Wednesday, 23 November 2022
National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022, National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022; Second Reading
The National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2020 has been a long time coming, and I'm absolutely delighted that we're at this point now. A national anticorruption commission is something that has been called for long and loudly from my community. I thought it might be worth reflecting back on how this started and why we have got where we have today.
For us, it goes back to a commitment in 2018. That commitment was because the community was disaffected. It didn't have confidence in the integrity of, quite frankly, some of the people who sit in this place and some of the people who work around this place. More importantly, it didn't have confidence that decisions were being made in the best interests of Australians. So we were very pleased in January 2018 to make that decision.
I think we all know that there was a commitment on both sides, but today demonstrates that only one side of this parliament, those of us who are now in government, actually had enough commitment to follow through on the promises that we made.
One thing that I think was key in how this process has happened is that we didn't say, 'Here's a bill; take it or leave it'. What we said to people was, 'Here it is; we are happy to work through and discuss things.' It is really notable that we've agreed with all six recommendations of the report of the Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation. We have prepared government amendments to this bill that will be put to this place, and they include a few key things. One is that they'll extend protections to people who are assisting a journalist in their work as a journalist from being compelled to identify an informant or provide information that would assist to ascertain an informant's identity. This matters to me, having been a journalist in the early part of my career. We need to ensure that protections like that are available.
Another amendment expressly provides that the commission will be able to begin an investigation on their own initiative. I think that will give people confidence that there's a real separation in terms of how it works. Being an independent organisation is key to not just its effectiveness but the trust that people have in it. After all, this is what this is about: we are restoring trust in a system in which multiple decisions get made all the time that affect people's lives, that improve their community. It will mean the system is accountable for how those decisions are made.
One of the other amendments that will be put will require that the commissioner to advise a person of the outcome of a corruption investigation if the commissioner has investigated the conduct of that person and has formed the opinion, or made a finding, that the person has not engaged in corrupt conduct. We'll be very pleased to put those amendments to the bill. As I say, I think that reflects a genuine willingness on this side of the House to see a piece of legislation that has wide support across the parliament, because this is something that we want to see sustained. We are the last jurisdiction to have an anticorruption commission; the states are way ahead of us. That has allowed us to look at what has worked most effectively in the states, to look at some of the concerns there might be about the operation and to come to a very-well-thought-through piece of legislation. I want to commend the Attorney-General for the work he has done. He has long held a commitment around this, and I know he will be very pleased to see this debate progressing as this sitting week goes on.
I should also note that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights looked at this legislation, and the government has agreed in part to the first six recommendations that that committee made and notes the final recommendation. There was a third scrutiny of this legislation, from the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills. Again, the government agrees with six of the eight recommendations—that's been updated in the explanatory memorandum—and notes the two other recommendations.
Let's look at where we are. We have a bill that is amended because of our commitment to legislate a powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission. We said we'd do it by the end of the year; I know there were people who thought it couldn't be done, but this shows our willingness to work hard, consult in a detailed way and progress things—not sit on them but make them happen. The Albanese government has been committed to integrity, honesty and accountability from day 1. This is a cornerstone piece of legislation for us. This is a cornerstone to restoring public trust and strengthening the standards of integrity in the federal government sphere.
The bill gives full effect to the design principles taken to the federal election. We knew in the lead-up to the federal election what it needed to have, and we've stayed true to that. It also draws on the best elements of the state and territory anticorruption commissions and laws.
I just want to reflect back on the lead-up to the election and the sorts of things people said to me about how significant and important having this piece of legislation and creating the National Anti-Corruption Commission was. Jade, from Kurrajong Heights, said to me—and this picks up themes that were totally consistent: 'I am writing to let you know how important the establishment of an anticorruption commission is, and that it is past due. The decline in the faith of our democratically elected leaders has diminished, in my opinion, over the last few years. I am disgusted by some areas of the press who support the actions of so many in the federal government. From my perspective, it's important for our parliament to be open and transparent.' That reflects the view that people felt there was not sufficient transparency. Jan, from South Windsor, says: 'I am absolutely in favour of a federal ICAC which has teeth and is retrospective.' Then we have Neroli, from Katoomba, who says: 'Everyone I know supports a strong federal integrity commission, and not the watered-down version proposed by the previous government.'
