Josh Frydenberg opposes independents’ call for public hearings and tip-offs in proposed federal Icac
The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, has defended the lack of public hearings in the government’s proposed federal integrity commission, saying he opposes a model that would see politicians “guilty until proved innocent”.
Frydenberg, who is under pressure in his Melbourne seat of Kooyong on the issue of integrity and climate change, said that while he agreed with the need for a federal anti-corruption commission, he disagreed with the independents on two elements – public referrals and public hearings.
“If we have public referrals, then what we will see is the weaponisation of an integrity commission,” Frydenberg told the ABC’s Insiders program.
“We want to see other integrity bodies like the AFP, the ombudsman, being able to provide the referrals to the integrity commission and ultimately it’s for the courts to decide guilt or innocence. If there is a sufficient case, those matters should be referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions for the next stage.”
On the issue of public hearings – which some within the Coalition had publicly supported – Frydenberg said that in NSW, the supreme court had been forced to delay trials because of “prejudicial” ICAC hearings.
He said he did not believe that subjecting politicians to public hearings was “the best way to get justice”.
“Being able to say after a public hearing that someone is cleared may be too late for their reputation to be restored. That will be seen guilty until proved innocent. That’s not the right way to go,” Frydenberg said.
“I’m all for an integrity commission, I would welcome it, but it must be the right model.”
The treasurer’s comments about the NSW Icac have been repeatedly dismissed by a range of legal experts in the past, and Geoffrey Watson SC, a former counsel assisting for the integrity body, said the government’s opposition to the model “rings hollow”.
“There’s nothing to it,” he said. “All of these complaints have been rebutted by experts time and time again and it’s become quite tiresome to hear the same rubbish trotted out.”
Watson said “almost none” of the investigations carried out in NSW – including into the corrupt former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid – would have been carried out under a model that did not allow for public referrals, and that there were provisions under the Icac Act to allow the agency to protect against so-called “weaponisation”.
“It is simply not a problem,” Watson said.
“The initial processes under Icac are kept secret [and] if someone is merely using an Icac referral as a weapon it’s sorted out at an early investigative stage.
“In every model used there is a power for an integrity agency to issue public statements explaining why it has not proceeded to a public inquiry, so there is a protection against it.”
Frydenberg has previously distanced himself from remarks made by Scott Morrison about the NSW Icac being a “kangaroo court”, which prompted a rebuke from commissioner Stephen Rushton that people who held this view were “buffoons”.
Watson said he “felt sorry” for Frydenberg watching the interview.
“It was just the same old tired story that they’ve been putting forward as an excuse fr not introducing an integrity commission into the federal sphere,” he said.
The Coalition has been unable to deliver on its 2019 election commitment to establish a national federal integrity commission, despite releasing an exposure draft in late 2020.
The draft bill drew criticism for the softness of its approach, including its lack of public hearings, with critics describing it as a “toothless tiger” with insufficient power to stamp out and deter corruption.
A revised bill that was taken to cabinet late last year never saw the light of day, given deep divisions within the party about the best way forward, leading to the election commitment to be shelved.
Labor has promised to introduce a bill for an integrity commission this year if it wins government, with its model having the power to hold public hearings “where the Commission determines it is in the public interest to do so”.
Frydenberg, who is at risk of losing his seat to teal independent Monique Ryan, largely as a result of Morrison’s unpopularity, defended the eleventh-hour bid by the prime minister to recast his image in a more positive light just a week before election day.
“The prime minister acknowledged we’re moving from one phase of the pandemic to the next and coming out of the most significant crisis Australia has seen since the end of the second world war,” Frydenberg said.
“Our federation has come under more stress than it ever has, since federation itself. Now the prime minister will have more space and time to be more consultative in his approach and in his own words being more empathetic but I think the prime minister has done an extraordinary job in extraordinary times.”
He said that he believed Morrison to be a “person of compassion … a person of decency”.
“I’ve seen how he interacts with his family and seen how on important issues like mental health and youth suicide, he’s been absolutely focused on delivering results for the community.”
Frydenberg also spoke about the need for constitutonal recognition for Indigenous Australians, but when asked if he believed the voice to parliament should be enshrined in the constitution he said: “this debate has some way to go”.
“I do see some challenges with it and ultimately Australia would be best served by having a bipartisan approach on this, but we do support constitutional recognition of our first Australians,” Frydenberg said.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said he wanted to establish a Voice to Parliament enshrined in the constitution soon after the election if he was successful at the election.
“This is a change that has been a long time coming. We’ve been talking about it since at least the end of last century,” Albanese told Insiders.
“I will consult with First Nations people about the timetable. I will reach out across the parliament … to try to secure support as much as possible.”
Albanese also criticised Morrison for failing to deliver on the commitment, saying he had promised to act in this term of parliament.
“He doesn’t want a Voice to Parliament. The only voice Scott Morrison ever wants to hear is his own,” he said.