Changes needed to integrity body: lawyers

Senior lawyers have criticised the Morrison government’s model for a new anti-corruption watchdog.

Attorney-General Christian Porter on Monday released the details of the Commonwealth Integrity Commission, with laws expected to go to parliament next year after public feedback.

Mr Porter said it would have greater investigation powers than a royal commission, and hold politicians and their staff, bureaucrats and police to the highest standards of honesty and accountability.

The two bills to establish the CIC are likely to face difficulty getting through the Senate, with Labor and cross bench senators querying the model.

There are also concerns within the legal profession.

Retired Victorian Supreme Court judge and director of the Centre for Public Integrity, Stephen Charles, said it was “not a corruption commission”.

“It is designed to protect parliamentarians and senior public servants from investigation,” he said on Tuesday.

Barrister and director of the Centre for Public Integrity, Geoffrey Watson, described it as a “sham”.

“It is designed to cover up corruption, not expose it,” Mr Watson said.

He said one of the key flaws was a lack of retrospectivity, which would mean incidents such as sports rorts and concerns over Murray-Darling water buybacks would not be investigated.

Legal groups have raised a number of other issues including no public hearings to scrutinise alleged public sector corruption, a too-narrow definition of “corrupt conduct”, and a too-high threshold for referrals for investigation.

Mr Porter said the commission would have a list of 143 offences to draw from, covering virtually every type of serious criminal conduct.

He also argues public hearings by state anti-corruption bodies have too often damaged the reputation of innocent people.

The commission would have two divisions – one to deal with law enforcement officials and the other for politicians and public servants – with different definitions of corrupt conduct.

But Law Council president Pauline Wright said the same conduct deemed corrupt in one context should be deemed corrupt in the other.

The commission would have the power to compel people to give sworn evidence at hearings, with a maximum penalty of two years in jail for not complying.

As well, people could be compelled to provide information and produce documents – even if the information would incriminate the person – with a maximum penalty of two years in jail for not complying.

Searches under warrant could be allowed at homes and surveillance devices could be used.

Labor frontbencher Andrew Leigh said the government did not want a proper integrity commission.

“Because they know exactly what it would do – it would go after the sort of misconduct we’ve seen from the Morrison government,” he said.

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