Integrity in government and a robust Federal Integrity Commission is supported by a clear majority of Australian citizens including in those Liberal-held seats where centre-right independent candidates are targeting the incumbents across Australia.

However, the Morrison Government is deeply reluctant to legislate for such an independent, robust federal body.

Independent Member for Indi in regional Victoria Helen Haines returns to the #transitzone podcast to discuss progress on and prospects for her private member’s bill for a an Australian Federal Integrity Commission.

Related news: Haines declares war over Federal Integrity Commission

Edited transcript of #transitzone interview with the Independent MP for Indi Helen Haines on October 12, 2021

Peter Clarke: Well, it’s been a very long journey towards the Federal Integrity Commission in Australia. Since the Greens’ Bob Brown first called for such a body in the Senate, in 2009, all States and Territories have since enacted anti-corruption bodies, various polls indicate a large majority of Australian electors want one, federally Labor first committed to one in January 2018 and pledged to the 2019 election to enact one within 12 months of their taking office. But they lost that election (and) Morrison dubbed it a fringe issue until his hand was forced after Kerryn Phelps won the 2018 Wentworth byelection and a cross-bench push saw Cathy McGowan introduce a bill in November 2018 and attract support from a national party backbencher.

Under pressure Morrison stalled momentum by releasing an outline of an extremely weak bill that included no whistleblower referrals, no public hearings, no public findings, only criminal offences investigated. He requested submissions by mid-February 2019 and at the May 2019 election Morrison pledged to enact integrity legislation within a year.

In August 2019, then Attorney-General, Christian Porter told Parliament he was finalising legislation to present to Parliament by the end of that year, 2019. In September, 2019, the Senate passed the Larissa Waters bill, similar to the McGowan bill, sponsored by the Greens and backed by Labor, the Centre Alliance and Jacqui Lambie.

Porter had misled parliament – nothing happened for more than a year until October 2020, when Helen Haines introduced a modified version of McGowan’s bill to the House of Representatives, and won the support of Labour, the Greens and every House of Representatives crossbencher to debate it in Parliament.

She needed just two coalition backbenchers to cross the floor and momentum seemed unstoppable, but again Morrison stalled, this time releasing draft legislation faithful to his weak outline nearly two years before. And once again, seeking consultation.

Nothing happened again until the furore around sports rorts and car park grants saw the new Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash, promise in May this year to introduce the government’s bill by the end of 2021.

This month, however, Prime Minister Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher and other Coalition MPs are questioning the very need for a commission at all, or certainly an effectual one. After the resignation of Berejiklian as premier of New South Wales, Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, Amanda Stoker, has said the Government’s bill may not be presented this year after all.

Just follow the bouncing ball.

Morrison is using an almost laughable circular argument, basically ‘because Gladys’, against the backdrop of an avalanche of Coalition propaganda that includes phrases such as ‘kangaroo court’, ‘star chamber’ and ‘innocent until proven guilty’. There is muscular misinformation and deception aplenty.

Recently, the Centre for Public Integrity released a detailed appraisal of current corruption watchdogs around Australia in the States and Territories plus detailed comparisons between the various proposals for a federal ICAC, including the government’s and Haines’ bills. That report was causticalluy scathing about the government plan, calling it ‘the weakest watchdog’ which would hide corruption, not expose it.

To add to the febrile atmosphere, the Victorian Parliament has just seen a Cabinet Minister step down after being accused in evidence given in their independent anti-corruption commission IBAC in public hearings.

We spoke to Dr Helen Haines in the #transitzone about her bill almost 12 months ago now. What will she do when federal parliament resumes next week?

Margo Kingston: I don’t know whether it’s deja vu or Groundhog Day, but the two big issues that community independents are standing up for in blue ribbon seats – climate change and the need for a federal ICAC – are coming to a head when Parliament resumes next week. Last year you said you wanted to do the good faith thing and see if the government was for real. What do you think now?

Helen Haines: Margo, it does feel like Groundhog Day, and the answer to your second question is, the government is not for real. That’s patently clear. I think the historical timeline Peter just laid out for us is a compelling example of the delays, the misinformation, the egregious activities alleged that have happened over the past year, and complete stalling of any federal government legislation. We’re more than 1000 days now since Prime Minister Morrison promised the voters that in his Prime Ministership in this Parliament he would introduce and commence a Federal Integrity Commission. Of course that hasn’t happened.

