Morrison accuses critics of wanting ‘kangaroo court’ as Liberal MP crosses floor over integrity bill

PM says Gladys Berejiklian was ‘done over’ by NSW Icac but Tasmanian MP Bridget Archer says government needs to act

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has accused critics of wanting a “kangaroo court” to oversee federal parliament after he faced an internal revolt over the Coalition’s failure to establish a commonwealth integrity commission.

On Thursday morning, the Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer crossed the floor to support independent MP Helen Haines’ push to establish a federal integrity commission. Archer had told Guardian Australia she was frustrated with the government’s “inertia” on the issue.

Archer’s decision – she was the seventh government MP or senator to cross the floor this week – gave Haines majority support for her bill. But because MPs are paired and absent from Canberra because of Covid-19, she could not secure the absolute majority required.

The move thrust the government’s failure to fulfil its election commitment back into the spotlight, putting Morrison on the back foot over the issue.

When asked why he had “refused to act for more than 1,000 days” to establish the commission, which was promised before the last election, Morrison pointed to the government’s draft bill which was released in February this year.

He also took aim at the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac) and its inquiry into the former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian, indicating the Coalition would not support a federal integrity commission that allowed public hearings.

“These matters should be looking at criminal conduct, not who your boyfriend is,” Morrison said.

“The premier of NSW was done over by a bad process, an abuse … I’m not going to have a kangaroo court taken into this parliament.”

Morrison suggested the Labor party could support the government’s proposed bill that has drawn criticism for the softness of its approach and is yet to be introduced into parliament.

“The legislation is there for all to see and if the opposition wishes to support that legislation, they should do so and we can legislate it,” Morrison said.

“But those opposite do not support our laws to introduce a commonwealth integrity commission. Instead, those opposite want to support the sort of show in NSW, which has seen the most shameful, the most shameful attacks on the former premier.

“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 a commission, to see those powers abused [and] seek to reduce the integrity of people like Gladys Berejiklian.”

Icac is investigating whether Berejiklian failed to declare a conflict of interest due to her secret relationship with Maguire when she awarded lucrative grants to Maguire’s electorate as treasurer and later as premier.

Morrison’s remarks were seen as further encouragement to Berejiklian to run for the Liberal party in the next federal election, with the former premier being courted to run in Warringah to try to unseat independent MP Zali Steggall.

Polling published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday suggested that Berejiklian’s approval rating has rebounded since the Icac hearings concluded.

Steggall has been a vocal advocate for the establishment of a federal integrity commission and, along with the rest of the crossbench, she voted in support of Haines’s bill on Thursday.

After the vote, which was mired in confusion as a result of the Covid changes that were being managed by the new Speaker, Haines hailed Archer as the “lioness of the 46th parliament” for taking a principled stance.

She also pledged to continue working with government MPs to try to bring the bill on for debate.

“This is far from over,” she said. “The nation can take some comfort in knowing that despite what the prime minister is doing … the majority want an integrity commission.”

Archer previously told Guardian Australia she was considering crossing the floor over her concerns the government had not progressed the bill, saying she was “perplexed” by the delay given consultations had been undertaken over the past year.

“I really have a strong view that this is the most important thing we need to do,” Archer said.

The new attorney general, Michaelia Cash, has been consulting on the bill over the past six months, and as recently as mid-October said the government “intends for the legislation to be introduced into parliament in 2021”.

Moderate MPs have been pushing for the government to toughen up its proposed model, pushing for public hearings and reports, and for the anti-corruption body to have a broader remit.

Haines has accused the government of breaking its election commitment saying it is now a “near impossibility” to introduce and pass it before the 2022 election, which is due by mid-May.

Contributor

Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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