Coalition blasted after blaming Covid for delay in creating federal anti-corruption body

‘What have they got to hide?’ asks Labor after government accidentally releases talking points on Commonwealth Integrity Commission

Prime minister Scott Morrison. His government

Scott Morrison’s government has come under renewed pressure to establish a federal anti-corruption body after revelations the government paid 10 times the fair value to a Liberal donor for land near western Sydney airport.
Photograph: Cameron Laird/AAP

The Morrison government had legislation to create a federal anti-corruption body ready before the Covid-19 pandemic but has still failed to introduce it to parliament.

Talking points from the prime minister’s office, released on Thursday, instruct Coalition MPs to recommit to create a Commonwealth Integrity Commission and to promise it will come “as soon as possible” after Covid-19 recovery efforts.

They also reveal creation of a federal anti-corruption body will begin with the expansion of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity to cover just four financial regulators – suggesting a longer wait to gain oversight over the whole public service.

Labor’s shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, has seized on the revelation, arguing the government “tolerates corruption” because it has failed to release a bill after three years of work.

The Coalition has come under renewed pressure to establish a federal anti-corruption body after revelations the government paid 10 times fair value to a Liberal donor for land near western Sydney airport and cuts to the auditor general, who discovered the “unethical” behaviour in the infrastructure department.

On Tuesday Liberal senator Gerard Rennick misstated government policy, telling Sky News “we don’t support an integrity commission”.

In December 2018 the Morrison government announced it would create a Commonwealth Integrity Commission and had been working to do so since January.

Despite allocating $104.5m in the 2019 budget for the body, the government has missed its self-imposed deadlines to introduce legislation for it.

The Coalition talking points state the government “remains committed” to the body and “will progress to the next steps with the release of draft legislation as soon as possible after the more immediate priorities concerning the management of the Covid recovery have been dealt with”.

They state draft legislation “was ready for release before the global economic and health crisis caused by the coronavirus”.

Despite the attempt to blame Covid for delay, the government has introduced a slew of bills unrelated to the pandemic in 2020 including legislation to combine federal and state environmental approval processes, ban refugees’ and asylum seekers’ access to mobile phones in detention, clarify political donations laws and veto deals with foreign governments.

The talking points note the budget had “provided for stage 1 of the new Integrity Commission being the expansion of the jurisdiction of ACLEI to cover four new agencies: the Australian Taxation Office, Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission”.

“The budget allocated $9.9m and an additional 38 [average staffing level] to ACLEI to fund the expanded jurisdiction.”

The talking points claim the Commonwealth Integrity Commission “will have greater investigatory powers than a royal commission” – in reference to the ability to compel testimony – but will only have jurisdiction to investigate allegations of criminal conduct in the public sector, rather than corrupt behaviour short of criminality.

The body’s powers will be “employed judiciously” to avoid “the worst mistakes of state-based integrity commissions, which have resulted in multiple instances of unjust and irreparable harm to the reputations of innocent people due to a lack of appropriate checks and balances in their processes and operation”.

Dreyfus told Guardian Australia the government claims to have begun work on the anti-corruption body in January 2018 and to have had a draft since February 2020.

“Well, why can’t we see it? What have they got to hide? Why are they so terrified of an anti-corruption commission?”

“It’s absurd to claim that they are too busy to act. This is the biggest spending budget in history. There’s never been a greater need for an anti-corruption commission.”