So, yes, I’m returning to Parliament next week (and) I’ve been doing considerable work with my colleagues in both the House and the Senate to find a way to bring back my bill, and to debate that. Of course we have the Greens’ bill, so I think we might be seeing a concurrence motion coming from the Greens on their bill, and I’ll be working with both my House and Senate colleagues to bring that my bill as well.

So the pressures on. We have the Assistant Attorney General Amanda Stoker, currently the spokesperson for the government bill, but nothing in sight, nothing in sight at all. All we have is that roundly criticised draft plan for a bill no legislation, no one’s seen any legislation from the government.

Margo: So Helen, this time last year you were all set to move a suspension of standing orders to force a vote to debate your bill. I’ll never forget that press conference where you had Mark Dreyfus from Labor, you had the Greens, you had every single cross-bencher Senate, and Reps to say ‘we want to debate this bill’. And you pulled it because of the last minute play by Morrison and Porter, and you said to us then you’re going to continue the good faith negotiations with Coalition MPs who really want something decent. Are you considering forcing Coalition MPs to actually reject debate on your bill, so that they are on the record?

Helen: There’s several parliamentary tools at my disposal. Since we last spoke my bill has lapsed from the notice paper, which means that I need to reintroduce it, which I can do. I would need to do that and then call a suspension of standing orders to have it debated immediately. So that’s one step.

There’s other options open to me through the Senate as well. So all bets are off as far as I’m concerned. When I return to Parliament the prime consideration for me is the integrity commission bill, absolutely it is. Again, watch this space.

I won’t be silent on this. I refuse to be silent on this, and of course the government is doing their maneuvers as well. They know how serious I am about an integrity commission – it wouldn’t surprise me at all if, without fanfare, Amanda Stoker comes forward with a piece of legislation from the government that lands in the House.

This is a delicate operation, of course, because when Coalition members are considering exercising their right to make a considered conscience vote, essentially, and not vote with their Party, then it’s an easier decision for them to make when the government doesn’t have anything else on offer.

I respect their decision last year to say ‘look, Helen, we want to wait because the government has promised us that this consultation period on their draft bill is taking place, at the very least we should wait for that consultation to complete’. Well we’ve seen that consultation, and that the consultation indicated that any person who knows anything about the establishment of an integrity commission has trashed this bill as completely unworkable.

So we’re at that point. Yeah, I return to Parliament next week and I will be prosecuting a case for my bill.

Margo: Could you give us an indication of what could be done in the Senate to try and force the issue?

Helen: There’s all sorts of possibilities there. The Senate could introduce the bill. That’s a possibility that could happen…

Margo: Watching Paul Fletcher on Insiders just being completely unable to defend the fact that it was a crime only, not political corruption, that there’s no public hearings, no public findings, it struck me that the government could introduce the bill and then just refer it off to committee and say ‘Oh, let’s start all that over and therefore we’ve got nothing before? What’s your theory about the way they might play this?

Helen: I think there’s every chance they might do that. But that does not preclude people like me, while their bill is sitting out on the committee, from exercising those same maneuvres with my bill. So I think there’s every chance they’ll do that. That would be a pretty disingenuous political move, to say ‘We tried, you know, we’ve had COVID, we’ve had bushfires, we introduced it in the last gasp of the 46th parliament now it’s sitting in a committee and we’ve got to wait for the committee to do its business’.

But Margo, Australians are much smarter than that. I think that possibly the Opposition would be rather happy if that happened – again, it’s a tremendously strong argument coming into an election that Morrison broke, really, the most fundamental promise of his election campaign on integrity,

I mean the irony of that is breathtaking.

Peter: Helen I’d love to hear your response to the sort of rhetoric we heard from Barnaby Joyce, from Morrison, from Paul Fletcher, running the line that because Gladys had to step down in New South Wales and we’re still awaiting what’s going to happen there, we don’t want to go near an ICAC that’s going to knock off very competent wonderful leaders, as Paul Fletcher put it. What’s your response to that political rhetoric?

Helen: I think it’s straight out of the Coalition playbook. They’re setting up a false dichotomy that it’s the NSW ICAC or nothing. And that’s just patently untrue. It’s a complete misrepresentation of the kind of models of Integrity Commission’s that can be created, and the Centre of Public Integrity has done an enormous amount of work in this space. They’ve set up for us in the blueprint document a very clear spectrum of anti-corruption commissions from around the country from every state and territory… The NSW ICAC is at one end of the spectrum (and) the bill that I’ve introduced sits in a very nice, sweet spot of being able to undertake the job it’s designed to do. And that’s to be a robust federal integrity commission with all the powers of a standing royal commission – the powers to initiate its own investigations, to have public hearings when in the public interest to do so, to have a broad definition of corruption that doesn’t have to meet the criminal bar.