Hearing people say they are actually having conversations about it—in my many years as a journalist and then working in business before coming into politics, I have never heard an integrity commission be discussed as much as it has been in the last couple of years, and that is partly because of the performance of the previous government. That was picked up by Bruce, from Lawson, who said to me: 'The appalling performance of the previous government reinforced to the broad community how an integrity commission is vital to a healthy, functional democracy.' He saw that it was critical that, given we have one government, we take the opportunity to make a lasting improvement on the good government of our country for many years to come, and that's exactly what this bill will do.
Let's just go through some of the details of it. It provides the commission with broad jurisdiction to investigate serious or systemic corruption or corrupt conduct across the Commonwealth public sector. It has the power to investigate ministers; parliamentarians and their staff; statutory office holders; employees of all government entities; contractors; and contracted service providers. It will have the discretion to commence inquiries on its own initiative or in response to referrals from anyone—from anyone. It will be able to investigate both criminal and non-criminal corrupt conduct, and conduct occurring before or after its establishment. So there are those key principles that we committed to.
Defining 'corrupt conduct' is central to the commission's jurisdiction, and it is consistent with the key elements of existing definitions at the state and territory level and in the Commonwealth's Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act 2006. The definition encompasses conduct by a public official that involves an abuse of office, a breach of public trust or misuse of information. It also includes conduct by any person that adversely affects the honest or impartial exercise of a Commonwealth public official's functions. As I said, we've accepted the joint standing committee's recommendations that 'corruption of any other kind' will be removed from the bill, and we're very confident that the amended definition of 'corrupt conduct' will enable the commission to effectively investigate any form of serious or systemic corrupt conduct that's referred to it. Other conduct that could adversely affect public administration, such as external fraud, will continue to be dealt with by existing integrity commissions, so this will add rather than take away.
The commissioner will have a full suite of powers similar to those of a royal commission. The commissioner will be able to use these powers to undertake an investigation if they are of the opinion that it could involve serious or systemic corrupt conduct. Hearings are a key part of it. The commissioner will be able to hold public hearings if satisfied that this is in the public interest and that exceptional circumstances justify doing so. The default position is that hearings will be held in private. Reporting at the end of the investigation will provide transparency and also support the commission's prevention and education function, because that is another key part of this. To be able to educate in order to prevent corruption is really key. It's one thing to catch it afterwards, but to really do something constructive for the sake of our democracy is to be able to educate and prevent.
The commissioner will be able to make findings of corrupt conduct but not of criminal liability. Criminal liability can only be determined by a court. So this legislation respects those existing jurisdictions. The commissioner will be required to provide procedural fairness by ensuring that those who are subject to a critical finding, opinion or recommendation in a report are afforded an opportunity to respond. And, as I've said, the commissioner would be required to notify a person of the outcome of a corruption investigation if they've investigated and have formed the opinion or made the finding that the person has not engaged in corrupt conduct. That is really important for people to be able to draw a line under that sort of investigation.
I want to talk a little bit, in the time that I have, about the prevention and education functions. The commission has a mandate to undertake corruption prevention and education functions. This includes undertaking public inquiries to examine corruption risks and vulnerabilities and the measures that are there to prevent corruption. So the commission will really be able to look at what is in place and see if that is effective enough. The commission will provide guidance and information to support the public sector so that they clearly understand the concept of corrupt conduct and are able to identify and address vulnerabilities. This work will be informed by the insights the commissioner draws from the investigations that the commission undertakes and the intelligence that it is gathering.
I'm going to finish by speaking about the independence of this organisation, which is fundamental to it being a credible organisation within the broader community. The independence of the commission is going to be secured in a number of ways. It will be able to conduct investigations on its own initiative or in response to referrals. Agency heads will be required to report any corruption issue in their agency to the commission if they suspect it could be serious or systemic. The appointment of the commissioners and deputy commissioners will be subject to approval by the parliamentary joint committee, and the appointees will have security of tenure comparable to a federal judge. We're very confident that these measures and fundamental elements are going to change this country for the better. I look forward to it having wide support in this parliament.