House debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022


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

10:41 am

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I am very proud to speak in support of these very important bills, the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022. One of the issues these bills deal with is integrity, which means confidence in the systems that run our country. We need to have absolute confidence that things are running for the betterment of the nation and not for the betterment of individuals, and that can be read into these bills. Recent years have shown significant erosion of trust between citizens and politicians, government, government agencies. By establishing the National Anti-Corruption Commission we hope to create a body that will make this government and future governments, government agencies, public servants et cetera better. Integrity should be above partisan politics.

The Australian people delivered a clear message at the last election that something was broken or not working quite right. It does not mean that things were not working right but that perception is a very dangerous perception to be out there, and we need to fix it. The perception was that something is broken, and the people want it fixed. I am very proud to be a part of this government that is delivering this bill to its House, which is the result of us listening to Australians.

One of the most common issues raised with me over the past few years was the need for a National Anti-Corruption Commission. People are crying out for a body that ensures the integrity of parliament and government. Such a commission is vital to help people regain that trust in our institutions and the people who work within them. This, after all, is the basis of a healthy democracy. They are the pillars of our democracy. Even though Australia punches above its weight in the different monitors of corruption around the world—we would be one of the countries on the lowest scale—it doesn't mean that we can't do better.

This legislation is the single biggest reform to the Commonwealth integrity framework that we have seen in decades. It also honours the commitment that we made to the Australian people during the last election campaign. Shamefully, the Commonwealth is the last Australian jurisdiction to establish an anticorruption commission, but this delay has allowed us to draw the best elements of the different systems that have been set up in the state and territory models. We believe we have reached the right balance to ensure the integrity of Australia's institutions.

These bills will empower the commission to investigate and report on serious systemic corruption in the Commonwealth and public sector; importantly, will refer evidence of criminal misconduct for prosecution; and will undertake education and prevention activities. On this side of the House we're committed to integrity, honesty and accountability in government. This legislation is a cornerstone of our commitment and our agenda, and it will restore, as I said, public trust and strengthen standards of integrity in our federal government.

The bill provides the commission with broad jurisdiction to investigate serious or systemic corrupt conduct across the Commonwealth public sector. The commission will have the power to investigate ministers, parliamentarians, staff, statutory officeholders, public servants, employees of all government entities and government contractors. It will have discretion to commence inquiries on its own initiative or in response to referrals. It will be able to investigate both criminal and non-criminal corrupt conduct and conduct occurring before or after its establishment.

The definition of corrupt conduct is central to the commission's jurisdiction. It is consistent with key elements of existing definitions at the state and territory level and in the Commonwealth Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act 2006. This definition includes conduct by a public official that involves an abuse of office, breach of public trust, misuse of information or corruption of any kind, and it also includes conduct by any person that adversely affects the honest or impartial exercise of a Commonwealth public official's functions.

The commissioner will have powers similar to a royal commissioner. The commissioner will be able to use these powers to undertake an investigation into corrupt conduct if the commissioner believes it could involve serious or systemic corrupt conduct, and to determine whether an allegation could be serious or systemic corruption the commissioner will be able to undertake preliminary inquiries. In order to do this the commissioner will have powers to compel the production of information.

The commissioner will also be able to hold public hearings in exceptional circumstances and when satisfied that it's in the public interest. The default position is that hearings will be held in private, and this is very important because we need to balance the public interest with other potential negative impacts. After completing an investigation the commissioner will be required to prepare a report setting out their findings and recommendations, and they will be able to make findings of corrupt conduct but not of criminal liability. Criminal liability can be determined only by a court of law.

Reports will be made public if the matters they deal with are already in the public domain. They'll also be made public when it's determined to be in the public interest. Reports will be required to be tabled in each house of the parliament where a public hearing has been held during the investigation, and the commissioner will be able to publish public versions of reports when satisfied, again, that it's in the public interest to do so and if procedural fairness requirements are met. The commissioner will be required to provide procedural fairness by ensuring that those who are the subject of a critical finding, opinion or recommendation in a report are afforded an opportunity to respond.

They'll also have an important mandate to undertake corruption prevention and educational functions, and this includes undertaking public inquiries to examine corruption risks, vulnerabilities and measures to prevent corruption. The commission will provide guidance and information to support the public sector to understand the concept of corrupt conduct and to identify and address where there may be vulnerabilities to corruption. The commission will also engage in broader public education about its role, corruption risks and avenues to report corrupt conduct.

A cornerstone of this commission will be its absolute independence, and this will be secured in a number of ways. The commission will be able to conduct investigations on its own initiative or in response to referrals or allegations from different sources. 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 parliamentary joint committee. The commissioner's appointment will be for a single term of five years and deputy commissioner appointments for up to two terms of five years each. The appointees will have security of tenure, of course, comparable to a federal judge.

The legislation enables the parliamentary joint committee to review and make recommendations on the sufficiency of the NACC's budget. The commission will be overseen by a parliamentary joint committee and an inspector. In addition to confirming appointments and reviewing the commission's budget, the committee's oversight role will include reviewing the commission's performance and its annual reports. The inspector will deal with any corruption issues arising in the commission and complaints about the commission.

The design of this commission is balanced, with strong safeguards to ensure that investigations do not cause undue reputational damage. This is very important, as we have seen from the experiences in other jurisdictions. In order to ensure this, hearings will be held in private unless there are exceptional circumstances and the commission is satisfied it is in the public interest to hold a hearing in public. Certain sensitive evidence will be received in private, in addition to a range of decisions the commissioner can make when appropriate.

This legislation will also provide very strong protection for whistleblowers and that's very important. This will include protection against adverse consequences, including criminal offences and immunities. Public officials making disclosures to the commission will also be protected under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013. Similarly, the bill ensures that journalists are also appropriately protected. This includes an exemption from answering questions or providing information that would enable the identity of a source to be ascertained.

We have committed substantial funding, as we have heard, of $262 million over four years for the establishment and ongoing operation of the commission. We know that this funding will ensure the commission has the required staff and resources and the necessary capacity to undertake its very important and crucial work.

As I said, in recent years we've seen significant erosion of the confidence that the public has in politicians, in government agencies and in governments. Establishing this independent Anti-Corruption Commission will bring back some of that confidence. As I said earlier, creating this body will make this government and future governments better. Integrity is way above politics and partisan politics, and so it should be. We heard the message at the last election that people wanted an anti-corruption body established, an independent body, that would look into allegations and issues in a way that was above this place, in a way that no-one in this House had any say, in a way that no-one in the Public Service had any say, or any government agency—a totally independent body to investigate matters.

As I said earlier, I'm very proud to be commending this bill to the House because it was an integral part of our commitments when in opposition and also during the election campaign. On the other side of the House we had a government that had promised the voters of Australia that they would deliver a commission and they failed to do so over a period of nine years. I think it's very important, as a first step, in restoring confidence but also in ensuring that we have a body that will be above any interference from anyone, that would investigate serious corruption allegations and issues. I commend this bill to the House.


No comments