Thirty one former Australian judges released an open letter on Monday addressed to the leaders of all major and minor parties running in this Saturday’s federal election, highlighting the urgency for a National Integrity Commission to be established.
The ex-judicial officers make clear that the case for a federal anticorruption watchdog “remains impregnable”, as the government deals with hundreds of billions in public money, which should “be spent in the national interest and not for unethical political purposes or illegitimate private gain”.
Organised by the Centre for Public Integrity, the request comes right before an election that follows a parliamentary term that has been rocked by multiple corruption revelations around sports rorts, carpark pork barrelling and suspiciously profitable business dealings.
Similar scandals broke in the state of NSW over the same period, but there was a difference in the way they were handled.
The NSW ICAC launched an investigation that led to the resignation of NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian, whereas, federally, ministers caught up in scandals were simply shifted around.
Within the wording of this rare display of united public expression coming from a group of retired judges, it’s apparent it was necessitated due to the public attacks that Scott Morrison has been making against the proposal for a federal anticorruption watchdog of late.
Indeed, the PM has gone as far as to call the NSW body a “kangaroo court”.
Filling integrity gaps
The open letter’s signatories represent an array of federal, state and territory jurisdictions, including former High Court Justice Mary Gaudron, retired Federal Court Justice Michael Barker and ex-Chief Justice of Queensland Catherine Holmes.
“Where billions are spent and significant power is available to disperse it with little oversight,” the statement underscores, “greedy people with convenient consciences and powerful connections will ensure that, with the manipulation of their influence, they will obtain illegal or unethical advantage.”
The only way to ensure that this doesn’t occur is to have a specific anticorruption body that understands what it’s looking for, the open letter continues, and without this sort of system in operation, Australians can’t be assured that their taxes are being dispensed of in their interests.
The statement further outlines that existing federal integrity agencies lack the power to impartially investigate corruption in government. And it stresses that an anticorruption watchdog with teeth needs to have the ability to hold open hearings and follow up on legitimate public complaints.
“Use your influence”
The judges have addressed the open letter to PM Scott Morrison, Labor leader Anthony Albanese, and leader of the Australian Greens Adam Bandt, as well as Senator Pauline Hanson, mining magnate Clive Palmer and all Australian political leaders.
Morrison promised to establish a national integrity commission before the last election. After initially stalling on it, he then released a bill containing an ineffectual model. And he’s also criticised the NSW body for being too thorough and of late, has ruled such a body at the federal level entirely.
Greens NSW Senate candidate David Shoebridge recently explained that his party has a pre-drafted bill that establishes a commission that’s statutorily independent of government, including in its funding, as well as holds the powers of a standing royal commission, which apply retrospectively.
“Unlike Labor, we don’t have to wait till Christmas to come up with our plan,” Shoebridge told Sydney Criminal Lawyers last week. “We’ll be ready to introduce it and legislate it within the first two weeks of a new parliament.”