And that has very good safeguards built in that means people brought before the commission who were found to be innocent don’t have their reputations trashed, that a significant amount of work happens before the investigation becomes public that’s done in private. And there’s lots of safeguards there, including public reports of exonerations in my bill… Let’s say it was someone such as the premier of NSW if she’s found completely innocent of any wrongdoing. That’s actually tabled in the parliament, that is there for evermore to say that this person had nothing to answer for. There’s many ways we can do this.

So Mr. Morrison is being extremely mischievous, deliberately mischievous about this, as is the deputy prime minister who chooses to trivialise one of the most fundamental and important tenants of a highly functioning democracy, trust and transparency, by comparing it to the Spanish Inquisition. That’s just classic obfuscation.

I certainly won’t stand by as a member of parliament, representing a community who are calling on me to continue to work on this to trivialise such an important thing,

Peter: Barnaby Joyce also conjured up that idea that ‘how are politicians going to be able to do their job with a star chamber, looking over their shoulders’. Is there a confusion amongst MPs generally about what is integrity, what is the line that you shouldn’t cross? Is there actually a very fundamental problem here with actually understanding ethics, actually having scrupulous integrity?

Helen: There is no Commonwealth parliamentary code of standards, nothing. We have a ministerial code that the Prime Minister sets, and you could judge the Prime Minister’s own ethics by the standards he’s happy to walk past. There’s no such code of standards for Members of Parliament more broadly.

When I introduced the Federal integrity commission bill 2020 I had a system built with that, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Standards Bill. Cathy had the same thing – it established a code of conduct for MPs which would lay out some fundamental ethical behavior, and a Parliamentary Standards Commissioner that would assist MPs because, without question, there are times when you migh’t have to ask yourself ‘Is this right or proper, what should I do here?’…

Now there is stuff that’s fundamentally basic that someone who’s president of the local Parents and Friends Association would know. And that’s around conflicts of interest, giving preference or undue influence to people, persons or organizations that perhaps may be your donors to your school…

It’s what makes everyday people commonly despair of leadership, The sports rorts and car park grants that they sprinkled around in electorates that the Coalition wished to win.

Sports rorts sits at the heart of everyday people’s disgust. The amount of work that goes into putting in something as fundamental as a grant application to improve the sporting facilities at your local tennis club or your local footy club, and to know that you meet all the criteria and you’re abiding by the guidelines. I know these people work late into the night doing these applications, they call my office for assistance and help – I hold grant writing workshops to help people, to make sure that when they put in a grant application that’s got the best chance of being successful. And to know that at the end of the day, that grants gets divvied up according to a color coded spreadsheet – and I note today in The Guardian that a similar activity has happened again by the National Party – it’s so on the nose, and completely undermines the trust in all members of parliament. It’s why people hold Members of Parliament in such disregard.

We’re at a point in our history where governments have asked everyday people to trust in them in ways that have never been asked to them before, to forgo their liberties in so many ways for the common good. And the fact that this Prime Minister cannot repay that trust in a way that is transparent and fair and establish an integrity commission, again, it just beggars belief really,

Margo: Your bill widely defines corrupt conduct to include conflicts of interest, favors to donors, quid pro quos – billions in procurement contracts go out and, suddenly public servants or politicians there’ll be jobs – all that sort of stuff that would clearly cover regional grants rorts, car park rorts, sports rorts. Robodebt, where it’s alleged that the government proceeded despite advice that it was unlawful, would that be covered by yours and not by Morrison’s?

Helen: Well it would be determined by the Commissioner. The good thing about mine is that a referral to have an investigation considered can come from anyone, so at least it would be considered. Under Morrison’s model there’s no such capacity for integrity Commissions to initiate their own investigations or for junior members of a department and let’s face it, it’s often junior members of a department who say things that are not right, to make a referral.

So there’s every chance it could be investigated by the Australian Federal Integrity Commission and no chance whatsoever that it would be under Morrison’s proposed model.

So therein lies a major problem. If the first bar you have to jump is that it is a likely criminal activity, none of those things would ever be investigated. We’d be no better off because already we can refer something to the DPP to the Australian Federal Police for investigation if we think something’s of criminal intent,

Margo: Christian Porter’s blind trust, the government’s bill willould do nothing on that…yours?

