Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

How would the scandal of Angus “Watergate” Taylor’s office allegedly using a forged document in a partisan attack be handled under the government’s proposed national integrity commission?

Prima facie, it seems someone in Taylor’s office has engaged in clear misconduct, if not an actual crime, in inventing completely false figures on travel by City of Sydney officials and passing them off as an official local government document to the Coalition’s stenographers at News Corp. Taylor is insisting, in defiance of all available evidence, that his office obtained the forged document legitimately from the City of Sydney’s website.

The possibility of a minister’s office forging documents of another government body would, surely, be the kind of issue that a properly constituted federal anti-corruption and integrity body should examine. And the government is very proud of its proposed national integrity commission.

Last week, Attorney-General Christian Porter devoted a large proportion of his National Press Club speech to attacking the Australia Institute for criticising his proposed model, possibly unaware that the model backed by the Australia Institute was designed by and has the support of an array of Australia’s most senior legal figures.

So let’s test Porter’s proposed model.

Could someone refer the matter of an apparently forged government document to Porter’s body?

No. Under Porter’s model, the body would be banned from taking complaints about ministers, MPs or their staff from the public.

“The CIC will not investigate direct complaints about ministers, members of parliament or their staff received from the public at large,” Porter says, thereby preserving the special protection afforded to political staffers, who are accountable to no one at all except the politicians they serve.

The body could only consider complaints “from another integrity agency such as the Ombudsman, ANAO, IGIS, APSC or ASIC”. The body could initiate its own investigation — but only if it stumbled across the forged document in the course of another investigation — not off its own bat.

Assuming an investigation accidentally happened, is a forged document going to be investigated?

No. Under Porter’s model, “misuse of official information” would be one grounds for investigation as “corrupt conduct”, which appears to apply here.

But wait — in fact the body wouldn’t investigate it because it must only investigate “serious or systemic corrupt conduct, rather than looking into issues of misconduct or non-compliance under various codes of conduct”. If it’s one forged document, that’s not “systemic” corrupt conduct, so sorry, but it’s outside the jurisdiction of Porter’s model.

Assuming it did investigate, could it question Porter and his staff publicly?

No. The government, terrified of its ministers having to be questioned in public, ICAC-style, wants to ban all public hearings by the body. There will thus be no public or media scrutiny of any investigation. It will entirely be in secret, which is how this government prefers things.

Assuming it did investigate, could it get the metadata of staff in Taylor’s office? 

Unclear. If the government wants to track down a whistleblower who has embarrassed it, it’s no holds barred when it comes to using metadata to find them. And if the proposed body wants to investigate an AFP officer or someone in the ATO, Porter proposes that it can get the necessary metadata.

But can the metadata of government staffers be used to find out if they’ve committed a crime? Porter is reluctant. That issue “will be part of the consultation process on the proposed model”. So that’s a no, presumably.

Assuming it did investigate, could it make findings of corrupt conduct?

No. Say the body investigates a minister’s office and finds the staff, or the minister, has behaved corruptly. Can it reveal that? Certainly not — the body is banned from revealing that someone has behaved corruptly.

Instead, the body has to hand the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who is hand-picked by the government and which, like the AFP, is traditionally reluctant to prosecute anyone if it might prove embarrassing to the government. If the DPP refuses to prosecute, for whatever reason, the body must remain silent about the corruption it found.

That’s because Porter’s model has always been about preventing a real national integrity body, and allowing the existing culture of soft corruption and politicised policy and regulation that pervades the Commonwealth political system to continue unthreatened by independent transparency or scrutiny.

Peter Fray

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