Integrity bill passes lower house as new accusations emerge

Anti-corruption watchdog a crucial step closer

The Albanese government is one step closer towards achieving a signature campaign promise after the bill for its national anti-corruption commission passed the lower house on Thursday.

Even before the bill has become law, parliament is dealing with a new allegation of corruption – Government Services Minister Bill Shorten announced on Thursday his department would investigate his predecessor Stuart Robert.

The former Morrison government minister is accused of having advised a company that lobbied for government tenders. He denies the allegations.

Meantime, the corruption commission bill is on its way to the Senate and seemingly on schedule to be passed, as promised, by Christmas.

Independent MP Zali Steggall on her proposed amendments

Source: Twitter/Zali Steggall

Protests by crossbench MPs on Thursday that the government’s bill lacked specific definitions of corruption was not enough to secure support for amendments.

Liberal rebel Bridget Archer split from the Coalition to support some of the crossbench independents’ amendments, including a bid to remove an ‘exceptional circumstances’ test on holding public inquiries into alleged corruption.

But in the end, the only amendments passed were those previously announced by the government (a related bill was due before the House later on Thursday).

“I promised the people of Indi, and people across Australia who care about integrity in politics, that I would fight for an integrity body with teeth, and I would do all I could to deliver that to them,” Victorian independent MP Helen Haines said.

“That is what I have done today.”

Meanwhile, during question time on Thursday, Mr Shorten revealed he had ordered the heads of Services Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency to “immediately and thoroughly” investigate a report in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday.

The Nine newspapers claimed a cache of leaked emails showed how Mr Robert helped lobbying and consulting firm Synergy 360 in 2017 and 2018 sign up corporate clients to help them navigate the public service and political system and meet key decision-makers.

That included providing access to senior Coalition ministers such as Peter Dutton.

Fairfax said it was not suggesting Mr Robert was an employee of Synergy 360 or was paid for his advice and assistance.

Mr Shorten warned against potential “corruption”, saying he wanted the Services Australia and NDIA investigations to focus on whether the process in awarding the contracts was “entirely above board and appropriate”.

“The Albanese government believes that the job of a MP is to work for your constituents – not your former business partners,” he told parliament.

“Further, we believe that when there is clear lobbying as revealed by the emails, companies are required to be on the lobbyist register. This is not an option.

“But most importantly, using public office as a politician to enrich your private friends and mates, including political donors, is not a shade of grey.

“Whether you are a backbencher or a frontbencher is not a defence. If and when public office has been used to enrich private mates, it is corruption.”

After question time ended, Mr Robert said he had been “egregiously” misrepresented. He rejected the accusations made by the Nine report.

“All ministers know the process for procurement, all understand how procurement is run by the public service and how procurement is run,” he said.

“Having said that, [Mr Shorten] and I are on Q&A tonight, which may well have informed his motivations.”

Synergy 360 is paid a retainer by companies to lobby officials. It is paid a commission if a contract is successfully secured.

Nine said the leaked emails showed Mr Robert introduced Synergy 360 to overseas officials and businessmen he met in his official capacity as an MP.

The code of conduct under then-prime minister Scott Morrison said ministers should ensure dealings with lobbyists “do not give rise to a conflict between public duty and private interest”.

There is no similar code for backbenchers. Mr Robert was a backbencher in 2017 and 2018.

– with AAP

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