The government will proceed with its roundly criticised model for a federal anti-corruption commission – but has signalled the bill will only come to parliament if Labor backs it.
With Australia’s parliament entering what could be the last sitting week before the election, the government is under pressure to deliver the federal integrity commission it has telegraphed, but not delivered, for three years.
One of its backbenchers crossed the floor last week to bring on parliamentary debate on a stronger proposal, advanced by the independent Helen Haines. Bridget Archer was the only government MP to back the Haines proposal but a number of other Liberals want the government to toughen up its proposal.
Metropolitan Liberals are facing electoral pressure because independents are targeting incumbent moderates in the government’s blue-ribbon heartland. Independents backed by the activist Climate 200 organisation, which has raised $4m in less than four months, are campaigning locally for climate action and a strong national integrity commission.
But efforts by the attorney general, Michaelia Cash, to secure internal agreement to beef up the government’s proposal have met fierce resistance in cabinet. Scott Morrison told reporters on Sunday the government would stick with its original model because it was “well-designed and well-considered”.
Cash was more equivocal when asked if the proposal might be overhauled to include public hearings during political investigations, which would be a significant strengthening of the model. “At this point in time, the bill is as it stands,” she said.
Haines is unlikely to move again this week to try to suspend the standing orders to bring on her own proposal for an integrity commission but she is critical of the Coalition blaming Labor for any delay. She said on Sunday if Morrison “truly believed” in his suboptimal integrity commission he should “bring it forward” and give parliament an opportunity to amend it.
After she crossed the floor last week, Archer was hauled into a meeting with Morrison, the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and the minister for women, Marise Payne. The Tasmanian Liberal backbencher expressed her displeasure at that treatment. “I would have preferred not to have the meeting at that time while I was feeling emotional,” she said last week.
But the minister for families and social services, and for women’s safety, Anne Ruston, defended the prime minister on Sunday. “I think it’s an entirely reasonable proposition when somebody expresses an opinion different to government policy and then acts on it, that the prime minister would seek to find out what their concerns were in an effort to try to resolve them,” Ruston told the ABC.
The minister said Morrison had met last week with the two Liberal senators refusing to pass government legislation until the prime minister moved against vaccination mandates “as he would have met, I’m sure, with every other Liberal party senator who crossed the floor in the time he has been prime minister”.
Morrison last week sought to buffer the government against its obvious lack of action on an integrity commission by criticising the New South Wales anti-corruption commission.
After he faced the internal revolt on his own model, the prime minister accused critics of him and the government’s integrity commission of wanting a “kangaroo court” to oversee the federal parliament. Morrison attacked the NSW Icac’s inquiry into the former premier Gladys Berejiklian.
Liberals want Berejiklian to run in the seat of Warringah against the incumbent independent, Zali Steggall. Morrison declared anti-corruption commissions “should be looking at criminal conduct, not who your boyfriend is”.
On Sunday Morrison tried to shift blame to Labor for the lack of progress. He said the government would like to proceed with its proposal but “there’s no support for our proposal from Labor, or others”.
“Our proposal has been consulted on, we’ve had it out there for a long time, we are interested in a fair dinkum commission that looks at criminal conduct, not at who people’s boyfriends are,” the prime minister said.
“Labor and others want to have a system, frankly, that is open to all sorts of abuse and game playing and politicking and we’ve seen that from Labor over the course of this term – time and time matters referred off to the Australian federal police, wasting their time”.
Cash told reporters the Coalition’s proposed integrity commission was a fair and balanced model: “It will deal with instances of the most serious criminal corruption at a federal level.
“That is what this bill is all about. It’s not, as the prime minister said, a political witch-hunt, which the Labor party seem to want it to be.
“We have a bill, if Labor indicated they would support the bill, our situation would be very very different, but at this point in time, we have a bill, they don’t, all they have is a statement of opposition. That’s their situation.”
It is routine for the government to bring forward legislation to the House of Representatives, whether it is likely to pass or not. But Ruston told the ABC: “The last thing we want to do is bring a bill into this place and then find out it won’t get through.”