Following on from the revelations of the NSW ICAC, there have been a number of calls for a “federal ICAC” or federal anti -corruption commission. This year, there were a number of initiatives to try to establish such a commission. The earliest appeal for a federal anti-corruption commission in 2014 appears to be an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 17th. This editorial reviewed the actions of the NSW ICAC to that point and remarked on the establishment of anti-corruption bodies in Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland. It went on to say,

But there remains no equivalent federal watchdog. The situation is concerning, given that – due, if nothing else, to the amount of money flowing to Canberra – the potential for corruption at the federal level dwarfs that of the states. The Herald has previously revealed the existence of fraud investigations within the agriculture and transport departments – and also serious irregularities in the procurement processes for the defence forces. But the lack of an independent national anti-corruption body meant they were being carried out by auditors with no coercive powers.

It is true that, thus far, there is no indication that federal politics is plagued by the type of corruption practised in NSW by Mr Obeid and Ian Macdonald, who face possible criminal charges over the handing out of valuable mining licences. The alternative view, of course, is that the very lack of a national watchdog means this type of activity may be going undetected or, if it exists, is not adequately investigated.

On the resumption of Parliament in May, the Greens used the opportunity to call for a “National ICAC”. The National Integrity Commission Bill 2013 had its second reading  in Federal Parliament  on Thursday 15th of May 2014. A history of this bill and the Greens campaign on it can be found here. The bill was spoken to by Senator Milne, and was supported by Independent Senator, Nick Xenophon. However it was defeated in a division by a combined Liberal and Labor vote.

Despite voting against the bill, three Labor Senators effectively spoke in favour of it.  Senator Doug Cameron argued, Given my experience, you might believe that my default position on this would be to oppose the bill. On the contrary, I believe that corruption in all spheres of public life must be exposed and, on that basis, with proper checks and balances, I support the establishment of a federal corruption commission. Cameron later called the way the Greens moved to a vote on the bill, “a stunt”.

Senator Gavin Marshall bemoaned the lack of time remaining to speak on the bill, but backed its intent, saying, I did want to speak in some detail on the National Integrity Commission Bill 2013. Fundamentally, I support the motives behind this bill. It is important that the public have trust not only in their Public Service and their parliament but in the institutions that we rely on to implement our laws, especially in the criminal areas.”

Senator John Faulkner spoke at length about the need for governments, elected officials and public servants to be accountable. Integrity and trust are critical not only to good government; they are critical to the public’s faith in government”.  He went on to support the bill in principle,  “In my view, this bill that we are debating today has merit. I am supportive of its intent. I acknowledge, of course, that at this stage this bill has not been considered by the federal parliamentary Labor Party, so there is no Labor caucus decision about whether it will be supported, amended or opposed. I also acknowledge that perhaps some of the sentiments that I have expressed in this contribution might not be shared by all my colleagues, but my personal view is that this bill is heading in the right direction.”

As part of their campaign, the Greens launched a petition, “We need a national ICAC”, which was tabled in Parliament on September 25th. A number of other community and activist groups also launched petitions on the same topic, at about the same time as the second reading of the Greens bill, eg, “Demand for a Federal Independent Commission to Investigate Corruption”,  “Set up a STRONG federal anti-corruption watchdog now!”,  and “Immediately establish a federal anti-corruption watchdog”, all of which called for the establishment of a federal anti-corruption commission.

 By early September, media outlets also began to cover instances of parliamentarians activities which added to the case for a federal anti-corruption body. The Australian Independent Media Network  pointed to examples in the financial services industry, novated leasing and salary packaging, and “the issue of Securency, a subsidiary of the Reserve Bank.”

The Sydney Morning Herald, in an article, “Pressure builds for federal ICAC”, reported, “The case for a federal corruption watchdog has been given fresh impetus by claims that the Liberal Party-linked Free Enterprise Foundation, based in Canberra, was used to channel otherwise illegal donations from a developer back to the state party machine in 2011.” Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, while not backing a Federal ICAC, called for draconian punishment for for party operatives who knowingly channelled banned property developer donations through the Canberra-based Free Enterprise Foundation, according to the Sydney Morning Herald article, “Heffernan lashes Liberals who oversaw illegal donations”. Senator Heffernan said, “These people have besmirched the reputation of the foundation and, yes, whoever agreed to do that should have their nuts cut off.

The Age, in an editorial on September 11th, dissented on the idea, arguing,  “The Age is not persuaded that there is, for now, a compelling reason to establish a federal anti-corruption commission. Circumstances may change, but there are numerous federal agencies with powers to investigate corruption, criminal conduct or civil breaches. Further, it is possible that the various state-based anti-corruption agencies, if properly constituted and fully resourced, could uncover and probe federal misconduct.”
Later, on the 25th of September the Guardian carried a story on the Liberal’s argument that no anti corruption commission was needed. “Coalition senators reject federal Icac and claim corruption isn’t an issue”.

Most recently, on 20th October 2014, Kelvin Thomson MP, added his voice to those of other Labor members calling for a federal anti corruption body. As noted in Hansard of this date on page 165, Thomson reflected on his visit to Paris to attend the OECD forum in May of this year.One recurring theme during the discussions was a lament about declining trust by the public in governments and politicians, apparently occurring right around the world. The OECD noted this as a very important issue. People were concerned that lack of faith in the political process led to public disengagement, and were also concerned about ongoing and quite widespread problems of corruption.”

He reviewed the government’s overturning of the National Integrity Commissioner Bill 2012,  pointing out the flaw in its argument that no evidence of corruption means all is well, and endorsed the establishment of a federal anti-corruption commission.

“The government said: On the available evidence, there is no convincing case for the establishment of a single overarching integrity commission.

The answer assumes the existing system for detecting corruption works well. But in the light of the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption—ICAC—revelations, I think we have to revisit this issue. In my view an anticorruption commission at the federal level is essential to ensure the integrity of our political system when, all too often, money talks.”