After the drama of the unwinnable election, it’s easy to forget that less than 12 months ago Scott Morrison was promising a long-awaited federal anti-corruption watchdog.
Since the weekend, a Nine investigation has shown that Crown Resorts has been rolling out the red carpet for “VVIP” gangsters and Beijing influence peddlers, allegedly with the tacit approval of Home Affairs.
One unexpected beneficiary of Nine’s investigation is Morrison’s embattled energy minister Angus Taylor. Taylor’s gaffe-ridden year, which culminated in allegations he met with the environment department to protect a family farming interest, is now old news.
Since the breaking of the Crown scandal, calls for a federal independent commission against corruption (ICAC) have come from usual crossbench suspects Andrew Wilkie and Jacqui Lambie. But despite their recent commitment, the government has made no mention of it amid the Crown fallout.
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Who wants a federal ICAC?
Demand for a federal anti-corruption body has been around since the New South Wales ICAC was established in 1989. In recent years, those calls have largely come from smaller parties like the Greens and sometimes-independent Nick Xenophon. Early last year, Bill Shorten put his support behind a federal corruption body.
It’s not surprising that the major parties are uneasy about creating a federal watchdog, since they’ve been the primary victims of state-based bodies. NSW Labor still hasn’t recovered from the years of savaging by the commission, which saw findings of corrupt conduct made against several former ministers, and led to Eddie Obeid landing behind bars. Meanwhile, the NSW Liberals have lost two of their last five premiers — Nick Greiner (whose government ironically created the commission) and Barry O’Farrell following ICAC investigations.
A Morrison proposal
The Coalition finally came around to a federal ICAC late last year, although right from the start, it never quite seemed like their hearts were in it. Just a month before proposing the watchdog, the government had called a federal ICAC a “fringe issue”. Right from the outset, Morrison’s ICAC was criticised as toothless and inadequate.
The proposed body would not hold public hearings, nor would it make public findings of corrupt conduct like the NSW body does, instead referring potential criminal matters on to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. Investigations would require a reasonable suspicion of corruption before launching an investigation, a significantly higher bar than in NSW. It would also not operate retrospectively, meaning the current Coalition government would be immune from any proceedings.
Just weeks after telling commercial radio Australia didn’t need a federal anti-corruption body, crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen SC, who won a High Court case against the NSW ICAC over its investigation of her, was picked to help develop the government’s proposal.
Morrison’s ICAC understandably drew fierce criticism from people with experience in the field. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont called the lack of public hearings “a travesty”. Former judge and NSW ICAC boss David Ipp called the Morrison model “the kind of integrity commission that you would have when you don’t want to have an integrity commission”. Under the proposal, which only allowed referrals from government agencies, rather than independent whistle-blowers, Eddie Obeid would probably never have been convicted, according to Ipp.
The Crown fallout
The failure to return to the topic of a federal ICAC makes it seem like Morrison’s proposal was another example of policy-making on the fly. In fact, since Nine’s investigation there hasn’t been an awful lot from the major parties. The government’s response so far has been to announce a probe by the National Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, a body with incredibly limited powers.
The silence might be for the same reason that both the Coalition and Labor resisted such a body for so long in the first place — the potential inconvenience of dirty laundry being aired.
According to Nine’s David Crowe, “the gentle treatment of Crown in parliament on Monday suggests the company’s lobbying has paid dividends”. Nick McKenzie, one of the brains behind the Crown investigation, told readers to “watch this space” for more on the reluctance of politicians to speak out against Crown.
With government contracting scandals, coming seemingly every few weeks, and the revolving door between parliament and big business and lobby groups revolving more furiously than ever, it’s unsurprising that trust in politicians is at an all time low.
Given his comfortable majority, and with an opposition in rubber stamp mode, Morrison could drain some of that swamp right now. Will he try?
Will Scott Morrison make genuine headway on a federal ICAC? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know your thoughts.