The Federal Government on Thursday continued to block long-delayed federal corruption watchdog legislation, swiftly shutting down attempts by the Greens, Labor and independents Andrew Wilkie, Zali Steggall and Helen Haines to debate the proposed bill in the House.
The National Integrity Commission Bill 2018 passed the Senate in September last year but the government refuses have it debated and voted on in the House, despite announcing plans to implement a federal corruption commission in December 2018.
As Voice of Action has previously reported, barely a week goes by without a federal corruption scandal, but politicians are able to operate with near total impunity because there is no federal integrity commission.
Retired Supreme Court judge Margaret White AO has slammed the “alarming lack of oversight” around the Government’s coronavirus response as well as the fossil fuel links of those chosen by government to drive the economic recovery. These concerns have also been voiced repeatedly by integrity orgs and think tanks.
Of particular concern is the government’s close links to the fossil fuel industry, especially inside the Prime Minister’s office itself – both senior staff as well as the oil and gas interests that dominate the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC).
The government has been pushing a fossil fuel-led recovery and resisting calls for both tougher emissions reduction targets and investments in renewable energy. This is despite expert evidence showing that not only is renewable energy cheaper, but if we don’t transition to clean energy fast we will see the collapse of civilisation.
The stench of corruption around the continued evangelism of fossil fuels despite the commercial and existential risks – virtually ignoring the unprecedented bushfires we just experienced – is enough to justify a federal integrity commission on its own.
While we make no allegations whatsoever of corruption, we have rounded up some potential other reasons from recent reporting which may help explain why the government is refusing to deliver on its promised federal corruption watchdog:
Up to eight grant programs have been rorted under this government, the latest of which came to light on Thursday when it was revealed 97% of SME Export Hub grants went to Liberal National Party (LNP) electorates. Labor was blocked by the government from introducing evidence about the matter on Thursday.
This comes after widespread reporting of the sports rorts scandal and the even bigger misuse of public money, the Community Development Grants. Many of these grant programs have no guidelines or tender process, such as the $150 million female sports program that funnelled cash for swimming pools into marginal Coalition seats.
An $100 million environmental grants program created ahead of last year’s federal election had no eligibility guidelines and mostly went to Coalition seats for projects that had already been chosen in advance.
Joo-Cheong Tham, Professor at the Melbourne Law School, has raised concerns about the extraordinary powers conferred upon individual ministers as a result of the COVID-19 crisis – for example the Finance Minister now has at his disposal a $40 billion Advance to spend with little accountability.
The government continued to dodge questions on Thursday regarding when it first knew its robodebt scheme was illegal after it emerged that over $1 billion in robodebts had been unlawfully issued. No heads have rolled over the scheme despite it pushing hundreds of vulnerable welfare recipients to suicide.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison squeezed out a half-hearted apology to some robodebt victims on Thursday but the minister in charge of the scheme, Stuart Robert, confirmed the government would “restart that debt collection”.
“We need to know why the government persisted with this preying on the most vulnerable people in our community for years after it’s apparent they knew that it was illegal,” said Labor’s Mark Dreyfus.
The government’s automated process of issuing the alleged debts, without any human intervention, resulted in robodebt letters jumping from 20,000 a year to 20,000 a week. There was a reverse onus of proof so those who were targeted had to prove they did not owe a debt.
The NCCC sits within the Prime Minister’s office but its processes and advice are hidden from public view under cabinet-in-confidence rules. It is refusing to release all but one conflict-of-interest declaration, despite the NCCC’s coterie of vested interests pushing for Australia to subsidise fossil fuel infrastructure, which could become stranded assets in a renewable energy world.
The NCCC has also been handing lucrative contracts to firms closely linked to the Liberal Party, as well as millions in market research contracts for whole of government communications. Boston Consulting Group received $500,000 for a month’s worth of “business administration” services.
Giving evidence to a Senate committee last week, NCCC chairman Nev Power, deputy chair of gas company Strike Energy and director of around 20 companies, reiterated his view that we should extract more gas and subsidise fossil fuel infrastructure.
Power revealed that the NCCC’s manufacturing taskforce members, despite heavily weighted towards fossil fuels interests, will not generally be required to disclose financial interests. The NCCC has failed to answer any questions on notice put to it by the Senate commitee.
