There's been a lot of talk about integrity this week, but little of it on display.
Whether it is the Westpac Board refusing to take responsibility for the bank's prolific alleged breaches of anti-money-laundering laws, the Prime Minister intervening to shield a minister whose integrity is in question, or the government's toxic robodebt laws being found to be unlawful, integrity has been thin on the ground.
Westpac is alleged by the regulator AUSTRAC to have breached anti-money-laundering laws a staggering 23 million times, involving at least $11 billion in transactions, some of which may have funded "live-streamed child abuse" and terrorism. It took the bank almost a year and half to report the dodgy transactions. This dwarfs the Commonwealth Bank's mere 53,000 breaches of the same laws, for which it was fined a record $700 million (though that pales in comparison to the $9.4 billion in profit the Commonwealth Bank made that same year).
Most people who were responsible for that kind of gross negligence would resign in shame. Not Westpac chief executive Brian Hartzer. He reassured the Westpac board that this was "not a major issue" for mainstream Australia. He was forced to resign shortly after those comments became public, and he will be "punished" with a $2.7 million golden handshake for doing absolutely nothing for the next year. That'll teach him.
There is something seriously wrong when we are effectively incentivising the cover-up of money-laundering transactions. And how can anyone believe the Coalition government has any integrity when it has shown almost no interest in holding banks to the same standard it wants to apply to unions?
One Nation shocked the government late on Thursday night by voting against the union-busting Ensuring Integrity Bill, designed to make it easy to deregister unions. There is no equivalent bill to deregister banks but, like Westpac's CEO, the government judged this was not a major issue. Senator Pauline Hanson disagreed. "Over recent weeks we have seen rampant white-collar crime exposed, involving tens of millions of breaches by Westpac, with no effort from the bank or this government to deal with their illegal actions," she said in explaining her decision. She's not wrong.
In fact, the government seems more shocked and outraged at One Nation's vote than at revelations of Westpac's prolific law-breaking. Neither the Prime Minister or the Treasurer could bring themselves to call for Westpac's CEO or chairman to resign. Instead, the Treasurer said there needed to be "accountability" from the board and that customers wanted "an improved performance going forward" from the bank. That's the verbal equivalent of getting flogged with wet toilet paper.
Compare that to how Liberal senator Eric Abetz described Senator Hanson's temerity to vote against the Ensuring Integrity Bill: "It was an absolute disappointment; One Nation traded with us in a manner that was not fair dinkum, it did not show any integrity, nor did it show honesty... [it] is not the standard you'd expect anywhere - least of all the Parliament."
But these days the integrity standards in Parliament are sloppy at best, especially for those sitting on the government benches.
The Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, is now subject to a police investigation after he relied on a doctored document to accuse Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore of spending more than $15 million on travel in a story publish in The Daily Telegraph. Minister Taylor has since apologised, but questions remain over the origins of this doctored document and how he came to be in possession of it.
Prime Minister Morrison's response was not to stand the minister aside, but to call the NSW Police Commissioner directly - highly inappropriate in itself - so now the Prime Minister's integrity is bound to Angus Taylor's.
Had the Coalition government acted with more integrity, it may not have suffered another major blow this week when elements of its punitive and hugely destructive robodebt scheme were found to be unlawful, something many people pointed out when the scheme first started.
Then-Human Services Minister Alan Tudge threatened people with jail if they failed to pay these debts, that it now turns out may have been raised illegally.
"We'll find you, we'll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison," he said.
More than half a million robodebts were issued using unlawful income-averaging and will have to be reassessed - having ruined numerous lives in the meanwhile. It was completely unnecessary and avoidable. But the same rules don't apply to bank CEOs as they do Centrelink recipients. It's threats of jail for not paying unlawful debts you don't owe to Centrelink, but a $2.7 million golden handshake if you oversee 23 million alleged breaches of anti-money-laundering laws.
The government's double standards don't just apply to how it treats bank and unions, or Centrelink recipients and bank CEOs - they extend to politicians themselves.
In the lead-up to the federal election, the Coalition announced it would establish a Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC), joining Labor, the Greens and the crossbench in support for a federal anti-corruption body. The government's proposed CIC would consist of two different integrity bodies - one for the public sector and one for law enforcement, with different investigative powers and jurisdiction.
The problem is, the Attorney-General's proposed CIC has some serious flaws. It's one rule for politicians and a different rule for others. While the law enforcement division could conduct public hearings, the public sector division could not - meaning an investigation into a corrupt police officer could be aired in a public hearing, but not an investigation into a corrupt politician. How convenient. If the banking royal commission hearings had been held in secret, imagine how much of the banks' appalling behaviour would remain concealed from the public today.
The CIC public sector division would be limited to investigating criminal conduct, which sounds reasonable in principle, but there's plenty of corrupt conduct that does not constitute a criminal offence (like nepotism in appointments and the granting of contracts). The threshold that must be met to begin an investigation is so high that, if it applied to the NSW ICAC, the investigation of the Bylong Valley coal mining licences involving Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald would never have gotten off the ground. And while the public could refer an allegation of corruption to the law enforcement division, they would not be able to do the same for the proposed public sector division.
All in all, it's a flawed model that former Victorian Court of Appeal Judge and Australia Institute National Integrity Committee member Stephen Charles has described as "a fraudulent nonsense, designed to protect ministers, parliamentarians and their aides from investigation and exposure".
The National Integrity Committee is convened by the Australia Institute, and its members are retired judges and former corruption fighters. It first came together two years ago to design a blueprint for an effective federal anti-corruption watchdog with real teeth. The Attorney-General's proposed CIC fails to meet some of the key design principles they outlined, and he has thus far failed to introduce detailed draft legislation by year's end as he promised. He should get cracking.
Australia desperately needs a Commonwealth Integrity Commission with teeth, because the Morrison government has proven itself a failure at ensuring integrity in the Parliament or anywhere else.
- Ebony Bennett is the deputy director at independent think tank the Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett