IS it simply an arrogant government? Or fear of being held to account? Or stupidity? What could ACT Labor want to hide?
The government has made all the right noises on the release of the draft “Integrity Commission Bill”. However, Chief Minister Andrew Barr’s government seems intent on castrating the intent of the legislation and the power of the commissioner.
Emasculating an integrity commission says more about the approach of the Barr government than any mismanagement or bullying of the past. It is unconscionable. The rhetoric on the government website is as positive as the election messages describing the commission as “an independent body that will have the power to investigate corruption in public administration and strengthen public confidence in government integrity”.
However, the Assembly committee’s unanimous view is: “The legislation be examined to ensure that it incorporates the full extent of the NSW definition of corrupt conduct, as reflected in the Bill, but maintain the focus on ‘serious corrupt conduct’ and ‘systemic corrupt conduct’.”
The government argues the difference is because NSW is not a “human rights jurisdiction”. Apparently, the power to investigate public servants and politicians raises more human rights issues than investigation of misconduct by others.
The decision to reject this key recommendation flies in the face of community concerns. Demands for an integrity commission leading to the last election were largely about: planning issues, the Labor Party and poker machines, and the influence of donations on political parties. Politicians and public servants! In rejecting the definition used by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, Daniel Burdon of “The Canberra Times” argues the action “exempts ‘misconduct’ by public servants and politicians”. The irony is the proposal to create this exemption, in itself, simply lacks integrity.
Andrew Barr argues that public servants can already be investigated by the Public Sector Standards Commissioner. He has also announced a move to ban all donations from property developers, a strategic political move, likely to have a stronger impact on the Canberra Liberals than on Labor. It is important that the draft bill has included mandatory reporting of corrupt behaviour or misconduct by senior public servants, the leader of the opposition, ministers and their key staff.
Before the 2016 election, planning provided strong motivation behind community calls for the commission. These were reinforced when Greens’ leader Shane Rattenbury identified the specific land-swap deal between the government and the Tradies Club in Dickson as a “prime candidate” for inquiry.
Additionally, the proliferation of high-density buildings that, on face value, are well outside normal planning envelopes is also a prime candidate.
An integrity commission should be able to clear the air when there is no misconduct or, where corruption is identified, suggest systemic solutions and recommend prosecutions.
The issue of the relationship between political donations and inappropriate influence has effectively been admitted first in NSW and now the promise of the Barr government to ban donations from property developers. No doubt they will argue that this is more about perception than reality.
However, the evidence is clear from democratic systems around the world that political donations are (as I wrote in this column last week) a cancer on democracy.
The damage to a percentage of gamblers associated with poker machines is well recorded. An integrity commission ought to be able to identify the level of conflict of interest and any integrity issue involved in making decisions about poker-machine policy while taking money to ensure re-election. Another prime candidate for investigation by an unfettered integrity commission.
Although proposed by the government, the legislation is in the hands of the Assembly. The Greens and Liberals have been heavily engaged on the Assembly committee examining the issue that recommended the definition of corruption align with NSW.
The responsibility of responding to community demands now falls on the non-government members of the Assembly (as well as any government members with the courage to cross the floor). They can, and should, move appropriate amendments to reject the government’s unconscionable position.
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health. He has been a political columnist with “CityNews” since 2006.