Wednesday, 23 November 2022
National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022, National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022; Second Reading
I rise today on behalf of the federal electorate of North Sydney, and as a proud member of the 47th Parliament who has actively campaigned for this historic piece of legislation, to speak on the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022. For many in North Sydney this opportunity has been too long in coming, with previous governments promising to introduce a federal integrity commission, yet failing to deliver. In this context, I congratulate the Attorney-General and the Albanese government for delivering so promptly and unequivocally on what the Australian people demanded at the recent election. It is easy to jump straight to criticisms or pointing out room for improvement, but I'd like to pause for just a moment to say: well done. This is a historic piece of reform.
It is true to say I was sent to this place by my community to ensure that just this piece of legislation was shepherded through the parliamentary system. The people of North Sydney want a better standard of politics. They want their trust in the federal political process restored, and they have believed for some time now that this would be encouraged, supported and in part realised through the establishment of a national integrity watchdog. North Sydney values politics done differently, even when it might appear to be against our best interests. You see, my seat has been the recipient of targeted funding which could be described as having a distinct whiff of pork about it.
Wedged between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Luna Park, the North Sydney Olympic Pool has been a nationally recognised icon for over 84 years. In April 2019 the then Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg; and North Sydney's local MP announced a $10 million election commitment to contribute to the pool upgrade. On further investigation, it was uncovered that that $10 million was allocated for the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream, which was created as a measure to remove barriers for women participating in sport in our regions, and to develop and upgrade community pools in remote and regional areas. Don't get me wrong; our pool is iconic, and it had been identified that some work was required. But it's hardly located in a regional or rural community. The ridiculous and discretionary nature of both this pre-election announcement and the final budget allocation was farcical and put to rest any idea that the process driving the then government's decision about where funding should be directed was anything other than some warped idea of 'winner takes all' and friends get all the benefits. In light of this story and many others just like it, it will come as no surprise, then, that the people of North Sydney, and indeed the majority of Australians, have lost faith in our democracy.
Over the years, cases of financial and funding rorts; sexual harassment, bullying and misconduct; and what appears to be blatant corruption have simply eroded people's trust in politicians and our political system. In a report released just yesterday by the Scanlon Foundation, when Australians were asked if they believed that the government in Canberra can be trusted to do the right thing all or most of the time, only 41 per cent agreed. This is down from 44 per cent last year and 56 per cent in the November 2020 period. This downward trajectory needs to be turned around, and it is the responsibility of those of us in this place to arrest the slide. As Democracy 2025 puts it:
Trust is the glue that facilitates collective action for mutual benefit.
If people can't trust that the government is acting with their best interests at heart, policies become less effective, people stop complying with decisions they don't like and, ultimately, democracy breaks down.
Australia Institute polling shows that nine in 10 Australians think there is corruption in federal politics, and the unfortunate truth is that this diminishing faith in our federal political system is not a new issue. For decades, representatives in this place and the other have been campaigning against the unchecked corruption of the major political parties. We have all too often seen breathtaking scandal, exorbitant rorts and extreme misbehaviour involving federal politicians and senior public servants. We know the Commonwealth government oversees billions of dollars in spending, from multibillion dollar defence procurement to funding for local sports facilities and commuter car parks. We've observed cases of ministers intervening in visas for au pairs, handing out grants to organisations that were barely established, and obscuring money in blind trusts. Sadly, these cases have usually been uncovered by the media, and in many instances the behaviour has gone unpunished.
But, whether there is or isn't corruption within our system, perceptions of its existence cost our economy and community not only in dollar terms—with some estimating a reduction in our GDP of four per cent, or $72.3 billion—but also fundamentally through the schism that is created in the very fabric that should sustain a confident society. There is nothing quite like being involved in a conversation with regular people from across your community who are lamenting the way their federal politics appear to have become so disconnected from their ambitions, their desires and their values. Their representatives just do not seem to represent them anymore. For me, that look—one which combines both disappointment and a hope for better—was one of the fundamental reasons that I agreed to run as an Independent candidate when my community asked me to.
Ultimately, rebuilding Australians' trust in politics is critical to our nation's long-term success. We urgently need to improve standards of behaviour and integrity in federal politics so that we have the foundations to achieve the fairer and more prosperous future we all want to see. The establishment and empowerment of this independent National Anti-Corruption Commission will go some way towards improving Australians' trust in democracy.
Throughout the development of the bill, many of us in this place have worked constructively with the government in good faith to ensure that the proposed commission meets community expectations. This has included advocating for statutory oversight mechanisms to protect the independence of the commission, budgetary protection, independence and funding transparency, the ability to launch own-motion investigations, funding for education and prevention to head corruption off at the pass, and an expansive jurisdiction over third parties. These issues have been advocated for for years and include lessons learnt from integrity bodies in states and territories.
One specific example of how the crossbench, supported by advocates and experts, has helped shape the final product we are now debating is the simple inclusion of the word 'integrity'. At the outset, the government seemed determined that the scope of this commission would be limited to corruption. Talk of an integrity commission was dismissed, but we chipped away at the idea and argued that it was vital that, for this reform to have maximum impact, the government not only play a role in preventing corruption but also promote a cultural shift which focuses on empowering those who are expected to uphold the highest degree of integrity to do just that. In the words of the minister then, 'This legislation now delivers the single biggest integrity reform this parliament has seen in decades.'
