The Morrison government has been accused of abandoning an election commitment to legislate a national integrity commission, as time runs out in this term.
On Friday the independent MP Helen Haines told Guardian Australia the government was backing away from the commitment “in the dying days of this term of parliament.”
She said it was now a “near impossibility” to introduce and pass it before the 2022 election, which is due by mid-May.
Haines, the architect of a private member’s bill for an integrity commission that has been backed by transparency advocates, signalled the crossbench would continue to heap pressure on the Coalition by passing an identical version of the legislation in the Senate, introduced by Rex Patrick.
The Coalition’s internal conversation has been focused on the religious discrimination bill, as attorney general Michaelia Cash made several changes watering down that controversial legislation to appease moderate Liberals, who are still reserving the right to cross the floor.
Chaos beckons for government legislation in the Senate in the final sitting fortnight, with One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts promising to cause mayhem and Liberal senators Gerard Rennick and Alex Antic vowing to withhold their votes on all legislation unless the government does more to oppose vaccine mandates.
The government insists no decision has been taken about when to introduce its integrity commission bill. But with three national security bills, litigation funding and religious discrimination, all in Cash’s portfolio, to be debated, it is preparing the ground to delay the integrity commission.
“With an election looming it seems to me obvious there is no way in the world the government has any intention to stand up a federal integrity commission,” Haines told Guardian Australia.
“It’s a near impossibility now. We still haven’t seen any legislation.”
Cash told Senate estimates in October it would be a “decision for cabinet” whether to introduce the bill this year, but it had always been the government’s intention to legislate the integrity commission in this term.
“This term of government still has some time to run,” Cash said at the time.
But Haines said the refusal to commit to introduce a bill shows the government is “abandoning its election promise and vacating the field on integrity”.
“This is ignoring the wishes of nine out of 10 Australians, who want a strong integrity commission holding politicians to account – it seems the government has no integrity on that promise.”
Haines said she expected her and Patrick’s bill would pass the Senate, leaving the Coalition further “isolated”, although the government has said it will not allow the crossbench bill to be debated and voted on in the lower house.
Independent senator, Jacqui Lambie, said the process was “a cluster” if the government would not introduce its bill for fear of being “embarrassed” by amendments.
“It’s been left to us crossbenchers to force the issue,” she told Guardian Australia.
Lambie said it was “staggering” the government had sought to blame the crossbench. “To say they won’t introduce a toothless ICAC because they’re worried I’ll give it some teeth? If they’re worried about being embarrassed, here’s a wild idea: introduce something that’s not embarrassing.”
Greens democracy spokeswoman, senator Larissa Waters, noted reports that Scott Morrison was backing away from a proposed integrity commission because he “can’t be sure of support from his own backbench or his usually willing accomplices in One Nation.”
“This suits [Scott Morrison] beautifully because it’s another excuse not to progress an integrity body,” Waters said.
“That the prime minister is prioritising a divisive bill about religious discrimination rather than a much-called-for body to clean up corruption is very telling.”
The independent MP Zali Steggall said she was concerned the government’s integrity commission is “so deficient” in comparison with Haines’s bill, which she seconded.
“I believe it is a strong compromise of all existing anti-corruption bodies.”
Draft legislative agendas for the lower house and Senate indicate that the government’s controversial voter identification bill and its bill to lower the disclosure threshold for political campaigners will be debated next week.
With Labor and the Greens opposed to voter ID, and One Nation claiming credit for the government push, the swing votes will likely be Jacqui Lambie and Stirling Griff.
Lambie has sought input through a poll of voters on the proposal, while Griff has asked the government to invest more in Australian Electoral Commission staff in the Northern Territory to boost enrolments of Indigenous Australians.
The special minister of state, Ben Morton, has already announced $9.4m to boost Indigenous enrolment, but Griff told Guardian Australia this may only be enough to boost AEC staff in the Northern Territory from three to 10.
Griff is seeking up to 23 AEC staff in the territory to enrol the estimated 17,000 un-enrolled Indigenous Australians.