better way to hobble an alleged anti-corruption commission than by making it impossible to tell it about corruption? Yes that’s right, the public will actually be banned from complaining to the CIC.
“The CIC will not investigate direct complaints about ministers, members of Parliament or their staff received from the public at large,” the government says.
Notice that limitation is confined to politicians and staffers only. You can dob in public servants, fine, but you’re not allowed to report possible corruption by a politician to this anti-corruption body. Your local MP could solicit a “donation” from you in return for a favour and you wouldn’t be able to report it to the CIC. And even if the media reveals corruption, the CIC can’t initiate its own investigations even then. It will only be able to do so where:
… it has before it information giving rise to a corruption issue which meets the investigation threshold. For example, where the CIC was looking into a public service department corruption issue and found evidence of corruption implicating a different department or a separate instance of potential corruption entirely.
So, an anti-corruption body that the public can’t complain to, that can’t investigate media revelations of corruption, and which can operate only in secret, can’t take any action or reveal the corruption it has found. This is the closest thing to a Yes, Prime Minister episode I’ve seen since in a quarter century of working with and watching elected and appointed officials.
And it’d be hilarious if it wasn’t confirming everything that voters suspect about government in Australia — that it’s rotten, and looking after the interests of the powerful and the politicians, and not them.
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