There are serious corruption risks around the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent by the Federal Government in response to coronavirus, integrity organisations warn, but despite a constant revolving door between vested interests and government, no mechanisms exist to investigate and police corrupt behaviour.
Attorney-General Christian Porter (pictured) is using coronavirus as an excuse to delay a federal integrity commission yet again, despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison committing to establishing one a year and a half ago.
George Rennie, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne who specialises in lobbying, integrity and anti-corruption, told Voice of Action that there was effectively no one policing corruption at the federal level.
An exposure draft of the federal integrity commission legislation was flagged six months ago but, despite being ready for release, Porter told Guardian Australia that the draft legislation would be pushed back again to “an appropriate time”, as the government was focused on the coronavirus response.
Grattan Institute fellow Kate Griffiths said Australia “has now had two crucial months without a functioning parliament”, but much stronger oversight was needed now due to the “special powers granted, and the volume of public money being spent”.
“A National Integrity Commission should be up and running to deal with any integrity concerns that arise through the recovery and to provide a safe gateway for whistleblowers,” Griffiths told Voice of Action.
It comes as the government is facing “institutional corruption” claims for hand picking a group of fossil fuel executives and lobbyists to drive Australia’s economic recovery from coronavirus. The gas lobby has “declared war on Australia’s future”, RenewEconomy reported.
“Australia’s political system is corrupted,” said veteran press gallery reporter Bernard Keane in a blistering piece for Crikey on Friday.
Both the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) and government ministers have been out spruiking a “gas-fired recovery“, with massive taxpayer handouts to fossil fuel companies, despite energy experts insisting that renewables plus storage is the most effective approach.
Barely a week goes by without a whiff of corruption settling over the government – on Monday it was revealed that nearly 70% of the $1.126 billion doled out by the Community Development Grants program since it launched in 2014 has gone to Coalition seats.
Morrison continues to dodge accountability for the “sports rorts” scandal whereby millions were handed out to electorates based primarily on their importance to the Coalition’s election prospects.
It has also been revealed this week that Coalition grants for showgrounds gave Nationals four times as much as Labor, while questionable contracts have been awarded to politically-connected health care companies.
Cabinet-in-confidence rules are often used to sidestep scrutiny of government spending such as the $444 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, which failed to comply with rules designed to ensure transparency and value for money.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP), while beholden to the government of the day, is sometimes called in to investigate political scandals, but these investigations rarely proceed beyond a cursory analysis. The AFP’s internal proceses allow it to triage out politically sensitive cases without a formal investigation as part of its Case Categorisation and Prioritisation Model.
“The bodies primarily responsible for policing corruption are either under-resourced, toothless, or (in the case of the AFP) essentially prevented from enforcing Australia’s Criminal Code as it pertains to corruption in federal politics,” Rennie told Voice of Action.
“As a result, we’re unlikely to ever see a prosecution for corrupt activities at the federal level. Not because it does not occur, but because we lack a body capable of truly investigating the extent of corruption in Australia’s government.”
Greens senator Larissa Waters said “big questions remain unanswered about Sports Rorts 1, Sports Rorts 2, numerous Angus Taylor scandals, bushfire recovery funding and other scandalous misuses of public money”.
The lack of a federal corruption watchdog contrasts starkly with the state-based independent commissions against corruption (ICAC), which have wide-ranging powers and have taken many high profile scalps over the years.
Han Aulby, executive director of The Centre for Public Integrity, said that with ministers given unprecedented power during coronavirus to spend billions of dollars of public money without normal oversight, a national integrity commission “is needed now more than ever”.
“The Government’s response to COVID-19 has included extraordinary and unprecedented power being given to individual ministers, and the spending of billions of dollars of public money without normal oversight measures,” Aulby told Voice of Action.
“The Government’s proposed model for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission does not include the power to investigate anything below criminal conduct or the ability to hold public hearings. The model needs to be strengthened and released for public consultation immediately.”
A briefing paper by the Centre for Public Integrity, released in February, found over $100 million received in donations by the major political parties alone in 2018/19 would be hidden from public view.
Transparency International Australia CEO Serena Lillywhite said it was a “heartbreaking disappointment” that the government was “using the double health and economic emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic to sidestep accountability, control, oversight and scrutiny of political decisions, economic bailouts and the use of executive and discretionary powers”.
