It’s been a busy couple of weeks, so it’s possible you missed Peter Dutton’s attempt to neutralize at least one of the issues that helped consign the Coalition to opposition on 21 May.
This week, Dutton used his opening sortie as a Liberal leader to telegraph an interest in working with the crossbench independent Helen Haines to pass her proposed legislation to establish a federal anti-corruption watchdog.
If you are confused about why the new opposition leader’s overture constitutes a step change, let’s revisit this hall of shame quickly.
Dutton’s predecessor, Scott Morrison, famously characterized a national integrity commission as a “fringe issue” before promising to deliver one, then sitting on the government’s proposal for the best part of three years, then pretending he could only introduce the necessary legislation if Labor supported every element of the Coalition’s model.
As if this inspirational performance wasn’t enough, Morrison picked up his prime ministerial megaphone and declared the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption a prurient kangaroo court that randomly spied on people’s boyfriends. Confusingly though, Morrison also inferred an Icac was sometimes useful to the extent that it paved the way for various Labor MPs to be sent to jail for corruption.
Australian voters resoundingly rejected this farrago of self-interest on election day.
The Liberal party ceded much of its metropolitan heartland to political actors promising concrete action on an integrity commission. Independents picked up Wentworth, North Sydney, Mackellar, Goldstein, Kooyong, and Curtin; the Greens picked up Ryan and Brisbane; and Labor picked up seats like Higgins, Boothby, Reid, and Bennelong.
, An integrity commission wasn’t the only issue front and center in all those contests. There was a range of factors. But it is worth reflecting on the case study of Bridget Archer, the moderate Liberal who crossed the floor last November to bring on the debate about the Haines bill – much to the chagrin of Morrison’s office.
Archer was the only Liberal to break ranks on the integrity commission and survived the electoral tsunami, holding her ultra-marginal seat of Bass. Not a fringe issue, then, keeping corruption out of politics. Perhaps a significant voter switcher.
In any case, Dutton needs to consciously uncouple himself and the remaining Liberal survivors from Morrison’s integrity commission car crash – that’s pretty obvious, and might we say, all power to his arm.
But I gather the new opposition leader didn’t give Haines a heads-up before he signaled the pivot publicly. Had he done so, Dutton would have learned that Haines was already in motion. She had already spoken with the incoming attorney general, Mark Dreyfus.
Labor has promised for some time to establish a federal anti-corruption body in the event it won the 2022 election. Anthony Albanese has made it clear he wants to pass the necessary legislation before the end of this year. The new government is already on the clock with this proposal because the federal parliament isn’t sitting until the last week of July.
There is a genuine moment here. The 47th parliament could come together and produce a concrete advance.
When they spoke last Sunday, Haines clarified to Dreyfus she wanted to collaborate if Labor was serious about doing the right thing. She suggested that she co-chair a joint select committee of the parliament to work through the technicalities and allow various experts to make their views known.
Haines told Dreyfus this process would acknowledge the groundwork done in the last parliament and allow the new government to make a cooperative gesture with the cross bench at the opening of the 47th parliament.
While Labor will need to go through its internal processes before giving this proposal the green light, it seems reasonably likely Dreyfus will accept the request. It’s not that orthodox, but it’s hardly onerous. The integrity commission legislation, once it emerges, would always have to face a committee inquiry, and a select committee (as opposed to a Senate one) would ensure all the key players can have a role in shaping the result.
Dreyfus and Haines spoke on Sunday. Dreyfus has returned to a portfolio he held back in 2013 during the second Rudd government, so this is his second stint as Australia’s first law officer. He was sworn in as attorney general on Monday. By Thursday, he addressed officials in the attorney general’s department. He told officials his aim was fundamentally restoring respect for the rule of law.
During elections, public servants always prepare transition plans if the government changes. Reflecting that pre-planning, new job advertisements appeared this week for staff to work up the new government’s integrity commission proposal.
A new departmental task force will develop policy options and consult with stakeholders while working closely with the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity. Sarah Chidgey, a deputy secretary in the attorney general’s department, will spearhead the policy development at the official level.
Albanese – who is sprinting out of the blocks in this transition and now happily asserting himself in prime ministerial form across a range of priorities – said on Friday he wanted to create an independent national anti-corruption body “that won’t be told by the executive what it can look at”.
“So they will have the scope to look at what they see fit,” the prime minister said. “I think that’s very important”. He said the government of the day should not have a right to veto the nature of investigations.
There is a long way to go, and people with common goals can easily fall out over points of detail or dispute about ownership and process.
Shaping the national integrity commission will be an important early test of the maturity of the 47th parliament. Will Labor have the collective smarts (and, dare we say, emotional intelligence) to spearhead a proposal as politically sensitive as this while keeping a large crossbench with a close interest in the detail inside the tent?
Similarly, will the crossbenchers possess the goodwill to work collaboratively with each other and a party of government – or will politics assert itself?
Much of the electoral appeal of independents is they are not part of Australia’s political duopoly. Independents want to change the tempo and tone of democratic deliberation in Australia, which is a worthy aspiration. But ultimately, they face some of the same political pressures around collaborating and differentiating as the major parties.
And what will Dutton do?
There is a genuine moment here. The 47th parliament could come together and produce a concrete advance – a new national watchdog to give Australian citizens more confidence that their politics is clean. This could be a multi-partisan legacy.
But a professional skeptic might wonder if the opposition leader sent up a flare about working with Haines on her integrity commission proposal to set up a wedge with Labor.
Is that Dutton’s actual motive: a bit of administrative mayhem? Or does the opposition leader want to get a result?
Given how much Morrison’s compounding misjudgments cost the Coalition on 21 May, given the deep electoral hole the Coalition is now in, Dutton needs to think very carefully about how he plays the next six months.