Spending scandals in Australia prompt calls to create a national anti-corruption body

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week he was shocked and appalled by the revelations. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY - Two years ago, officials from a government department in Australia made a deal to buy a 12ha patch of farmland to be used as a runway for a new international airport in Sydney.

But it emerged in a recent government audit report that the officials had ended up agreeing to pay almost A$30 million ($29 million) for the land, even though the property had been valued at just A$3 million.

This unusual deal caused public outrage and is now being investigated by the Australian Federal Police.

It is just one of a series of scandals in recent weeks that have led to growing calls for the federal government to set up a long-awaited national anti-corruption commission.

Another involved the chief executive of the publicly-owned Australia Post, Ms Christine Holgate.

She was urged by the government to stand aside after it emerged that she gave Cartier watches to four top executives to thank them for clinching a business deal.

The watches were worth about A$20,000 in total.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week he was shocked and appalled by the revelations and described the gifts as "disgraceful".

"We are the shareholders of Australia Post on behalf of the Australian people," he added.

"The chief executive... has been instructed to stand aside; if she doesn't wish to do that, she can go."

Despite Mr Morrison's comments, Ms Holgate's lawyers said on Thursday (Oct 29) that she has not been formally stood aside.

A separate incident involved Mr James Shipton, the chairman of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (Asic), the corporate watchdog.

After it emerged that the commission had paid A$118,557 to prepare his tax returns, Mr Shipton said he would stand aside pending an investigation.

He also agreed to repay the expenses, which were spent on personal tax advice as part of his move back from the United States to head Asic in 2018.

These incidents have added to long-running calls for the ruling Liberal-National Coalition to create a standing federal anti-corruption body that could investigate alleged misconduct by politicians and government agencies.

In Australia, states tend to have strong anti-corruption bodies which have led to the downfall of several leaders.

But there is no similar federal body.

Overall trust in the government in Australia has been declining in recent years - a slide blamed on a series of internal political coups.

This lack of trust has prompted calls to improve transparency and also address corruption.

An independent MP, Ms Helen Haines, this week introduced her own Bill to create an anti-corruption agency.

The proposed agency would be able to hold open hearings and investigate matters referred to it by the public.

"Like most Australians, I've lost patience after watching rolling scandals and nothing coming of it - except diminishing trust in politicians when we most need it," Ms Haines said on twitter on Tuesday.

But the ruling Coalition is unlikely to support it and has instead proposed its own plan to create an anti-corruption body.

The Coalition began working on plans for such a body in 2018 and had a draft ready in December last year but has yet to introduce it to Parliament.

Asked about the delay, Mr Morrison said he was concerned about diverting attention from the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Labor opposition party criticised the delay, suggesting the Coalition is moving slowly to avoid scrutiny.

"It is a deliberate decision from Morrison to try to go on a go slow when it comes to dealing with corruption," Labor MP Tony Burke told Sky News.

Analysts have criticised the Coalition's proposed commission, saying it will be too weak and unable to publicly hear corruption inquiries into politicians and their staff.

The University of New South Wales' Dr Mark Rolfe, an expert on Australian politics, described the Coalition's proposed commission as a "joke".

"It's not going to be looking at politicians or at the relations of ministers and departments, which is what the current (New South Wales state corruption commission) does," he said on Thursday in a statement.

"But I don't think Morrison wants a federal (commission) looking under all the rocks and stones and discovering things under there that might damage his government."

An expert on political accountability, Dr Yee-Fui Ng of Monash University, said the Coalition's proposal would only allow inquiries to be launched if the commission already suspects that criminal corruption had occurred.

This, she said, was a "difficult hurdle to clear" and would limit the commission's ability to unveil corruption through its own investigations.

"It shouldn't be left to the government to monitor itself any longer," she wrote on The Conversation website.

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