Lillywhite said the need for transparency, accountability and political integrity had never been more important as emergencies such as the current crisis created corruption risks. The usual safeguards and oversight mechanisms were not in force.
“These concerns have been raised by the Select Committee on COVID-19, which has struggled to get straight answers,” said Lillywhite.
“Even Coalition MPs have called for increased scrutiny of legislation that is being rushed through in response to the COVID crisis.”
Lillywhite said a federal corruption watchdog was a Coalition election promise with bipartisan support, and given the draft legislation has been completed there is no reason not to release it for public scrutiny. Any federal corruption commission must follow the five “Beechworth Principles“, she said.
Ebony Bennett, deputy director of the Australia Institute, said hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money was being spent on the economic recovery which created “enormous” potential for corruption.
Bennett said it was “unacceptable” and displayed a “cavalier attitude” for the government to continue to hide its exposure draft from scrutiny. Its proposal already had “serious flaws”.
“After the ongoing sports-rorts saga, the need to restore public confidence in how large funding decisions get made has never been greater,” said Bennett.
“These scandals only serve to highlight why an independent federal anti-corruption commission with broad jurisdiction and the ability to hold public hearings is long overdue.”
The government’s proposed model for an integrity commission has been criticised for lacking teeth as it would operate outside of public view, make no public findings, hold no public hearings and would not be able to prosecute cases itself.
Former NSW ICAC commissioner David Ipp told Guardian Australia that it would be “very easy to create a commission that, on its face, will placate the public’s demands for an Icac-like body, but which in reality will be a fangless institution, the task of which will be to create a mirage of having an anti-corruption institution which in truth will do little to disturb the status quo”.
The Greens have proposed an alternative stronger bill for a national integrity commission which was passed by the Senate in September last year.
The recent decision by the government to delay its draft legislation was “the last straw”, said Greens leader Adam Bandt, who will push to bring on a debate and vote on the integrity commission legislation in the House when Parliament resumes in June.
Bandt said the government “can either work in good faith with the Greens, crossbench and opposition to pass a federal integrity watchdog with teeth, or decide that the era of sports rorts and rampant corruption will continue”.
“It has been two years and two Prime Ministers since the Coalition first opened the door to a Federal ICAC under pressure from the Greens and community, yet over that time we’ve seen nothing but delays and further corruption scandals,” said Bandt.
A leaked report for the NCCC, which is dominated by fossil fuel interests, called for huge public gas subsidies. The government’s energy technology roadmap released last week is heavy on gas and supports handing out more money to fossil fuel firms for failed carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.
The fossil fuel industry has doubled its donations to the major parties in the past four years, Guardian Australia reported in February. Earlier research by activist group 350.org found the fossil fuel industry received $2000 in subsidies for each $1 in donations.
The government has been accepting most of the demands of the fossil fuel lobby since the crisis began, as 350.org’s Fossil Fuel Watch website shows.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor this month revealed he would open up climate funding to big emitters, following a secret review of the government’s climate policy by corporate lobbyist and former gas executive Grant King.
The King Review, which did not hold public consultations, calls for weaker regulations of major emitters and more public funding for CCS, which has not proven effective despite many attempts.
The government has accepted almost all of the King Review’s recommendations, leading to claims by the Climate Council and the Australia Institute that it is placing the interests of fossil fuel producers ahead of the interests of Australians.
Meanwhile NCCC boss Nev Power has decided to step aside from his position as deputy chairman of gas company Strike Energy, following allegations of a conflict of interest stemming from the NCCC’s heavy promotion of taxpayer-funded domestic gas development.
Grattan Institute research from September 2018 shows how political parties are heavily reliant on major donors who in return receive favourable treatment.
More than one quarter of federal politicians go on to post-politics jobs for special interests, Grattan Institute found. Powerful groups triumphed over the public interest in debates such as pokies reform, pharmaceutical prices, toll roads and superannuation governance.
Unlike state ministers in NSW and Queensland, federal ministers are not required to publish their diaries, while donations are not published in real time and can be hard to trace.
“A list of all lobbyists with security passes to federal Parliament House should be made public and kept up-to-date,” found Grattan Institute.
“Federal MPs and their staff should be legally prevented from moving straight into lobbying roles, with the rules enforced by an independent body.”
British MPs speaking on condition of anonymity told The Guardian that the power of the fossil fuel lobby was a major reason behind the lack of effective action on climate change.