Cathy McGowan, the independent member for the Victorian seat of Indi, presents as a community politician who has many a folksy way.
Welcomed by Fran Kelly to another appearance on the ABC’s RN Breakfaston Thursday, McGowan responded: “Thank you, Fran, good morning everybody.” She concluded the interview with the same refrain.
McGowan’s message to everybody listening was that Australia needed a national integrity commission along the lines of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in NSW.
The establishment of some form of national integrity commission at the commonwealth level is supported by the Labor Party and the Greens. McGowan, with the backing of independent member for Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie, intends to introduce a private member’s bill to this effect next week.
If Labor supports the McGowan-Sharkie bill, it will need the backing of four other independents or minor party parliamentarians plus one defector from the Coalition. Adam Bandt (Greens), plus independents Andrew Wilkie and Kerryn Phelps support the proposed legislation.
It’s possible north Queensland independent Bob Katter will do likewise. However, it is not clear if a member of the Liberal Party or the Nationals will cross the floor on this issue.
McGowan is the most prominent politician advocating for a national integrity commission.
However, much of the intellectual capital for the proposal has come from the highly effective operatives at the Australia Institute. This Canberra-based think tank presents itself as “progressive”. That’s a soft way of saying left of centre, even leftist or green-left.
Some of the Australia Institute’s personnel have had close contacts with the Greens.
The assumption behind this proposal is there is wide-scale corruption at the centre of Australian national politics. The national integrity commission concept is backed by several retired judges. What most judges have in common is that they began as self-employed barristers before being appointed to the judiciary. Most have never worked in government, broadly defined (as a politician, staff member or a public servant).
In the 1970s and 80s I spent a decade working as a government staff member, an opposition staff member and a commonwealth public servant.
I never noticed corruption at the national level of Australian politics during the time of Coalition or Labor governments.
Some of the retired judges active in the national integrity commission campaign hold a different view.
Last year former Victorian Supreme Court judge Stephen Charles declared: “It is already well known there is abundant corruption in the other capital cities around Australia, why does the air clear suddenly around Queanbeyan” near Canberra.
For starters, this is a considerable exaggeration. It is not at all clear that “abundant corruption” prevails in Australia. In any event, corruption in Australia invariably involves state and local government in the areas of land development and zoning. This is not a commonwealth responsibility.
Mark Robinson SC last year told the ABC 7.30 program that he had “no doubt there is corruption at all levels of the federal government and in parliament”. He provided not a scintilla of evidence to support his assertion.
Former Victorian Supreme Court judge David Harper maintains Australia is becoming more corrupt because of the lack of a national integrity commission. His evidence? Zip. Retired NSW Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy runs a similar line, again without evidence.
There are two essential problems with the national integrity commission concept which, under the McGowan-Sharkie proposal, would be headed by — yes — a retired judge.
First, the commonwealth has responsibility for the purchase of defence materiel. The creation of a national security commission could lead to unwillingness by public servants to make decisions in this area lest they be accused of bribes-for-contract corruption.
Second, the experience of ICAC in NSW is that such all-powerful bodies can traduce human rights. In 2014, Margaret Cunneen SC, one of NSW’s finest lawyers, was improperly targeted by ICAC in what proved to be a totally unwarranted infringement of her civil liberties.
Cunneen’s plight eventually was eased because of a decision of the High Court of Australia, but not before considerable damage was done to her and her family. The travesty is documented in Margaret Cunneen’s essay Great Harm to Innocent People: An ICAC Story, published in the Proceedings of the 28th Conference of the Samuel Griffith Society (2018).
Nick Greiner and Barry O’Farrell were two of NSW’s most able reforming premiers. Both were struck down by ICAC.
Greiner was accused of corruption in 1990 and resigned as premier. The ICAC decision was overturned by the NSW Court of Appeal, but by then Greiner’s political career was over.
In 2014, Barry O’Farrell was forced to resign as premier after failing to remember at an ICAC hearing that he had received a $3000 bottle of wine as a gift. He, too, subsequently was cleared, this time by a new ICAC finding that held there was no evidence that O’Farrell had misled the commission. Once again, by then O’Farrell’s political career was over.
It’s true that ICAC in NSW has acted successfully against corruption in some instances. But it is also true it has blackened the reputations and destroyed the careers of individuals who were in no sense corrupt.
Towards the end of her discussion with Kelly, McGowan said she was shocked when she got into parliament in 2013 to learn “there’s no code of conduct for parliamentarians or their staff”.
Well, there isn’t. But this overlooks the issue as to if such additional regulation is required. After all, the commonwealth has been in operation since 1901 and Australia is one of the most successful democracies in the world.
There are legal sanctions that prevail if politicians or parliamentary staff act unlawfully. And there is the discipline for unprofessional behaviour administered by the party leader or a politician in their capacity as an employer. Then there is the judgment of voters at elections. The McGowan-Sharkie bill is designed to prevent a problem that has not been demonstrated to exist. Hear that, everybody?