Monday, 9 November 2020
Over recent times, public confidence and faith in what traditionally were perceived as upright pillars of society—including major financial institutions, religious organisations, reputable charities, sporting icons, government agencies and parliament itself—have been considerably diminished both here in Australia and across the world. That confidence was further eroded last week by US President Trump, with his allegations that the recent presidential election was rorted and his claims of widespread illegal votes being cast and election theft. For those of us elected to public office, whom the Australian people have placed their trust in, the loss of faith in elected representatives should be of concern. It leads to a loss of faith in the laws of our land, the fairness and justice that our values and our identity are built on, and the freedom and democracy that so many Australian lives have been lost defending. As I reflect on the public scandals in Australia over recent years, which include the abuse of office, rorting and misuse of public funds, it is not acceptable that they should be glossed over as isolated cases or aberrations. Public cynicism further deepens when governments are seen to condone, cover up or ignore bad behaviour. Yet that is what has been happening time and time again under the Morrison government.
There have been the $100 million sports rorts, where public money was spent to influence an election outcome; the payment of $30 million for the Leppington Triangle airport land valued at $3 million—paid to a substantial Liberal Party donor—and then reportedly leased back to the seller at a value of less than $1 million; the $150 million swimming pool rorts program; the energy minister's connection to the illegal clearing of grasslands and an $80 million water purchase where above-market prices were allegedly paid; the $220 million regional rorts allegations, which raised a scathing report from the Auditor-General; and the recent standing down of the chairman and deputy chairman of the corporate watchdog, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. And in South Australia, three government ministers, the Speaker of the Legislative Council and the Chief Government Whip were all stood down over tens of thousands of dollars of questionable travel claims. Never before can I recall a mass standdown of so many senior government officeholders. That list is not exhaustive, and I could add much more to it. So what has been the Morrison government's response to such a serious matter?
Firstly, they've dismissed claims of wrongdoing as exaggerated nonsense. Secondly, they've cut funding to the National Audit Office for exposing the rorts. Thirdly, after years of procrastination and vacillation, the Morrison government has finally unveiled its draft legislation to establish what has been widely described as a 'Clayton’s integrity commission'. This is what credible legal experts have said about the government's proposed federal anticorruption commission. The Centre for Public Integrity has been quoted as saying:
Christian Porter's proposal would be the weakest watchdog in the country … They're setting that bar so high for investigations that they wouldn't be able to investigate 'sports rorts' or the Western Sydney airport deal.
Steven Charles QC, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal, was quoted as saying:
It's an attempt to protect ministers, politicians and senior public servants from investigations into serious corruption.
Geoffrey Watson SC, former counsel assisting the NSW ICAC, said, 'It is designed to cover up corruption, not expose it.' And Anthony Whealy QC, former judge of the NSW Supreme Court, was quoted as saying:
It's a crying shame the government will not give this body an effective way to control corruption in the public service and the Parliament … The real reason for that is they are afraid of … how it might affect them.
Sadly, the last comment resonates widely throughout the community.
The standards of integrity set by this parliament become the benchmark for society. If members of parliament or of the elected government are seen to be above the law, community standards deteriorate. The establishment of a national integrity commission that acts independently of government and which the Australian people can have total confidence in will go a long way to restoring public trust and confidence in the highest authority of our nation, that is, this parliament, because the standards set for the commission directly reflect the standards that the parliament has set for itself.