It appears, on the surface at least, that members of parliament may be committed to serving the public interest when they pass legislation to establish independent anti-corruption bodies. But history clearly shows that any commitment is often temporary, for the challenges facing these commissions become considerable, with the most significant coming from MPs themselves.
In some instances, MPs deliberately refuse to grant anti-corruption commissions the resources required to be effective.
An anti-corruption body that has been operational for some years knows from first-hand experience what additional powers and/or resources it requires to deliver effective accountability. Nevertheless, governments refuse their repeated requests for additional funding and powers. There are also instances of MPs trying and sometimes succeeding in removing the powers and reducing the funding they have previously granted.
The following examples are not exhaustive. I raise them to alert all those who campaigned strongly for the establishment of a best practice federal anti-corruption model that continued support especially from MPs is far from assured.
The first investigation by Queensland's Criminal Justice Commission was into the possible misuse of travel entitlements by MPs in the 1986-1989 parliament, commonly referred to as the "Travel Rorts" inquiry.
The CJC's inaugural chair Sir Max Bingham explained that the clear message coming from all sides of politics during the commission's investigation was to "pack it in" with some parliamentarians indicating that the future prospects of the CJC were at risk.
When the Travel Rorts report was handed down the vicious attacks on the recently established CJC were immediate and ferocious. One MP went so far as to publicly state that it "had dished out kangaroo-court style justice in an unprofessional, subjective, sloppy, judgemental and pathetic report".
ICAC NSW has often been under attack by parliamentarians including from those not serving in that state's parliament. The latest unfounded condemnation of ICAC was made by the former prime minister Scott Morrison while he held that high office. He and some of his ministers wrongly accused ICAC of acting like a "Kangaroo Court", of being a "Star Chamber" and of ruining the reputations of former NSW premiers Nick Greiner, Barry O'Farrell and Gladys Berejiklian.
All three premiers chose to resign and none appears to have suffered reputational damage from their engagement with ICAC (although the Berejiklian findings are still to come). Nick Greiner has had what can be described as a stellar career post his premiership and Barry O'Farrell is currently High Commissioner to India. Gladys Berejiklian was recently appointed to the role of managing director, enterprise, business and institutional at Optus. If the reputation of these former premiers had been trashed by ICAC surely none would have held the high-profile positions they have and currently do.
These very few examples show that the main danger to the effectiveness and credibility of the soon to be established federal anti-corruption body may emanate overwhelmingly from members of parliaments. But why?
Arguably, the principal reason for the tensions that arise between MPs and anti-corruption commissions is found in the independent nature of these commissions. It means that the usual levers of control exercised by ministers over government departments are removed, as independent anti-corruption commissions rightly report to parliament, not government. Their findings that often address the behaviour of MPs or the departments for which they are supposedly responsible cannot be kept from the public gaze.
Will MPs, especially those with loyalty to a political party, network or group, merely make false and misleading claims about the conduct of the federal anti-corruption body when its investigations reveal questionable behaviour by a particular MP and/or their colleagues; or will they resort to form and go further to undermine the credibility of the work undertaken by the anti-corruption body by reducing its powers and/or resources. Only time will tell.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.