Further delays to setting up a federal integrity commission have been labelled a government failure after the Coalition indicated it would not introduce the measure before the next election.
Despite a promise before the last poll that the government would introduce a “robust” Commonwealth Integrity Commission, Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said such reforms would have to wait, in favour of religious discrimination laws.
The Coalition government has argued it has not introduced its proposed anti-corruption body – despite a 2019 election commitment – because it doesn’t have the support of Labor and would therefore fail to pass both chambers of parliament.
However, shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said the backdown represented another government failure.
“All we’ve seen is scandal after scandal go unchecked, endless excuses and a weak, pathetic, desultory exposure draft that was so bad,” he said in a statement on Monday.
“This is a government that lives in fear of accountability and what a powerful, independent and transparent anti-corruption commission would reveal.”
The previous exposure draft of the bill would have set up – according to the Centre for Public Integrity – the weakest watchdog in the country.
An attempt to force debate on an integrity commission in parliament late last year was led by independent MP Helen Haines, prompting Liberal backbencher Bridget Archer to cross the floor.
While the government lost the vote in the House of Representatives, the debate on the issue was avoided due to a technicality.
Ms Haines blasted the delay in establishing the commission and said the government was dragging its feet.
“Today the Attorney-General admitted what we have known to be true for a long time: Integrity is not a priority for the Liberal-National government,” she said.
“We knew a government that sees no difference between taxpayer money and Liberal-National party money wouldn’t value integrity, but now they have proven it.”
The independent MP said a “majority of MPs who do value integrity” were ready to vote on her own legislation to set up a commission.
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher defended the deferral of the commission, saying there were trade-offs to be made.
“The Prime Minister determines, in consultation with senior colleagues, the government’s priorities. We’re juggling a lot of things. Inevitably, there are choices and trade-offs that need to be made,” he said.
Asked why the government was proceeding to introduce its religious discrimination bill, which doesn’t have the full support of its own MPs, but not an integrity bill, Mr Fletcher said there was “limited parliamentary time” left before the election.
There are likely to be only five Senate and 10 lower house sitting days before the election. It is due by the end of May.