Image for Tony Abbott, an envelope with $5000 in cash and a Liberal campaign donation

In what he thought were passing comments at the tail-end of parliament, Tony Abbott has inadvertently reignited debate over the need for a federal anti-corruption agency.

Back on February 24 a motion was moved in the Senate to support the appointment of a select committee to inquire into the proposal   for a National Integrity Commission.

The Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, Scott Ryan, took just 126 words to outline the government’s position.

Ryan insisted the government “has a zero tolerance approach to corruption” and argued there were existing government agencies capable of doing the job. No other member of the government spoke. Liberal Party and National Party Senators then voted against the proposed select committee.

They lost, with Labor, the Greens and cross-bench members voting in support of the proposal.

The committee got cracking, received 31 submissions and then in late April held two public hearings.

But that may be as far as they get.

With the committee not due to report to the Senate until September 22, it may fall victim to Turnbull’s double dissolution election, ostensibly called on the grounds of needing to clamp down on corruption in the building industry.

While the work of the committee looked doomed earlier this week, Tony Abbott may have inadvertently breathed life back into the prospect that the new senate may recreate the committee if the Liberal and National Party are still in the minority.

Late on Tuesday night Abbott rose to make some brief comments in honour of “former frontbenchers in the Abbott government who have retired or are retiring.”

One of those he wanted to pay tribute to was Ian McFarlane, who he said:

“was the resources minister who scrapped the mining tax. This was the job-destroying, investment-killing tax which did not raise any revenue. It was a magnificent achievement by the member for Groom in his time as minister reborn, as it were. I hope this sector will acknowledge and demonstrate their gratitude to him in his years of retirement from this place.”

After speaking favourably of two other retiring members, Abbott turned his attention to Senator Bill Heffernan.

“I cannot finish these remarks without honouring my friend Senator Bill Heffernan. Bill Heffernan has been almost unique in this parliament: someone who was never ambitious for himself. He is the only member of this parliament I have ever met who never sought promotion. That has made him, over a very long period of time, the one person you could always trust on everything,” he said.

Then Abbott, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in March 1994, said:

“I recall quite some years ago, as a relatively new member of parliament, that a well-known millionaire invited me for a pre-Christmas drink. As I was leaving he gave me an envelope and said, ‘That’s your Christmas present.’ When I opened it up it contained $5,000 in cash. I can tell you, the Abbott family in those days could have used that money, but it did not feel right. I rang Bill Heffernan for his advice and he said: ‘Once bought, always bought. Give it back and say to that person, ‘Please write out a cheque for the campaign’.”

If after the election the Senate once more debates a motion to re-establish the inquiry into the proposed National Integrity Commission, the odds are Abbott’s extraordinary comments will feature prominently in the discussion about why a new agency should be considered.

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