A group of eminent Australians have called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to urgently establish a national anti-corruption body to keep an overdue promise made by the government nearly three years ago.
In an open letter published on Tuesday, the group of 59 former judges, politicians and academics urged Mr Morrison to deliver on pre-election promises he made in 2019 to deliver a national integrity commission.
The group, known as the National Integrity Committee, includes former High and Federal Court judges as well as former Liberal opposition leader John Hewson. The group said public trust had deteriorated and a national body to fight government corruption was now crucial.
"A National Integrity Commission is urgently needed to fill the gaps in our integrity system and restore trust in our democracy," the letter said.
The letter said existing agencies tasked with the job, such as the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, did not have the adequate scope and powers.
"Existing federal integrity agencies lack the necessary jurisdiction, powers and expertise to investigate properly," it said. "The establishment of a National Integrity Commission with teeth is long overdue."
Independent MP for Indi Dr Helen Haines, a staunch supporter of the proposal, warned an oversight body for corruption allegations against politicians and public servants should have been introduced long ago.
She said it was more important now than ever, following major spending initiatives the government had announced in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The federal government handles more money than any other jurisdiction in the nation, and the propensity for corruption to occur is high," Dr Haines said.
"Never before have we spent public money to the level that we're spending it now.
"Billions of dollars in the most recent federal budget, and no way, really, of ever holding anyone to account should there be allegations of corruption."
Former attorney-general Christian Porter introduced a draft bill in late 2020, which was criticised for proposing a two-tiered system with different requirements for law enforcement and parliamentarians. It was also slammed for offering no mechanism to allow for public-sector whistleblowers.
Research from independent think tank the Australia Institute has previously shown strong public support for a Commonwealth integrity commission, with polling indicating 88 per cent support a national body.
Bill Browne, senior researcher at the institute's Democracy & Accountability Program, said a federal integrity commission would help the public feel the government was being held accountable when concerns were raised.
"The benefit of an integrity commission is that it allows concerns, which always arise, to be ventilated and investigated," he said.
"Without that at the federal level, I think it's inevitable that we see a lack of public confidence in the system."
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