Tony Abbott has told Coalition colleagues the Turnbull government should not blindly follow Labor and create a federal integrity commission – an initiative flagged by Bill Shorten in a scene-setting speech in January.
Abbott spoke at the regular party room meeting of Coalition MPs on Tuesday and was backed, according to colleagues, by the Queensland Liberal Stuart Robert, who was dumped two years ago from the Turnbull ministry following controversy over a “private” trip to Beijing to oversee a mining deal involving a major Liberal donor.
But the Victorian Liberal Russell Broadbent – who has expressed opposition to an anti-corruption commission in the recent past – told colleagues the government should adopt the proposal.
Broadbent said the voting public wanted some kind of integrity body to keep watch over politicians, and he argued if the Coalition took up the issue, the government could ensure the body was not a star chamber, with wide-ranging investigatory powers, but more like the Victorian Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, which has a more limited remit.
Responding to the discussion, the prime minister said the most important imperative wasn’t populism – which is how the prime minister has characterised Shorten’s January commitment on a federal body – but showing voters the government was committed to stamping out corruption.
Turnbull said the government would take advice from a report into the issue from a Senate select committee into a national integrity commission. That committee recommended last September that the government give careful consideration “to establishing a commonwealth agency with broad scope and jurisdiction to address integrity and corruption matters”.
Shorten in January said Labor would adopt a national integrity commission if he won the next federal election, and invited Turnbull to work in bipartisan fashion between now and the election season.
The Labor leader said any new federal anti-corruption body would have to be “independent and well-resourced [and] secure from government interference”.
Shorten said it would need a “broad jurisdiction, effectively operating as a standing royal commission, with all those investigative powers, into serious and systemic corruption in the public sector”.
The negative views expressed about an integrity commission in the Coalition party room on Tuesday chime with public objections to the idea expressed by the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce.
Joyce, who is currently facing intense political pressure triggered by the end of his 24-year marriage and his relationship with his pregnant former staffer Vikki Campion, said in late January an anti-political corruption watchdog was unnecessary in Australia.
Joyce said he didn’t want to get to the point “where people are scared for the government to govern”.
“We don’t lack any capacity in our federal system to pursue issues that are a concern within the political frame,” he told Sky News. “We’ve got a Senate in federal politics which all the time calls inquiries, it can basically subpoena people, it has the capacity if there is a query to follow that through”.
“I just don’t want to get to the position where people are scared for the government to govern and all that happens is departments govern, because any time you make a decision that’s different to your department you have the potential to end up in front of Icac, that would not be governing.”
The Joyce view was echoed by Michael Sukkar, the assistant minister to the treasurer, who told the ABC in late January he did not support the creation of a new body. “I support the extensive range of anti-corruption measures we’ve got in place at the moment,” he said.