Australia Scott Morrison defends Gladys Berejiklian, rejects calls for stronger corruption commission

08:20  25 november  2021
08:20  25 november  2021 Source:   smh.com.au

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison has slammed calls for a stronger federal integrity commission to investigate corruption after launching a fiery defence of former NSW Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian over what he called a "shameful" attack on her conduct.

In a stunning move that sets up a federal election contest on corruption, Mr Morrison made it clear he would reject pressure for major changes to a draft Commonwealth Integrity Commission and confirmed the new body would not replicate sweeping state powers.

Former judges and barristers have dismissed the federal government's draft proposal as the "weakest watchdog" compared to state commissions, while Labor wants to toughen the plan by allowing public hearings for investigations into politicians.

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Mr Morrison told Parliament on Thursday he would not change the government proposal to meet demands from Labor because to do so would create a "kangaroo court" like the NSW commission that is investigating the former premier.

"Those opposite want to support the sort of show which has seen the most shameful attacks on the former premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian," he said.

"What was done to Gladys Berejiklian, the people of NSW know, was an absolute disgrace.

"And I'm not going to allow that sort of a process, which seeks to publicly humiliate people on matters that have nothing to do with the issues before such as a commission, to see those powers abused and to seek to traduce the integrity of people like Gladys Berejiklian.

"The Australian people know that Gladys Berejiklian was done over by a bad process and an abuse.

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"I'm not going to have a kangaroo court taken into this Parliament. These matters should be looking at criminal conduct, not who your boyfriend is."

Ms Berejiklian quit as premier on October 1 after the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption revealed it was investigating she breached public trust or encouraged the occurrence of corrupt conduct during her secret relationship with disgraced former MP Daryl Maguire.

An exclusive survey published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Thursday showed many of the state's voters continued to have some sympathy for Ms Berejiklian, with 54 per cent of voters saying they "still like and respect" the former premier.

On a separate question, 22 per cent strongly agreed and 21 per cent agreed with the proposition that Ms Berejiklian should not have resigned based on what had emerged from ICAC. Another 32 per cent were neutral and 25 per cent disagreed.

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The Resolve Political Monitor surveyed 1606 people nationwide over six days to November 21 but the NSW findings were based on responses from 515 respondents.

Mr Morrison made his declaration in question time on Thursday after the government lost a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives when one of its own MPs, Liberal backbencher Bridget Archer, backed a motion to debate a call from Victorian independent Helen Haines to set up a federal integrity commission.

Ms Archer, who represents Bass in northern Tasmania, expressed her frustration that the government had promised a commission but was yet to put its plan to Parliament.

While the government lost the vote, Dr Haines and her supporters did not secure the absolute majority they needed in the House to suspend other business and bring on a vote on her private member's bill to create the anti-corruption body.

Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek challenged Mr Morrison on the question by asking why he had not delivered on the promise he made in December 2018 to set up the commission.

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"Why did the Prime Minister say he would create a national integrity commission when he didn't mean it?" she asked.

Mr Morrison responded by redoubling his criticism of the model put forward by Labor and others on the grounds it did not allow procedural fairness, did not prevent vexatious claims, allowed significant coercive powers on low-level offences, would publicise investigations and did not include protections for journalists and their sources.

The government is yet to introduce an updated version of its draft bill to set up a Commonwealth Integrity Commission after former judges at the Centre for Public Integrity issued a report in early October saying the federal model was too weak.

"It would hide corruption, not expose it," said Stephen Charles, QC, a former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal and a director of the Centre for Public Integrity.

"It falls short of its state counterparts on almost every level. It is a breed of its own and does not deserve to be called a watchdog."

Mr Morrison said he would introduce the government bill if Labor said it backed the model.

Labor transport spokeswoman Catherine King asked Mr Morrison whether he was trying to prevent a federal anti-corruption body looking into scandals such as the use of false documents in the office of Energy Minister Angus Taylor, a dispute over a land sale at the Western Sydney Airport, the "rorting" of taxpayer funds on sports projects and commuter car parks.

Mr Morrison said the new commission would have $150 million in federal funds to investigate specified criminal corruption, with powers to search and seize property and tap phones when necessary.

"This has been out for public consultation for a long time, even the draft legislation is there before them," he said of the Labor Party.

"But they don't want a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, they want a Commonwealth kangaroo court, that can go and pry and pursue political vendettas."

As Labor leader Anthony Albanese and others interjected, Mr Morrison said the "disgraceful" treatment of Ms Berejiklian had forced her to resign before there was any finding about her by the NSW ICAC.

"Now, the leader of the Labor Party might support what was done to Gladys Berejiklian but I do not," he said.

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