Sergei Magnitsky is unlikely to be a name that will resonate with many readers of this column. But it should, in acknowledgement of a courageous Russian lawyer who lost his life in pursuit of corrupt officials, and for reasons that are relevant in our own jurisdiction.
Commendably, Labor’s Michael Danby is planning to introduce a private member’s bill on Monday in Magnitsky’s name aimed at seeking redress against human rights-abusing individuals who have moved their ill-gotten gains offshore. It would allow the Australian government to ban them and their families from investing in or traveling to Australia.
While the Danby bill will not progress in the last days of a Coalition government, and therefore would die on the notice paper, it does serve the useful purpose of drawing attention to the need for an overhaul of Australia’s anti-corruption bodies.
This includes the establishment, as a matter of urgency, of a national integrity commission to rebuild trust in Australian institutions.
Yielding to its minority status on the floor of the House of Representatives, the government last week did not oppose a Senate-initiated draft bill that would establish such a body, but clearly it has no intention of doing anything other than slow-walk the issue.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has described an integrity commission, as proposed by the Labor Party, as a "fringe issue".
No, it is not a fringe issue. If governments of whatever complexion are to overcome a trust deficit in Australia, individuals and institutions at a national level need to be subject to subpoena power scrutiny and a requirement they testify under oath.
Claims that corruption federally is muted are dubious.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus has a point when he says the government’s "head in the sand" position on an integrity commission is "farcical".
Clamour for a national integrity commission is building. A week ago 32 judges, including Gerard Brennan, a former chief justice of the High Court, and Mary Gaudron, first female justice, signed a petition.
"Governments ignore at their peril demands by citizens to combat corruption with vigour. We urge you to immediately establish a strong effective and independent national integrity commission," the judges said.
Readers’ blood should boil over the opaque proceedings in Australia’s biggest bribery case in which two companies, owned by the Reserve Bank, were involved in bribing officials in three countries to secure note-printing contracts.
As reported in this newspaper, details involving the payment of a $21.6 million fine have long been suppressed in a case that appears to have been bungled by federal agencies.
Conduct of a case like this is precisely what should be exposed before a national integrity commission.
It might also be noted that the Commonwealth in 2016-17 spent $47.4 billion on procurement in some 64,000 contracts.
Don’t tell me that some of these tenders are not worthy of scrutiny beyond normal auditing processes.
On the issue of a trust deficit, the political class needs to be mindful of a poll carried out by the Museum of Australian Democracy and the University of Canberra that reveals a collapse in confidence in political parties, government ministers and members of Parliament.
Just 16 per cent of Australians trust political parties. One in four trust government ministers and members of Parliament.
Politicians rank lower on trust than trade unionists and journalists.
"We are witnessing a vicious cycle of distrust and alienation from politics and the formal democratic process," says Professor Mark Evans of the University of Canberra’s Institute of Governance and Policy Analysis, who co-ordinated the survey.
But back to the Danby bill.
The bill would have wide application compatible with measures in force in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.
In Australia’s case, it would be aimed in the first instance at those responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, causing the deaths of 38 Australians among 298 passengers and crew.
A Russian general commanded the missile battery in Kursk, western Russia, that brought down MH17.
The Magnitsky in the Danby bill was hired in 2007 by hedge fund manager Bill Browder, then an American, now a British citizen, to represent his interests in a case involving a $US230 million tax dispute with the Russian Federation.
Magnitsky’s efforts to retrieve the money - effectively stolen by corrupt Russian officials - resulted in his detention, torture and death in solitary confinement in a Russian prison after being denied medical attention.
This is an appalling story and one that underscores the nature of a Russian regime that tortures its citizens and murders its emigre critics and others who it regards as enemies.
In its resistance to the introduction of a Magnitsky-type law in the Australian Parliament, the government argues that existing sanctions statutes against Russia, Iran, North Korea and Myanmar are sufficient to deal with a panoply of issues.
These include restrictions on exports of goods and services to those countries, and travel bans on individuals.
If it wins government, Labor plans to review such a sanctions regime to determine whether it is adequate.
A new government should do so in the name of the courageous Sergei Magnitsky, who paid with his life for standing up to a vicious Russian oligopoly.