I thought I’d been exposed to all the contorted excuses for not establishing a national anti-corruption body, but Barnaby Joyce just managed to lower the bar a fraction. The Senate is all we need for our national anti-corruption requirements, he announced on Sunday. The message is pretty clear – federal politicians will keep an eye on themselves and let you know if anything is amiss. As you were.
First published at the Guardian
The Senate does play a profoundly important role in keeping the executive in check. Budget estimates committees have been responsible for any number of discoveries and disclosures, and we know that their regular presence acts as a kind of deterrent against some kinds of corruption.
Having the media and opposition or crossbench senators tag-teaming on stench-emitting episodes such as the federal police raids on the AWU last year can put a very public blowtorch on suspect behaviour. The Senate also has its own committee of privileges, which investigates certain kinds of allegations of misconduct against senators – the Godwin Grech episode in 2009 being one memorable example. We get a reminder of how important these mechanisms are when they suddenly go missing, as they did during the bleak period when Prime Minister John Howard controlled the numbers in the Senate and the House.
And that brings us to the first blindingly obvious flaw in Mr Joyce’s parody of a suggestion. The Senate is a political creature. As much as it is a more collegial place to work than the food fight that sometimes passes for our House of Representatives, it is still a place where political interests frequently trample all over the public interest.
Having to build an opposition and crossbench majority to investigate allegations of corruption is a highly contingent affair, and even if you succeed you’ll find yourself waiting in the queue of the Senate’s overworked committee system. These committees have no power to compel a minister to attend a hearing or provide documents, and no power to compel a member of the House of Representatives to appear. The committees themselves can be a numbers game if they’re in the thick of a politically charged situation, and good luck getting the numbers to confront a situation that enmeshes members of both major parties.
The Senate is fundamentally unsuited to play a front-line role in the prevention and investigation of corruption, and Mr Joyce knows it.
Experience in New South Wales, where the ICAC has carved a wide swath through rotten sections of the Liberal and Labor parties, shows that the scale and subtlety of corruption in Australia is well beyond the cash-in-a-paper-bag stage. Investment decisions involving tens of millions of dollars rest on a queasy mix of revolving door politics, old boy networks and quiet understandings between people operating at the highest levels.
The commonwealth has a role in regulating mining, gambling, land development and national infrastructure, as well as the disbursement of more than $460bn of your money annually. With the Turnbull government now proposing to start handing out billions of dollars to the arms industry in order to encourage some kind of carnage-led economic recovery, the stakes become even higher.
Australia needs a politically independent national corruption watchdog. An overwhelming majority of Australians support it. I can’t immediately think of an issue where the attitude of the government and the majority of people is so sharply divergent. There is a dangerous measure of self-interest to maintain that divergence, and it’s long past time we shut it down.
It takes a crazy-brave kind of courage to state that “I don’t think there is a real sense in Australia of a concern with the political system,” as a straight-faced Barnaby Joyce told a press pack on Monday. This kind of rhetorical shark-jumping betrays a deep disconnection from the reality of the contempt with which mainstream politics is regarded in Australia.
The idea of waiting around for some kind of bloated scandal to come to light before parliament gets around to establishing one is unconscionable. I lost count of how many times we lost Senate votes on motions to establish an anti-corruption commission, with Labor routinely lining up next to the government to squash the initiative. Next time such an attempt is made, the outcome needs to be different.