For a demonstration of how power really works in Australia, yesterday’s events in Parliament were highly educational. The major parties, who both have strong links with James Packer and Crown, united to prevent a parliamentary inquiry into the ongoing revelations by Nine about the way gambling giant Crown had seemingly secured privileged treatment from governments under both sides.

In particular, the government, since the Howard years, had run a bespoke customs service for Crown to tick the box on the entry of foreign high rollers. These high rollers, some of which were found to have links to organised crime or the Beijing dictatorship, were jetted in for a brief visit to gamble a few million at a Crown facility and, perhaps, exploit people-trafficked sex workers while visiting.

The list of people readily waved through into Australia by a government that proclaims itself implacable on border security grows longer every week.

Crown’s links with Labor and the Coalition go beyond the Packer family’s famous employment of generations of former politicians or party executives. In 2017-18 alone, Crown donated around $78,000 to Labor and just over $100,000 to the Coalition, primarily to the Victorian and West Australian branches of the parties. In 2016-17 it was around $90,000 to Labor and over $110,000 to the Coalition; in 2015-16 it was just over $60,000 to Labor and nearly $110,000 to the Coalition.

Crown is always good for a decent chunk of change for the Victorian and WA branches on both sides. So instead of a parliamentary inquiry, Labor and the government were content with Attorney-General Christian Porter referring the whole thing to the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI).

This means the matter will go precisely nowhere. The ACLEI is the reason why so many people outside the major political parties — until 2018, when Bill Shorten committed Labor to a federal anti-corruption body — think we need a federal ICAC: it’s hopelessly inadequate.

The tiny law enforcement anti-corruption body has long been the subject of the criticism that it is so too small. It has to second staff from the agencies it is meant to investigate in order to carry out investigations — which it has to pick and choose from because it is too small to investigate everything that is referred to it. Since then the funding of the ACLEI has been increased marginally, but it continues to operate with an appropriation of around $11.5 million annually and a staff of just 54.

A highly critical ANAO report into the efficiency of the ACLEI last year concluded “the ANAO has not been able to conclude whether ACLEI has been operating efficiently” because “ACLEI has not measured, benchmarked or reported on its efficiency in detecting, investigating and preventing corrupt conduct”, nor did it “assess its operational efficiency against its own past performance or other organisations. The ANAO’s analysis indicates that the efficiency of ACLEI’s investigation activities requires particular improvement, including to address growth in the number of investigations commenced compared to the number of investigations completed.”

Worse: the ACLEI’s remit is highly limited. It can only examine criminal conduct by law enforcement officials — not ordinary public servants, and particularly not ministers and staffers. It is unable to examine corrupt conduct — that is, conduct that doesn’t meet the test of criminality but which involves adversely affecting the honest and impartial exercise of official functions by officials, a breach of the public trust or misuse of information for someone’s benefit. State anti-corruption bodies like ICAC all have the power to investigate corrupt conduct but no federal body does.

The benefit of referral of the Crown allegations to the ACLEI is that, if true, it would almost certainly involve corrupt conduct, not criminality, and the ACLEI — even if it had the resources to properly investigate — would wash its hands of the matter. And in any event, no politician or staffer can be investigated anyway. It’s the ideal investigation for political parties worried about their extensive links to a powerful company — completely unthreatening.

Labor’s Mark Dreyfus justified the opposition’s support for the referral by saying ACLEI had the powers of a “standing royal commission” — in contrast to the weak powers of a parliamentary inquiry. “Standing royal commission” was exactly the phrase that the government, hilariously, used about ASIC when it was insisting there was no need for a royal commission into the banking sector. A parliamentary inquiry would indeed lack the coercive powers of the ACLEI — but at least it would be carried out in public, which the ACLEI can’t do unless expressly asked to do so by the Attorney-General.

If there was an actual Commonwealth anti-corruption commission worthy of the name — not the farce half-heartedly proffered by the government last year — the major parties’ ability to shield themselves from scrutiny would be seriously undermined. That’s why there won’t be one.

Peter Fray

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