High-profile independent candidate Monique Ryan has questioned the coalition’s commitment to a new federal anti-corruption commission, claiming no money was allocated to such a body in the 2022 budget.
The claim is misleading. While the budget did not include a separate funding line for an anti-corruption commission, it did set aside $67 million for the body within a contingency reserve fund. This fund is used for policy decisions still subject to uncertainty or negotiation at the time the budget is delivered.
Dr Ryan made the claim on May 5 during a Sky News Australia debate with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who she is challenging for the Melbourne seat of Kooyong. She is one of several so-called ‘teal’ independents campaigning for a powerful federal anti-corruption body, among other policies.
During an exchange about the possible creation of a federal independent commission against corruption (ICAC), Dr Ryan said: “The amount that was allotted to an ICAC in the most recent budget was zero dollars. So saying that there’s some commitment to that is patently false.” (video mark 46min 40sec).
When contacted by AAP FactCheck about the basis of the claim, a spokesman for Dr Ryan said in an email the budget provided “no appropriation” and no staff for the body.
Both major parties have said they back a federal anti-corruption commission empowered to investigate wrongdoing in the federal public sector. But they disagree on the proposed body’s scope and powers.
The coalition backs a ‘Commonwealth Integrity Commission’ without the power to hold open hearings or make findings of corruption when investigating public officials, while Labor has promised a body with those powers.
The government published a draft bill for its proposed commission in November 2020, however Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated he will not pursue the legislation without Labor support for the coalition model.
The 2022/23 budget, released on March 29, did not include an individual accounting line, or ‘appropriation’, for a federal ICAC. However, budget papers (page 173) did state that $67 million has been set aside for “the establishment of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission” as part of a $1.5 billion ‘contingency reserve‘.
The Department of Finance describes this reserve as funding that “either cannot or should not” be allocated to specific programs at the time the budget was published, while the Parliamentary Budget Office explains the reserve as “an allowance … for events that the government reasonably expects to eventuate, but cannot allocate to specific programs or detail”.
It says a contingency reserve “improves the accuracy of aggregate budget estimates at the time of their publication” and is not money “simply put away ‘for a rainy day’ or for aspirational policy goals”.
The government has also funded additional staff at the existing Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, which is intended to form the basis of the law enforcement integrity division of the new commission.
University of Canberra professor Stephen Bartos, who formerly managed the budget group at the Department of Finance, told AAP FactCheck the question of whether money had been set aside in the budget for an anti-corruption commission was largely one of interpretation.
“In a technical sense, there is no money yet available to fund an ICAC (because) under the constitution (section 83) no monies can be drawn from the consolidated revenue fund except under appropriation made by law,” he said in an email.
“However, in a budgeting sense, there is a provision for ICAC in the contingency reserve. If legislation is passed and an ICAC funded, assuming it is funded to the level estimated in the contingency reserve, the budget bottom line would not be changed.
“In that sense, it is ‘allocated’ – money has been set aside in the budget estimates against that possibility. However, there is as yet no legal authority to spend any of that money.”
Prof Bartos noted there were no staff shown for the agency in the budget papers (page 154) because they only showed personnel for whom there was authority due to an appropriation.
A J Brown, a professor at Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy and a Transparency International Australia board member, told AAP FactCheck that the budget clearly indicated funds have been made available for a federal ICAC, even though the money may never be used.
It was misleading to suggest the budget did not include any commitment to such a body, he added.
A media release issued on April 1 by the Centre for Public Integrity, a non-profit group that has been a leading advocate for a federal ICAC, also referred to the budget as “including” $67 million over four years for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission.
UTS Business School financial accounting academic David Bond said the question of whether the government had “allocated” money to a federal ICAC in the budget was subjective but he added “that’s what the contingency reserve is for, matters that are still subject to negotiations”.
“The government has specified a number against it, but obviously the legislation still needs to pass,” Dr Bond said in a phone interview.
The budget did not formally appropriate money to a federal ICAC but it did state that $67 million has been set aside for such a body within the budget’s contingency reserve, a fund for policies subject to uncertainty at the time the budget was published.
Experts told AAP FactCheck the question of whether or not the government “allocated” money to a federal anti-corruption body in the 2022/23 budget was a matter of interpretation, but it was clear money had been set aside for such a body if it were to be established through legislation.
Misleading – The claim is accurate in parts but information has also been presented incorrectly, out of context or omitted.