Monday, 28 May 2012
National Integrity Commissioner Bill 2012; First Reading
In recent weeks and months this parliament, the media and it seems perhaps the whole country has been obsessed about allegations against some of the members of this place.
Unfortunately this is not the first time allegations have been made about parliamentarians or public servants and it probably will not be the last. That is why the Greens believe we need a National Integrity Commissioner and that is why I introduce this bill today.
In fact, this bill could be the silver lining out of the current ongoing saga: a long-lasting reform of our laws to deal with corruption and integrity.
The bill creates a national commission through the establishment of the National Office of Integrity Commissioner, comprising three elements—the National Integrity Commission, the existing Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) and a new Office of the Independent Parliamentary Advisor. The National Integrity Commission is established as an independent statutory agency.
The bill provides, in a comprehensive legislative framework, a critical addition to the national integrity system through the establishment of a National Integrity Commission to enable the investigation and prevention of misconduct and corruption in all Commonwealth departments, agencies, and by federal parliamentarians and their staff. The bill brings together and co-locates this function with the independent oversight functions of the Law Enforcement Integrity Commission for the investigation and prevention of corruption in the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crimes Commission, thus creating an integrated federal approach to misconduct and corruption in the parliament and public service. Additionally the bill establishes the role of the Independent Parliamentary Advisor with the purpose of preventing inadvertent misconduct and impropriety by parliamentarians, thereby promoting informed and ethical conduct.
There is currently no national anticorruption agency with the powers or the jurisdiction to investigate claims of misconduct and corruption across the federal parliament or Commonwealth agencies. This is an essential component for the prevention of corruption and maintenance and promotion of integrity and ethical conduct in the tool kit of all jurisdictions. The argument that the existing agencies and mechanisms are sufficient or appropriate for fighting graft ignores the important role of prevention, the promotion of ethical conduct, and the integration of integrity systems across federal and state jurisdictions.
Prior to the establishment of the Commonwealth Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner in 2006, there were calls that its role be extended beyond investigating and preventing corruption in federal law enforcement agencies.
These calls were not heeded but this bill addresses that oversight.
The National Integrity Commission will operate in the federal jurisdiction and will not replace or override state legislation. The bill provides for the ACT and Northern Territory to contract the National Integrity Commission to operate in respect of their territories, in the same way that the Commonwealth Ombudsman acts as the ACT Ombudsman.
The national commission established by this bill will complement the state based anticorruption commissions. The need to address corruption is evident in the fact that all Australian states have established, or have committed to establishing, anticorruption bodies with various powers and jurisdictions. Importantly they all include the power to investigate the activities of politicians.
In some states, anticorruption commissions have been operating for a decade or more—the Independent Commission Against Corruption in NSW was established in 1988, the Crime and Misconduct Commission in Queensland was established in 2001; the Corruption and Crime Commission in Western Australia was established in 2004, and the Integrity Commission in Tasmania was established in 2009. The commissions of New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia have played a pivotal role in uncovering, investigation and prosecuting landmark cases of corruption. The evidence of the powerful and effective work of these bodies reinforces the necessity for a similar mechanism at the federal level of Australian politics.
The bill provides a definition of 'corrupt conduct' as including any conduct that:
It lists kinds of corrupt conduct, such as blackmail, bribery and fraud, for the purposes of adversely affecting the exercise of functions by the parliament, a Commonwealth agency or public officials, and provides for retrospectivity in that the National Integrity Commissioner can investigate corrupt conduct that occurred before the commencement of the bill, before a person became a public official, or outside Australia. Importantly the bill provides the capacity to investigate cases where corrupt conduct is foreseeable in the future making the National Integrity Commissioner's role proactive in addressing corruption. Furthermore, it is clear in this bill that investigations of corruption can be commenced even if the identity of the public official alleged to be engaging in corrupt conduct is unknown. This ensures that corruption issues cannot be ignored because the person concerned has not been identified at the outset. The bill sets out the specific functions and powers of the three component parts of the National Integrity Commission. The first is the National Integrity Commissioner. It is concerned with corruption in relation to public officials and Commonwealth agencies and has full investigative powers, including conducting public and private hearings and summoning any person or agency to produce documents and appear before the commissioner. The provisions in the bill in relation to the National Integrity Commissioner—including those dealing with corruption issues, conducting investigations, holding public inquiries, including powers requiring people to give evidence or produce documents, taking evidence at hearings, and applying for and executing search warrants—are based on similar provisions in the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act 2006.
The second component part deals with the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner. It is concerned with corruption in relation to national law enforcement agencies in accordance with the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act 2006 and has the functions and powers conferred under that act.
The third component part of the bill is the independent parliamentary advisor. It is concerned with providing independent confidential written advice to ministers, parliamentarians and former parliamentarians in relation to conflict of interest, ethics, proprietary and similar matters and providing advice on the development of codes of conduct. There are many instances where the rules or guidelines governing the conduct of federal parliamentarians are not clear or sufficiently detailed. Often the advice from relevant departments leaves it to the discretion of the politician. The lack of clarity and direction in these cases leaves parliamentarians unnecessarily vulnerable to inadvertent misconduct, with consequent serious penalties.
The bill provides for written advice on such instances where the guidelines are unclear or where claims of misconduct are made against a parliamentarian who has sought to follow the guidelines. The existence of such a body would help Australian federal parliamentarians to avoid the type of systemic misconduct seen recently in parliaments overseas as well as an increase in the ethical standing of federal parliamentarians generally.
I know there are some concerns about aspects of this bill and questions about whether it goes too far, particularly in the areas of coercive powers. It is inevitable, of course, that, if we are to create an institution to investigate corruption and insist on enforcing integrity, some form of coercive powers will be needed. However, it is very important to get the balance right, and we are very open to suggestions on how to improve this bill. In fact, my Greens colleagues in the Senate will be seeking to establish an inquiry into this bill so as to enable such improvements to be canvassed and considered. We would hope that through this process we could move towards cross-party support for this bill and look forward to unanimous support for improving integrity and fighting corruption, because there could be no greater test of the sincerity and conviction of the many, many people who have so vigorously participated in the arguments of recent weeks than their support for the thrust of this bill. We accept that there may be quibbles and suggested amendments. That is how it should be. But we ask all members of this place to say that they are in favour of an Integrity Commissioner that would fight corruption.
Finally, I note that George Williams, the Anthony Mason Professor of Law at the University of New South Wales, recently wrote:
The case for whole of government anti-corruption bodies has proved overwhelming in the states. They are now in place, or being established in every state jurisdiction.
The first state body was the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, established in 1988. It is a key part of the political landscape and has a formidable record of investigating and exposing corrupt conduct. Its very public pursuit of corruption can itself be a significant deterrent.
There is no rational reason why a strong anti-corruption body is needed at the state level and not for the Commonwealth. State bodies cannot investigate corruption by federal parliamentarians and officials but dishonesty and misuse of public power are not limited to state and local governments.
I concur with Professor Williams and I also want to thank the member for New England for seconding the motion introducing this bill. The time for an Integrity Commissioner has come and I commend the bill to the House.
Bill read a first time.