Government warned of 'unstoppable' momentum for powerful anti-corruption body, as Concetta Fierravanti-Wells breaks ranks

Momentum for a powerful anti-corruption watchdog is 'unstoppable', the Prime Minister has been warned. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Momentum for a powerful anti-corruption watchdog is 'unstoppable', the Prime Minister has been warned. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Momentum for an effective federal anti-corruption body is an "unstoppable force", the government has been warned, as transparency advocates criticise its proposal as "worse than no commission at all".

It came after another Liberal backbencher broke ranks to call for a federal watchdog with teeth, as senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells publicly lashed the government's push to exempt politicians from public hearings.

The Coalition promised a federal anti-corruption watchdog before the 2019 election but, with Parliament winding down for the year and limited sitting days scheduled for 2022, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to guarantee that pledge will be fulfilled.

Transparency Australia chief executive Serena Lillywhite. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Transparency Australia chief executive Serena Lillywhite. Picture: Keegan Carroll

But Transparency Australia chief executive Serena Lillywhite said a groundswell of support for a powerful watchdog, including from independent candidates and crossbenchers, made its implementation a matter of time.

"The momentum ... is well and truly there. I would suggest it is now an unstoppable force," she told The Canberra Times.

"As to when it happens, whether or not the government introduces something before the election is probably the million-dollar question."

Mr Morrison's model has been widely panned for exempting politicians and their staffers from public hearings, and limiting its focus to criminal corruption.

Ms Lillywhite said expanding its scope to non-criminal misconduct, and allowing the watchdog to pursue information from members of the public, were "lines in the sand" on which the government would face pressure.

"[Currently] it's effectively the Office of the Prime Minister investigating his ministers, and without that independent scrutiny. It's akin to putting a fox in charge of the chook house," she said.

Australia has slipped in The Transparency International Corruption Perception Index over the past eight years, dropping out of the top ten for the first time since 2014.

Although Australia's standing was "pretty decent" in global terms, Ms Lillywhite said its negative trajectory was "the critical issue".

Liberal MP Bridget Archer has put pressure on the Prime Minister over a federal ICAC. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Liberal MP Bridget Archer has put pressure on the Prime Minister over a federal ICAC. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

But she warned the government's model would simply entrench that distrust by establishing different rules for politicians and members of the public.

"The introduction of a poorly designed commission is worse than having no commission at all," she said.

Ms Berejiklian resigned after the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption announced it was investigating her conduct. The ICAC later aired phone calls in which she told her former partner, disgraced ex-NSW MP Daryl Maguire, that she would "throw money at Wagga".

Ms Lillywhite stressed Ms Berejiklian's resignation was a "decision she took herself", claiming Mr Morrison's comments could give implicit support for restricting state-based corruption commissions.

"It has a very dangerous and damaging potential to undermine the very heart of integrity commissions [and] their ability to be able to hold public hearings," she said.

"It's quite concerning to have statements like that made when, in fact, ICAC has not yet made a determination and there is no finding."

Mr Morrison has sought to blame Labor for stymying the legislation's progression, saying its model would not be taken to the floor of Parliament without backing from the opposition.

But he has faced internal rumblings, after Liberal MP Bridget Archer crossed the floor to call for debate on independent MP Helen Haines' model last week.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells added to the pressure on Tuesday evening, demanding "no special treatment" for public figures. She said events over the last year had hardened her view that an anti-corruption watchdog was "overdue".

"In any survey about the most trusted professions in our society, politicians usually rank amongst the lowest. Why wouldn't this be the case, given the continued exposure of questionable activities over the years?" she told the Senate.

"Negative public perceptions are compounded when politicians dig their heels in, spin the story and fail to take responsibility for their actions.

"They rely on the fast-moving media cycle and wait for the next story to take over the front page, and this frustrates the public even more."

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Ms Lillywhite accepted the frenetic 24-hour news cycle meant ministers accused of wrongdoing were more likely to "grit their teeth and wait for it to blow over".

But she said the central problem was, while ministerial standards appeared "strong and robust on paper", they were rarely enforced in practice.

'Ally of good government'

Geoffrey Watson. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Geoffrey Watson. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Addressing the National Press Club on Wednesday, Sydney barrister and former counsel assisting the NSW ICAC Geoffrey Watson said a powerful anti-corruption body would "go a long way" to restoring faith in democracy.

"It should be seen as an ally of good government, not an enemy," he said.

"The predatory misuse of ministerial discretion in allocating money is not a rumour, it is an objective fact."

While Ms Berejiklian's resignation prompted outrage among some politicians and members of the public, he said public debate was "itself a positive thing".

"People have gone wild over the public hearings into Ms Berejiklian's recent doings there ... [But] we should encourage debate. There are arguments to be put on both sides," he said.

Mr Watson listed nine government expenditure scandals - including the sports rorts, car park rorts, and Leppington Triangle saga - which would not be subject to investigation under the federal government's model.

All states and territories have implemented their own anti-corruption watchdog, and Pauline Wright from the NSW Council for Civil Liberties said there was "no doubt" the public believed corruption extended to the federal level.

She said a federal ICAC should root out not just personal corruption, but also the misuse of government money.

"Under the government's model, investigations can't even begin unless a high bar is reached of reasonable suspicion of one of the specifically defined crimes in their model," she said.

"Such a limited scope would be unconscionable. While criminal conduct should, of course, be a priority for any anti-corruption body, it should be able to investigate other forms of misconduct."

This story 'Unstoppable force': Government warned over federal ICAC first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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