Helen: The Christian Porter blind trust comes under AEC rules at the moment (so) so it’s a little complicated…

That any member of Parliament could think that it was acceptable to accept funds and not know who it was coming from, nor reveal how much it was, so it’s extraordinarily obviously not right that the rules need to change about that.

Peter: … What’s your justification for having public hearings and public findings?

Helen: You’ll hear the government say consistently that their proposed bill has all the powers of a standing Royal Commission (but) a Royal Commission has public hearings and public findings. So they strike themselves out at the first point there.

We cannot have the public blind to the findings of a body that’s set up to ensure that we have a pro-integrity parliament. It’s a nonsense.

The key element here is to ensure that when an investigation begins when a referral has been made, the Commissioners need to be satisfied that they have enough evidence to kick off a public hearing to gather more evidence. So that initial work needs to be done.

My bill has multiple safeguards to ensure that there’s no scurrilous, mudslinging attempts to ruin a person’s reputation that would get to the first base of being publicly aired. It needs to be verified – of course it does. Again, it’s a ‘look over here kind of politics’, from the very people who have promised us they do something about this. It’s so clear that they do not wish to do this…

And this myth about the former Premier of New South Wales being forced by ICAC to resign is patently a mis-truth. That is not the case. Former Premier Berejiklian made her decision to resign, she did not have to do that.

Margo: It’s hard to comprehend how they could try this, but they’ve got two halves. They’ve got a really strong Royal Commission – retrospective, whistleblowers, public hearings and public findings – for the Australian Federal Police and Border Force, then they have nothing for politicians and senior public servants, I remember the time it came out, the police were completely up in arms about how they get everything in, the politicians get nothing. How do you get your head around that dichotomy?

Helen: Well I don’t, I just refute it. What Court, for example, would have a different set of rules for one group of people than another, what Royal Commission would?

This is a very special design brought by Mr. Morrison and his team to absolutely and utterly set up a Protection Commission for MPs and senior departmental staff. It’s complete and utter nonsense -I would be just embarrassed to step out in the public – and the hubris of this. If it wasn’t so serious it would be hilarious.

It’s just so crazy that there’s no way in the world that this proposed bill they’ve been shopping around could ever even be amended to work.

I really hope that people listen up very carefully, because when this gets spun at what is a fast looming election, the Coalition will be trying to convince people that they’ve done their job on this. But they so have not done their job on this.

This is a broken promise of, I think, such proportion that any person out there trying to make a decision about who they might vote for would do well to think about what it says about a government who try to pull the wool over our eyes on something as fundamental as integrity. It’s extraordinary.

Peter: The three scope elements – what is corruption, retrospectivity and who can refer matters – please compare your bill with the government’s proposal.

Helen: All those things can happen with my bill and with the government’s bill none of those things can happen. It’s as simple as that.

You need to be a senior departmental head to make a referral under Morrison’s model. So a junior person who has some concerns needs to go to the boss to tell them. It could be the boss is corrupt – it’s laughable.

One of the elements in my bill that I think is really important is protection of journalists, for example, so there’s strong whistleblower protections in in my bill.

The Morrison bill, again, no retrospectivity. And again, if you listen to some of the rhetoric around this, they roll out the old rule of law, line again, that’s a complete furphy. There’s no way in the world an Integrity Commission can apply a new law to an old issue, that can’t happen in my bill, can’t happen anywhere, that doesn’t happen. But what it does have the capacity to do is to look over a period of time, because what it’s trying to establish is if there’s a systemic pattern of corruption. That’s really important.

And when we think about the misuse of taxpayer dollars, it’s really important to see the systemic nature of that to determine whether in fact there’s something very seriously corrupt. So the fact that the government bill can’t do that is a major flaw.

Peter: Having an effective integrity commission is really fundamental to democracy but this is going to be very interesting election if the Coalition MPs are out there trying to sell the very weak government version versus your version. What a disconnect, what a mismatch there, and against the polls which we’ve seen nudging in some parts of Australia 80% of citizens who want a strong federal ICAC. So how do you see that in terms of electioneering, the process of democracy. arguing your case versus the government case?

Helen: We’re hearing it now. We’re hearing sitting members of the Coalition who have constituents giving them considerable pressure over this coming out on the airwaves telling us how pro-integrity commission they are and how the Government is doing good work on this and by golly we’re going to have a Federal Integrity Commision. They’re saying that because they’re hearing loud and clear that the community wants this.

