“Why is it in the benefit of the country to actually make it easier for lobbyists to pay large sums of money so that decisions are made in their favour?
Shouldn’t the decisions be made in accordance with what the politicians genuinely believe the merits are?
It’s such an obvious thing.”
The former New South Wales anti-corruption commissioner David Ipp has warned that any move to override state bans on property developer donations would be a “dreadful step backwards”.
Last week, Guardian Australia revealed that Coalition changes to federal campaign finance laws could effectively grant political donors immunity from state and territory donation restrictions.
Academics believe the changes, if passed through federal parliament, would exempt a wide range of donors from state laws, including bans on developer donations, stricter donation caps and tougher disclosure requirements. Donors would only need to show there is a potential connection to federal election spending to gain the immunity.
Ipp, a former independent commission against corruption commissioner who investigated Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, warned against any weakening of state donation laws.
“If that’s what it’s doing, it’s really a dreadful step backwards,” Ipp told Guardian Australia.
He said property developer donations had caused huge problems in NSW and said the state’s current laws, while flawed, were a brave effort to root out corruption.
“What is actually the point of undoing it? One actually asks, why do you want to do this?” he said. “Why is it in the benefit of the country to actually make it easier for lobbyists to pay large sums of money so that decisions are made in their favour? Shouldn’t the decisions be made in accordance with what the politicians genuinely believe the merits are? It’s such an obvious thing.”
Last week, Ipp and a group of other distinguished senior ex-judges delivered a blueprint for a national integrity commission. Such a commission would have strong investigative powers – including the power to hold public hearings and coerce witnesses – and a wide-ranging remit. It would also be subject to strong bipartisan parliamentary oversight to prevent it from overreaching.
Labor has already committed to setting up a federal integrity commission if elected but the federal government earlier this year expressed a preference to instead combine and bolster parts of the various integrity bodies that currently exist.
The attorney general, Christian Porter, said there was no “persuasive evidence” that the current anti-corruption framework was insufficient.
But Ipp said the existing integrity bodies were simply not powerful enough to root out corruption.
“They don’t have the powers and it’s inappropriate because each one is concerned with a speciality,” he said. “Each one has limited resources, limited staff and limited experience outside of what they actually do.”
Ipp said he had “personally no confidence” that the government – yet to formally rule out a federal Icac – was in favour of an integrity commission.
“I have personally no confidence from what [Porter] has said that he is in favour of an integrity commission. I think that he would rather leave the question open then just refuse it now.
A group of leading former judges and anti-corruption commissioners have released a blueprint for a federal integrity body with the investigative powers of a royal commission, far-reaching jurisdiction and strong bipartisan oversight.
An implementation plan for a federal integrity commission was on Friday released by by the Australia Institute’s national integrity committee, which features former New South Wales supreme court judge Anthony Whealy, the former NSW independent commission against corruption commissioner David Ipp, a former president of the Queensland court of appeal, Margaret McMurdo, and retired senior judges Stephen Charles, David Harper and Paul Stein.
They have called for a federal anti-corruption body with a remit to investigate “a wide range of government agencies, and those outside government attempting to corruptly influence public officials”. The body, the judges said, should have the powers of a royal commission and be able to hold public hearings enforced through “coercive powers” that could see witnesses punished for withholding evidence, misleading the commission, or bribing witnesses.
“It’s no good setting up a body that can’t ferret out corruption,” Whealy told Guardian Australia. “If you don’t give the body that sort of powers, it will simply fail.”
The report says investigations should be able to be carried either through direct complaints, referrals from other parts of government, or through own motion investigations. A bipartisan oversight committee should be created through parliament to keep a check on the commission’s powers, and ensure it does not overreach, the report says. Only cases of “serious or systemic” corruption should be investigated, and judicial review of its decisions must be available. Private hearings also ought to take place before public hearings.
The federal integrity commission should also incorporate the existing Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity and have a referral process with other existing integrity bodies at a state and federal level.
Whealy said the integrity committee had been making submissions to the federal government for five months, without success.
“The first point to make is that the Labor party have committed to essentially the implementation plan that’s been put forward,” Whealy said. “It may not be known to everybody that our committee has been attending upon, writing to, making submissions to the attorney general, Christian Porter, and I’d have to say that we’ve received what I would describe as a lukewarm response.”
Whealy said politicians tended to think of such a commission as only existing to publicly shame them for their bad behaviour. He said the body would have proper oversight and would also provide a chance for politicians to consult and take advice on integrity issues, to help protect themselves from acting improperly.