The Morrison government’s commonwealth integrity commission would be the weakest anti-corruption body in the country, according to the Centre for Public Integrity.
In a report released on Wednesday, the independent thinktank observes the proposed CIC would lack powers to investigate corruption that falls short of criminal conduct, open its own investigations, hold public hearings and make findings of fact.
The deficiencies have been well ventilated since the government released its draft bill in November 2020, including by a Guardian Australia investigation in July that found the CIC would lack power to investigate dozens of integrity, expense and pork-barrelling controversies.
The CIC debate has renewed political relevance as the prime minister, Scott Morrison, has made a virtue of the softer approach in light of the NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian’s resignation.
On Tuesday the Greens and independent Helen Haines signalled that they will seek to toughen the federal CIC model and force a debate on a private member’s bill for a body with more extensive powers.
The Centre for Public Integrity found that the Greens, Haines and Labor’s proposals all had stronger corruption-fighting powers than the Coalition model.
According to the report, the NSW and Queensland anti-corruption bodies are the strongest in the country because they have the ability to:
- Investigate those outside the public service who seek to unduly influence public decision making
- Investigate alleged corrupt conduct that falls short of criminal conduct
- Begin investigations without satisfying a threshold of evidence, meaning that investigations are used to determine whether any misconduct has occurred
- Commence own-motion investigations
- Hold public hearings if in the public interes; and
The CIC is both narrower in scope – because it excludes anyone outside the public sector who dishonestly or improperly influences decision making – and sets a higher bar for corruption because alleged public-sector misconduct can only be investigated if it would constitute a criminal offence.
On Wednesday Morrison said the CIC would have “processes that assume people are innocent before thought to be guilty”, incorrectly implying that the NSW Icac does not grant the presumption of innocence.
Asked whether Icac needs to be reformed, Morrison said the NSW model “is certainly not a model we would ever consider at a federal level, and I think that has been on display for some time”.
He said millions of people would “understand that is a pretty good call” given Berejiklian’s resignation before Icac hearings to investigate whether she had been involved in “a breach of public trust” between 2012 and 2018 because of her relationship with the former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.
The assistant attorney general, Amanda Stoker, has claimed Icac proceedings have “seen lives destroyed over trivialities, careers ended over investigations that have gone nowhere, and the tarnishing of the reputations of people who appear as witnesses, not as suspects, only to find themselves painted guilty in the public eye by their mere appearance”.
Stoker said the government wants the bill in parliament before the end of the year. There is no guarantee the CIC will be legislated. If the Senate amends the bill to toughen it, the government could stall or block it in the lower house.