Some of the same oil and gas interests who are helping the NCCC have been chosen to lead the Northern Territory’s recovery commission.
Even former Liberal leader John Hewson has raised concerns about the NCCC: “Clearly Morrison and his team have sold out to the likes of the Minerals Council and the fossil fuel lobby, whose influence is now conspicuous in the focus of the COVID recovery commission.”
The government’s controversial “Underwriting new generation investment” (UNGI) program has become another engine for pushing questionable fossil fuels projects.
The national cabinet, which will replace the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meetings, is an attempt to reduce transparency of government decision making as it will be covered by cabinet-in-confidence rules that keep its deliberations secret.
Cabinet-in-confidence rules have been used to block transparency around a number of questionable programs such as the controversial $444 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.
Some of the government’s stimulus measures such as the Homebuilder scheme were implemented without legislation, leading to calls that the spending should be subject to greater scrutiny.
Grassgate & Watergate
A company part-owned by government minister Angus Taylor was found to have illegally poisoned critically endangered grasslands. Taylor intervened in the investigation into the matter.
Taylor has sailed from scandal to scandal seemingly unscathed, such as the alleged doctoring of a Sydney City Council document that was used to smear Lord Mayor Clover Moore.
Taylor, along with former water minister Barnaby Joyce, has also been implicated in controversy over water buybacks involving a Cayman Islands-headquartered entity that was linked to Taylor.
Contracts under scrutiny
The home affairs department spent over $745 million on Manus Island contracts with the Paladin group, which were criticised by the Australian National Audit Office for failing to show taxpayers got value for money and failing to apply probity measures or manage conflicts of interest. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton paid Paladin $532 million for a contract that lasted 801 days.
Health Minister Greg Hunt has been accused of giving preferential treatment by granting a licence for an MRI machine to the vice president of the South Australian Liberal Party.
The government also handed major pathology companies lucrative COVID-19 contracts through limited tenders, as well as a slew of other benefits such as subsidy increases, following lobbying from the industry, the Guardian found.
The government spent $200 million buying COVID-19 testing kits from mining billionaire Andrew Forrest despite already having more than enough technology in the field, the Guardian reported.
Cronyism and conflicts
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has watered down laws requiring company directors to keep the market properly informed, which lawyers described as “cronyism” and a green light to hide information from investors without recourse.
The government failed to act to prevent the destruction by Rio Tinto of 46,000-year-old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. BHP also received ministerial permission to destroy 40 Aboriginal heritage sites without further extensive consultation with traditional owners, while FMG is trying to blast a 60,000-year-old site.
The Rio Tinto matter will be the subject of an inquiry by the joint standing commitee on Northern Australia with a report due by September 30, but Greens senator Rachel Siewert pointed out that the commitee was dominated by the government.
A number of former government ministers have been appointed to lobbying firms in industries they were previously responsible for regulating, such as Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop. The revolving door between government and industry is one of the key factors ensuring control of government by vested interests.
Private interests have even got their tentacles into the Australian War Memorial, which was sponsored by arms manufacturers in what has been dubbed a “huge conflict of interest”.
Nationals senator Matt Canavan, who was grilled on a recent episode of ABC’s Q&A over his family links to the coal industry, has been a strident advocate of fossil fuels and has even pushed for Australia to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
Nationals MP George Christensen did not declare his connection to a business promoting sugar pills to treat urinary tract infections.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann spent $37,000 on flights in one day in a drive to push big business tax cuts. This is quite a bit more than the $5000 spent by Bronwyn Bishop on an 80km charter helicopter flight from Melbourne to Geelong.
Rewarded for grifting
In this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, among those who received gongs were a swathe of fossil fuel interests, the architects of robodebt, the founder of a libertarian thinktank that helped block climate action, a man at the centre of a corruption scandal a year ago and other questionable figures
The government has stacked the Administrative Appeals Tribunal with 65 former Coalition staffers, election candidates and former state and federal MPs, many of whom don’t have any legal qualifications. Among those who got the chop were Terry Carney who had angered the government by declaring its robodebt scheme to be illegal.
Illustrating the difficulty in bringing forward corruption matters without a federal integrity commission, a public servant claiming to have evidence of ministerial corruption was discouraged from speaking to journalists and directed to use a generic online form to contact the Prime Minister.