House debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022


National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022, National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022; Second Reading

10:30 am

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | Hansard source

I rise in support of the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022. It's been a long road—countless motions, bills and press conferences—so I am so grateful that we are finally able to debate a national anticorruption commission bill in this place and that we are likely only weeks away from legislation passing and hopefully becoming law.

I was in this place when the former government said that they would introduce an integrity commission. It didn't happen, and the Australian people grew frustrated and tired of waiting. What a missed opportunity that was. I'm delighted to see that, during this parliament, the Australian community's trust may be restored. This is an important time for this to happen, and we know that we can do better in representing our electorates and the national interest, not self-interest or the interest of those who donate the most. As I've said before, we need to be able to make our decisions in the light and demonstrate to our communities that those decisions are supported by sound governance.

I'd like to acknowledge the former member for Indi, Cathy McGowan. Cathy blazed a trail, as she did on many fronts, and she introduced the National Integrity Commission Bill 2018 into this place. It's something that she worked on for months to create, and I remember sitting right here, maybe a couple of rows back, and Cathy saying, 'This is about us being our best selves'. Since that time, the 45th Parliament, I think it's fair to say that we, as a House of Representatives crossbench, have persisted and kept the pressure on two governments now. I would like to acknowledge the tremendous work that's been done, with respect to this bill, by the joint committee. They've worked hard to review this bill and to make suggestions to government for improvements.

I do remember, though, signing the transparency charter in the 45th Parliament in April 2019. It was signed by the member for Clark and many good senators that are no longer here, including Tim Storer, Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff. It was about signing on to ideals and making a pledge around transparency values, and seeing the words of that charter's mission now in this piece of legislation is incredibly important, I think. In many instances, parliaments and governments legislate top-down, telling people what should be done and making high-level policy decisions which impinge on and ultimately, we hope, improve people's lives. But it has been a groundswell of support from the people which has led the movement for a national integrity commission, and this has consistently been a key priority in my electorate. I thank every person who has called, written to me or talked to my team and said, 'Don't forget this, Rebekha. We need to make sure this happens.'

I congratulate the government on working quickly to develop this bill after many years of discussion in the community and in this place. I look forward to the new commission being established and to what it can achieve in helping ensure that we are all our best selves in this 47th Parliament and parliaments to come. Many organisations have contributed to the consultation on the bill that's before us today, and I'd like to thank the teams at Transparency International Australia and the Centre of Public Integrity, among others, for their engagement with me and my team.

While it would, in my opinion, benefit from some further amendments—which I will speak further to—including amendments I'm putting forward myself, I rise to support this bill. The commission will be able to investigate serious and systemic corrupt conduct by a public official, including if it occurred before the commencement of this act. The commission will have a broader perspective and educative role in relation to corruption, and it will be overseen by the parliamentary joint committee and an inspector, who will be tasked with investigating any serious and systemic corruption issues and complaints relating to the commission itself. The commission, in my view, has the basics to enable it to function well for the most part, with strong investigative powers, including its own motion, and measures in the bill to help ensure that the commission is resourced properly to fulfil its purpose, functions and tasks. And that's key. It must be resourced.

That said, for the commission to have real teeth, a number of small measures could improve upon the bill as introduced in this parliament. While Transparency International Australia have welcomed the proposed clarification and simplification of the definition of 'corrupt conduct', compared with most previous Australian precedents in sound corruption prevention, education and integrity-building functions afforded the commission, it has communicated some concerns regarding the bill as drafted. Similarly, the Centre for Public Integrity states that the NACC bill, as it's known, proposes an integrity commission which will be fit for purpose in almost all material respects but nonetheless retains concerns in a number of key respects.

Many of these concerns have been reflected by amendments moved, most of which I intend to support as practical measures to make this bill the best it can be. Firstly, the definition of 'corruption' needs to capture the conduct of third parties, such as lobbyists, companies and the like, and attempts to corrupt public administration. The commission should be able to investigate anyone's improper conduct that has potential to sway public officials, not just the conduct of public officials themselves. Key stakeholders have expressed the view that excluding third parties from the definition of 'corrupt conduct' would be a significant omission and inconsistent with all Australian jurisdictions' anticorruption commissions except those of Western Australia and Tasmania.

A number of changes that are canvassed in the amendments before this place could further enhance the independence of the commission from government. These include requiring the agreement of two non-government members in the majority when making appointments of the commission's key office holders and measures to improve budget transparency and oversight to ensure that the future commission is adequately resourced. Likewise, I support the amendments moved by the member for Warringah to make reporting provisions in this bill more robust and to require the commission to deal with corruption issues that may be referred to by either house of parliament.

Above all, however, the whistleblower protections remain incomplete under this bill and in law generally. Transparency International Australia have called for stronger shield laws to protect the rights of journalists not to identify their sources, as these laws remain too weak. They have called for an increased level of privilege in relation to warrants in matters involving journalism, given the public interest in journalism and the protection of private sources. I've recently called on the Attorney-General to review and improve existing inadequate protections and redress for whistleblowers and their legal counsel. While public undertakings have been given that whistleblower protections and the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 will be considered next year, it's clear that the whistleblower protections in the bill are based on provisions from the Public Interest Disclosure Act that have shown themselves to be quite inadequate in recent years.

I've also circulated amendments in my name to improve requirements for statutory review of the operation of the act within a reasonable time frame. At present the bill provides for parliamentary committee functions including monitoring and reviewing the performance of the commissioner and the inspector and reporting of both houses of parliament and a number of other relevant functions but does not require a review of the act's operation. Nor does it set a time frame for conducting any such review. Instead, the statutory review provision, at clause 278, is broad enough to drive a truck through. Strengthening clause 278 would provide comfort if the parliamentary committee did not undertake a review of the operation of the act within its first five years. Review requirements are pivotal given the import of the commission's work. A statutory review provision with teeth will provide for minimum matters such a review must consider and report on. It would require that the person or persons conducting the review are at least as qualified as the commissioners themselves and that the report of the review is to be provided to the minister within 12 months of the review commencing. It would also require the minister to table the resulting report in both houses within 14 days, which I think is incredibly important, or to provide it to the presiding officer for circulation to all members if the House is not sitting during that period.

Overall, this represents a sound, practical improvement to the bill which will ensure that the operation of this vitally important legislation is properly reviewed before the end of its first five years. I have been calling for a national integrity commission with teeth since I was first elected over six years ago. We now have before us the most exciting opportunity of all to make sure this is done and done properly, and I commend this bill to the House.


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