This comes down to the communication from people like me and from my crossbench colleagues (to) make sure that people understand that they’re being sold a pup if they believe that the Coalition model is going to do the job that everyone wants them to do. Because it simply will not, it’s absolutely a total and utter sham.

It will not in any way solve the problem that we’re trying to solve. I would say to anyone who hears from a member of the government that this is all under control, no need to worry, we’re going to get an integrity commission, it’s going to be good – don’t believe them because it’s not true. Under the current model, it’s not true.

No one would be more delighted than me than if I’m wrong about what the government proposes to introduce. If Minister Cash or Assistant Minister Stoker come forward in the next sitting fortnight with a bill that looks very similar to mine no-one would be more happy than me. That would be fantastic. I would be delighted. I would feel like my work has been done. But I’m not confident that will happen, not one bit.

Margo: The other big one coming up next week is climate change – it looks like the PM’s gunna get a deal, is going to Glasgow. But the big thing for me is there will be no legislation enacting targets in 2030 or 2050, and he’ll go to an election with the same thing able to happen if he wins, crossing the floor and the wars continue. What do you think of the state of play and do you think Morrison will be able to stop community independents in blue ribbon seats being able to make this a big issue with his announcement?

Helen: It’s a massive issue in blue ribbon seats, of course it is. Voters are not stupid, they’ve seen this play out, And they’ve seen. In contrast to what current coalition sitting members are saying -n that they’re you know that they want strong action on climate change- what they’re seeing is that they’re not not doing the doing. They’re voting in a way that is completely at odds with their statements of being pro strong action on climate change…

And my colleague Zali Steggall is a case in point with her climate bill. She can’t get it debated, just like my integrity bill, because no one on the coalition side is being honest with their constituents. Because if you honestly wish to enact strong action on climate change, then show your stripes…

It’s not difficult to do, get up from your seat and come across and say ‘I’m going to back in Helen Haines or Zali Steggall to have the bill debated’. Let’s debate it, let’s put it out there folks, this is what we paid to do. We’re paid to argue on the evidence, and give the nation the kind of laws that we need to march into the future with a solid scientific backing.

Next sitting I’ll be seconding her bill, like I did first time around…

It has key elements in that bill that if a National Party person actually took the time to read it, they would see there are safeguards in there and there are opportunities in regional Australia. This is the bit that’s just complete madness.

So, yes, of course it’s a massive issue, and integrity and climate are so inextricably linked because what we don’t know – because there is no transparency – we don’t know who is currying favor with our elected officials when it comes to policy on climate.

It’s why the crossbench, I think, have led the nation on the debate on integrity, and on climate, because they do they sit together.

Peter: The other great disconnect – I’ve travelled around Australia a lot and I’ve seen the vast amounts of solar on cattle stations, on sheep farms, everywhere we’ve got these vast developments now, batteries, solar farms, wind farms. So we’ve got this sort of dual carriage (in the National Party). How do you see that playing out in this next election?

Helen: Again, this is just total and utter madness, I’m a rural and regional MP, and I’m sitting in the House of Representatives, because the National Party and the Liberal Party were not listening to the people of Indi. The people of Indi have been extremely clear to me that they see climate action as one great big opportunity for regional Australia…

I introduced into Parliament in February this year the Australian Local Power Agency Bill, built on a policy document I created with the people of Indi and regional Australians from right around the nation called the Local Power Plan. It was a true community codesign piece of policy work that proposes to scale up community energy, it proposes to make sure that this renewable energy boom, this inevitable boom, the boom that’s already happening, actually delivers results for regional Australia.

And the bit that exasperates me and exasperates so many regional Australians is that instead of thinking and working with regional Australia and looking to the future rather than looking to the past, the National Party doesn’t embrace the opportunities.

Instead they’re talking about underwriting fossil fuels, they’re talking about payments for land clearing that happened 20 years ago. Where’s their future focus? Why (aren’t) they asking for subsidies for methane reducing supplements to cattle… why aren’t they asking for a better deal on NBN so small communities have access to the internet, why aren’t they doing a deal to make sure that every single rural and regional Australia never has to drive through another mobile phone blind spot?

They are looking to the past and then making some kind of deal that no one will know about until triumphantly the Prime Minister steps out and tells us he’s going to Glasgow with a zero net emissions 2050 Target. It beggars belief that this is good governance. I certainly don’t think it is.

Haines declares war over Federal Integrity Commission