Why we need a federal ICAC now

October 22, 2020

There has been a lot of talk this week about the word 'integrity'. What does that word actually mean? Etymology-wise it's Middle English, from the French 'integrite'. The Australian concise Oxford dictionary defines integrity as 'moral uprightness, honesty'. The online Cambridge dictionary defines it as 'the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that you refuse to change'. Every person who serves the people of Australia in this House should have these qualities. Australians should have confidence that their representatives have integrity. However, without a powerful and independent national integrity commission, they can't be confident about their representatives' integrity.

The last seven years of coalition government have not filled anyone with confidence when it comes to integrity. Now in their eighth year in office, let's pick over the long trail of scandals scattered in the coalition's wake. I will only do the top 10 because I don't have enough time. They include using taxpayers' money to pay 10 times too much to a Liberal Party donor for a piece of land alongside the new Sydney Airport. That doesn't sound like integrity to me. A federal judge said that a minister had engaged in criminal conduct by unlawfully depriving an asylum seeker of his liberty. Criminal conduct is not your classic definition of integrity. Then we have overseeing a scheme where Services Australia illegally issued debt collection notices to more than 370,000 Australians, where more than 2,000 people died, some from suicide, despite the government being warned it was illegal. That's not integrity. The member for New England paid $80 million for water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin, a quarter more than the seller asked. That wreaks of something but it ain't integrity.

An unheard of company with a head office in a shack on Kangaroo Island was awarded a $423 million contract to run refugee camps on Manus Island—under a limited tender, the only company invited to bid. That's hardly integrity. The current Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction sought meetings with senior environment officials about an ongoing investigation by the department into grasslands part owned by the minister. That smells more like equine faeces than integrity. The Minister for Home Affairs intervened to have two au pairs who were about to be deported released from immigration detention after he was contacted by a former colleague—definitely not integrity. The Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction—him again—used a fraudulent document and couldn't explain how he got it, in an attempt to tarnish the reputation of the Sydney Lord Mayor—not integrity.

And who could forget the sports rorts saga, when changes were made to list of sports grant recipients by the minister in consultation with the Prime Minister's office, after entering caretaker period? Sports Australia had no knowledge of six of the grants and no application form. There's no hint of integrity there at all. Just this week we found out that an investigation into alleged branch stacking involving taxpayer funded electorate staff in the offices of two Liberal MPs, including the Assistant Treasurer, was outsourced to the Assistant Treasurer's old law firm. That is not even in the same suburb as integrity.

It's obvious to every Australian, other than those in the Morrison government, that we urgently need a national integrity commission right now. We must restore confidence in our national politics. A national integrity commission that is powerful and independent will go some way towards repairing the damage done by our stale coalition government.

The Prime Minister, who holidays in Hawaii while the nation is on fire and campaigns for a week alongside Deb Frecklington in the Queensland state election and builds a chook shed on his rent-free property, tells us that he is too busy dealing with COVID-19 to devote time to establishing a national integrity commission. But in June this year, in the middle of the pandemic, Prime Minister Morrison found the time to establish the Higher Education Integrity Unit—yes, a unit to ensure that students have integrity when it comes to them doing their university assessments, to stop them cheating. The Morrison government had time to draft legislation that provided harsh penalties, including imprisonment for students and strict liability in some cases, to provide a deterrent to academic cheating. They had time to introduce that legislation and have it pass through parliament and had time to announce funding on 24 June this year for the new Higher Education Integrity Unit. Student cheating warranted their time in this pandemic year, but apparently holding government members to account, making sure they spend taxpayers' money with integrity, is not important enough.

In December 2018, the Attorney-General and the Prime Minister announced that, for nearly a year, they had been working on a 'robust, resource real system that will protect the integrity of Commonwealth and public administration'. But, after nearly three years, there's no legislation, no commission and no integrity. When a government thinks that holding students to account is more important than holding their own government members to account, that is a serious problem. That is a government lacking in integrity.