SYDNEY, Australia – Australia’s Labor Government enacted legislation on Wednesday that will create a federal integrity commission with broad powers to investigate allegations of misconduct by members of Parliament and all government officials. But much of its work will take place out of public view, reflecting the struggle to balance independent accountability with Australia’s languishing cocoon of procedural secrecy.
Attorney General Mark Dreyfus says the new watchdog – expected to be passed by lawmakers – represents the most ambitious attempt in decades to enforce high ethical standards and restore trust. public trust in the Australian government.
“The National Anti-Corruption Commission aims to eliminate corruption in the federal public sector, and restore trust and transparency in our democratic institutions,” he said, speaking in Congress. , in Canberra, on Wednesday. “The commission will be able to investigate serious systemic corruption, protecting any part of the federal public sector.”
And with an initial budget of AU$262 million ($167 million), he added, it could initiate a request on its own or in response to advice from anyone, including whistleblowers. incognito.
The bill establishes a commission to deliver on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s campaign promise, and its broad budget and mandate – which includes federal government employees and contractors – is often overlooked by the public and other stakeholders. Lawmakers from across the political spectrum were welcomed, but not without a few razor-sharp notes.
Its creation would be long overdue – for many years, Polls have shown strong support for a federal integrity commission. And even as they welcome more scrutiny of Australia’s opaque and money politics, independent critics in Parliament, along with many lawyers and former judges, argue that in In its current form, the committee would still do too much to protect politicians because of a provision that requires clearly defined “exceptional circumstances” to make public hearings.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant and many corruption investigations would not be successful without public hearings,” said Anthony Whealy, attorney and president of the Center for Public Integrity. “Legally, ‘exception’ has no real meaning, and it would act as a brake on the public interest.”
Secrecy and so-called soft corruption, a longstanding problem in Australian political life, have recently become even more pervasive and corrosive. Dark money flood campaigns. The public record requirement is waste with increasing rates. During the May election, the previous government was fired after a series of scandals involving public money being diverted to contested districts for unnecessary projects, including parking lots. vehicles and sports facilities.
The public is also still reeling from the bizarre recent revelation that former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who led that government, secretly put himself in charge of five sets during the pandemic.
However, when Mr Dreyfus introduced the integrity committee bill on Wednesday, he confirmed that “the default position is that the hearings will be held in private”.
Section 73 of the bill says that the committee “must” hold its hearings in private unless the commissioner decides there are “exceptions” and that it is in the public interest to make one or more public hearing.
Legal scholars say that standard sets a high standard for public disclosure, beyond what is required by most state anti-corruption agencies with similar mandates.
The privacy default also reflects what the Morrison government has said it wants from any anti-corruption agency: protection from people’s careers being undermined by unproven allegations.
On Thursday, the Liberal Party’s opposition leader, Peter Dutton, reiterated that concern.
“I don’t want a situation where someone has trashed their reputation and, after a few years, doesn’t even know if the investigation is ongoing,” he said.
He added that he supported the government’s proposal “following the model they put forward.”
To some, that may seem like a signed deal. Australia’s major parties – accustomed to a system where campaign contributions are often concealed and non-public gala dinners with lobbyists and journalists in Parliament – have resisted the set up an anti-corruption committee since the idea. introduce in Congress by a Greens leader in 2009. Their share of votes in each election has also decreased.
“I hate to think that two major parties have joined forces to defend themselves with a one-of-a-kind piece of legislation designed in part to restore public trust,” said Zoe Daniel, one of several newly elected independent member of Congress said. who has clearly campaigned for a transparent integrity committee.
In an email to reporters, the Integrity Center was quick to note that allowing more public hearings does not mean every hearing will be on display. In New South Wales, the state’s anti-corruption agency held 979 private and 42 public investigations between 2013 and 2020. The center added that in Victoria, the only state with such a test. investigating “exceptional circumstances” to its integrity committee, there were fewer inquiries about corruption than in New South Wales.
Ms Daniel said she worries that defense attorneys “will jump into ‘exceptions'” to make inquiries harder to initiate, to keep the public in the dark, and to delay or from disclaims accountability.
“Given how politically difficult it was to get this legislation in place, it seemed like a wasted opportunity to reduce it in any way,” she said. “I appreciate that it has to be done carefully and sensibly, and reputation protection should be part of it, but you don’t want to undermine the law itself or interfere with corruption investigations. corruption”.
According to Ms. Daniel, a former journalist, the bill will go through a review process and expect it to emerge with improvements in public disclosure.
“We have to do this right,” she said, adding: “There is still a lot of work to be done.”