Importantly, this reform must be able to deliver this ambition regardless of who is in power at the time. Longevity and sustainability will ultimately be the key measures of success for this nation-changing reform. We must, as members of this 47th Parliament, ensure that we do the work now to enable this commission to be set up in a way that can withstand the political game playing that comes when party politics meets power. There are four key aspects of the bill that I believe warrant further discussion.
Firstly, I've heard from experts who advocate that transparent, public hearings are needed to help build public confidence in the National Anti-Corruption Commission. Under the proposed legislation, by default, the Anti-Corruption Commission hearings will be held in private unless the commissioner decides there are exceptional circumstances justifying a public hearing and that it is in the best interests to do so. I would argue that openness, not secrecy, should be the norm, and having more public hearings would strengthen the National Anti-Corruption Commission. Why? Because all of the evidence shows us that public hearings are more effective in exposing corruption because they bring forward more information and witnesses. Importantly, they would also improve the public's trust in government, as people would see the system working.
Under this legislation, the commissioner does have the power to hold public hearings in exceptional circumstances and if satisfied it is in the public interest to do so. The bill provides guidance to the commission in making these decisions, and I am satisfied that, with the strong independence of the commission that has been written into the bill, the commission will exercise these powers soundly and in the public interest.
That having being said, the political reality is that reform can require compromise. In my view, securing cross-party backing for the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission may mean that that compromise might need to take place in this House. I do not think, then, that on this point we should let perfect be the enemy of good, and, as such, I am prepared to accept the government's arguments as to why they are currently presenting the option of public hearings in this way. I also undertake to keep an open mind, however, and pay close attention to the statutory review process should it become evident in the early years of operation for the commission that the bar for exceptional standards is creating a yoke around the commissioner's neck rather than empowering them to make what they believe are the best decisions for the public good.
Secondly, we need a National Anti-Corruption Commission that will continue to deliver on its objectives no matter who is in power. To that end, it will be important to find ways to commit future governments to adequate funding for the National Anti-Corruption Commission as far as it is possible to do so.
I would propose, then, that the commission's budget should be allocated on a minimum of a five-year cycle, with the ability to obtain supplementary funding if needed. The independence of the National Anti-Corruption Commission will be bolstered by requiring a multipartisan, balanced parliamentary joint committee to review its budget on an annual basis, and a dedicated secretariat resource will be essential to ensuring that the committee has the information it needs to perform its role. I expect that this capacity is something that should be built into the legislation.
Thirdly, whistleblowers must be protected as we introduce the new anticorruption laws. While in the longer term I'm reassured by the Attorney-General's commitment to review Australia's whistleblower protections, I believe that the provisions to protect whistleblowers from victimisation, harassment and other adverse actions are essential within this piece of legislation.
Lastly, I believe there's an opportunity to do something unprecedented in this place through the establishment of a truly independent commission by appointing majority non-government members to the parliamentary joint committee overseeing the National Anti-Corruption Commission. Why? Because, for this agency and an agency such as this to be beyond reproach, it must stand for and itself be accountable to that which is larger than any government of the day, and that is the entire parliament. There will always be powerful interests seeking to persuade the government of the day to downgrade the effectiveness of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, and we need to ensure that as elected representatives we have the mechanism to watch the watchdog.
During this debate I've been a fierce advocate for the establishment of a multipartisan, balanced parliamentary joint committee to perform the role of oversight of a National Anti-Corruption Commission, and I commend the government for the inclusion of just such an independent committee in the bill. However, in the bill's current form the committee's independence has been compromised. The requirement that the chair be a member of the government and for the chair to hold the casting vote over commission appointments is a serious limitation.
I would therefore like to see the bill amended in two ways. The first of these is an amendment to ensure that the chair of the committee is a non-government member of parliament. The second is an amendment to ensure that the approval of appointments to the commission are subject to a supermajority. I note in the joint select committee's advisory report that the evidence provided by a range of expert witnesses supported just such a proposal. I also note that coalition committee members indicated that a supermajority vote in these circumstances would be desirable, as bipartisan confidence in the positions of commissioner and inspector is essential.
As I said earlier, there will always be powerful interests seeking to persuade the government of the day to downgrade the effectiveness of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, both in the immediate future and over the longer term. If this government can bring itself to truly place faith in the institution it is helping to create then the departure from tradition is warranted and would be seen as a historic and courageous stance taken by a government that is prepared to lead rather than to control. While the establishment and empowerment of a strong, independent national anticorruption regime will go some way towards rebuilding community confidence in our federal system, we must recognise that this reform alone will not bring us to the fullness of the democracy we can be. Indeed, it is arguably only the first step, and it should in no way be seen as a replacement for the fundamental cultural reform that I believe the people of Australia wish to see proceed at this national level.
On behalf of the people of North Sydney, I commend the National Anti-Corruption Commission bills to the House. I sincerely hope that this legacy piece of reform will outlive my time in this House as well as your own. Thank you.