Abbott government senators have argued that the creation of a federal body similar to the independent commission against corruption (Icac) in New South Wales would “address a problem that doesn’t exist”.
Addressing the issue during a Senate debate on Thursday, a Liberal National party senator, James McGrath, said he did not think the Australian people were “calling out for another bureaucratic institution to be established”.
“Sometimes they think we are incompetent … but when it comes to corruption I don’t think Australians think we’re corrupt,” McGrath said.
The Greens sought support for a Senate motion calling on the government to establish a national independent commission against corruption “to ensure Australia is equipped with a national framework for the comprehensive prevention of corruption and misconduct, and to restore faith of the Australian people in the integrity of our democracy”.
The debate was interrupted without a vote having been taken.
A Greens senator, Lee Rhiannon, called on the major parties to show leadership and agree to establish such a body at a federal level, saying it was inconceivable that improper behaviour “stopped at the border”.
Rhiannon said it was a time for action, “not just excuses why it’s not needed”.
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“It is time we started talking about what form that should take rather than just say no,” she said.
Labor, which did not create such a body when it was in government, said the party was “open to considering a federal Icac”.
But a Labor senator, Jacinta Collins, added that the opposition would not vote in favour of the Greens motion.
“We think that addressing it here today in this way is a tad premature,” she said.
Government senators argued that the “multi-agency approach” of existing law enforcement bodies provided sufficient oversight.
Another Liberal National party senator, Matthew Canavan, argued that a case must be established before spending “a lot of money” on “new bureaucracies”.
“I just do not see that corruption problem in this country at a federal level,” he said.
McGrath, a fellow Queensland senator, said state-based corruption commissions sometimes did more damage to individual reputations than they achieved in their aim of cleaning out corruption.
“We don’t want to have some Salem witch hunts, which does happen in some parts of Australia where state bodies have been established, and sometimes people are dragged before those bodies and have their names dragged through the mud,” he said.
McGrath said the Australian people were “a pretty good judge of character” and made the right decisions at elections.
“Ultimately the Australian people should be the ultimate arbiters of whether we are a corrupt body, a corrupt government or not,” he said.
“I think the Australian people always make sensible decisions.”
A Greens senator, Richard Di Natale, said public momentum was building for change, and the revelations at NSW Icac hearings had damaged the standing of politicians in all jurisdictions.
He said of McGrath’s observations about politicians: “I don’t live in that world, I have to say. I live in a world where it seems to me politicians and politics in general is held in very low regard and I think the public attitude towards politics is at a very low ebb at the moment.”