Liberal member of parliament Bridget Archer is clear about what she will do if her party won’t vote for the government’s national integrity commission bill. She will leave the Coalition.
“I would have thought that my actions last year in relation to this should have been a clear sign,” she says. “It is the hill that I am prepared to die on.”
Asked if she would move to the crossbench if the Coalition did not back the bill, she is blunt: “Yep.”
After the Albanese government introduced legislation this week for a national anti-corruption commission (NACC) – the issue on which Archer defied her party and crossed the floor last year – the Tasmanian MP spoke frankly with The Saturday Paper about what the issue means to her.
“I think if the Coalition voted against this,” she says, “that would be end of days for me.” On whether her colleagues are aware of this, she says: “Well, they’re not very good at reading the room, are they?”
Archer won’t go as far as quitting politics and causing a byelection in her marginal seat of Bass. Despite her rebellion – or maybe because of it – she was returned at the May election, the first MP in two decades to win a second consecutive term there.
“I don’t think I would quit entirely,” she says, “only because I’m bloody-minded.”
Archer believes cross-party support for the proposed NACC is crucial – and not just for its credibility and future. “I think it’s important for the Coalition,” she says, citing voters’ electoral message. “If the Coalition votes against this legislation, then they probably should all just go home. Because I don’t know what you do, if you do that.”
On Wednesday, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton indicated that the Coalition will likely support the bill.
“I fought [all] my life against criminal behaviour,” the former Queensland police officer told journalists. “And there’s no place for corrupt behaviour in public life here in Canberra or anywhere around the country. I made that clear to our party room and we want to make sure that we can support a process that the government puts in place, which is sensible at the same time.”
The shift in Coalition sentiment appears to have been secured with the addition of an unexpected caveat. The commission’s hearings will mostly be private, with public hearings only in “exceptional circumstances” – a term not defined in law – and when the commissioner determines it is in the public interest.
Prominent advocates including independent MP Helen Haines, the Greens, and the lawyers and former judges from the Centre for Public Integrity are concerned about the “exceptional circumstances” clause.
Former Victorian Supreme Court judge Stephen Charles, now a director with the centre, predicted the “vague term” would expose the commission’s operations to legal challenge. He argued there was no better deterrent against improper conduct than “the threat of being exposed to the public”.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus defended the clause. “It’s because commissions like this have to be concerned with whether or not there would be an unfair prejudice to people’s reputation … to someone’s privacy or indeed to their safety,” he told parliament.
They also risked prejudicing criminal prosecutions.
A special joint parliamentary committee will now examine the bill and may recommend amendments.
Along with the Greens, Helen Haines led the advocacy in the last parliament for an integrity commission, something the Coalition promised but did not deliver. She is surprised by the late addition of the “exceptional circumstances” clause.
“The public interest test is a very important test anyway, so to add exceptional circumstances on top of it seems peculiar,” Haines says. “I don’t see why we need that … It certainly wasn’t discussed, leading up to this.”
It appears it was discussed with the Coalition, however. “I want people who’ve committed a crime to go to jail,” Dutton said. “I don’t want a situation where somebody has their reputation trashed.”
Archer emphasises it’s not just about criminality but embedding integrity in public life. She notes that as a local councillor, she had ethics training, but she did not receive it at the federal level.
The commission will have an educative role, able to also launch its own inquiries into suspected systemic corruption, without specific allegations.
“This is like good healthcare,” Haines says. “You want to prevent it before it happens … It would be far better to make sure that all public officials are educated in a way that they are alert to the possibilities of corrupt conduct.”
Once established, the proposed NACC will investigate any “serious or systemic corrupt conduct” that could adversely affect the exercise of a public official’s duties. Its scope includes breaches of public trust, abuses of office and the misuse of official information, whether in office or later, and will be retrospective. The commission will not run prosecutions but can refer matters to other authorities.
It can scrutinise federal officials, including politicians, government contractors and staff, defence personnel, statutory office-holders and their appointees, those running government-owned companies, anyone acting on the Commonwealth’s behalf and any other person whose conduct adversely affects the “honest and impartial” exercise of a public official’s duties. Judges, royal commissioners, the inspector who will oversee the commission and the governor-general are all exempt.
The commission’s scope to examine some issues, such as pork-barrelling, is unclear.
The bill’s 362-page explanatory memorandum, which is longer than the legislation itself, canvasses the awarding of government grants. It suggests grants contravening eligibility guidelines could be corrupt but merely awarding them against departmental advice is not. It is unclear if grants made with no eligibility criteria – as was the case in the Morrison era – would qualify. Dreyfus says some such activity could still constitute misuse of office. The commissioner would decide.
Bridget Archer says there is a lot of “grey”. For example, a crossbench colleague raised the political horsetrading when governments want minor parties’ and independents’ votes.
If someone offered their vote in exchange for a hospital in their electorate, was that corrupt? And who in that equation is corrupt?
“That’s the type of thing where it’s not really very clear,” Archer says. “And it wouldn’t necessarily … pass the pub test.”
She says the pandemic highlighted the importance of Australians having trust in public officials. “Because sometimes we have to give them really important information,” she says. “And we need them to understand that, and trust it, and if they don’t – if they don’t have trust and confidence in us – then what else are we doing here? You know, it’s got to be fundamental.”
On the political consequences of crossing the floor in the last parliament, Archer recounts an exchange she had this week with a member of the Greens. Archer had described how their two parties differed.
“On my side of politics, you have to choose very carefully which hill you’re going to die on,” she says. “The Greens die on every hill.”
The jovial jibe belied the consequences of choosing the course she did. “I’m not in the shadow ministry,” she says. “I haven’t been appointed to the committee to oversee this process.”
Despite her advocacy – or maybe because of it – Dutton overlooked her for the committee role, instead appointing new Victorian MP Keith Wolahan and the Nationals’ Llew O’Brien.
Someone suggested it was because she had no legal training. Neither does O’Brien, also a former Queensland policeman. “Well, you know, I’ve sat on a health committee and I’m not a doctor…” she says. “I mean, I’m a waitress. I’ve done alright I reckon.”
There is a wry smile. She picked this hill. But it has cost her.
“There’s no doubt it’s affected relationships. People view me in a particular way. Mostly people are polite about that. They tolerate me, I think.”
Archer talks about “sliding doors moments” in the last parliament, in which the course of politics could have been different. “And this was definitely one of those, I think.”
She was “very heartened” to see the bill introduced. “And I feel a little bit vindicated, in some ways, about the position that I took – about that hill, you know? But we could have done this. We should have done this. Of course we should have done it. And we could have done it.”
Still, she has no regrets about taking a stand. “No. I’d do it again tomorrow.” And she adds, laughing: “And then I’ll have to join the Greens because I’ll be dying on every hill.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
October 1, 2022 as “Exclusive: Archer prepared to quit Liberals over integrity bill”.
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