House debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022


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

11:23 am

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

To give credit where it is due, I commend the government for progressing the National Anti-Corruption Commission. This is a good decision, and it's very pleasing to see the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 now tabled and being debated and hopefully passed by both houses of parliament in this sitting fortnight. Of course, it's long overdue, and there are countless examples of alleged corruption in recent years, which have very much turbocharged the public's call for some sort of federal anticorruption agency. I should add that they're not all historic cases. Some are very real and some are very current.

I was shocked just yesterday to see within the Australian Financial Review some very good investigative work by the journalist Liam Walsh, who has discovered that documentary evidence of what I spoke about on Monday, regarding widespread fraud within the Australian coal industry, was held in the office of the resources minister during the previous government. The allegations of corruption are not historic; they're real and they're live. In fact, when the Anti-Corruption Commission is set up, I think that's one of the first things I might refer to it—to find out why documentary evidence of widespread fraud was in the possession of a minister in the previous government and that minister did nothing about it. Mind you, even if there isn't evidence of corruption, even if we think all is well, there is still a need for some sort of federal anticorruption agency because only by the very existence of the agency—the knowledge that there is a cop on the beat—can we have confidence that there's not corruption that we're not aware of simmering under the surface.

I echo the concerns of many of my colleagues about some aspects of the bill before us. Of course, probably the most talked about deficiency in the bill comes to the issue of the threshold for public hearings. I am firmly of the view that the threshold is much too high, and the words 'exceptional circumstances' really should be removed from the bill. It should be left to the head of the NACC to decide when it's appropriate or not appropriate. As noted by eminent jurist Stephen Charles AO KC, the 'exceptional circumstances' threshold for public hearings will hamper the proper airing of corruption, as potential new witnesses cannot come forward with additional information if they are unaware an investigation or hearing is occurring. For example, the additional and compelling evidence about Gladys Berejiklian would not have been discovered if the matter had been heard in private. The absence of a solid definition of 'exceptional circumstances' will also likely subject the commission to lengthy court challenges, thereby delaying hearings and investigations.

The government has contended that the 'exceptional circumstances' threshold is included to prevent damage to a person's reputation. However, considering the commissioner may already consider such factors in determining whether something meets the public interest threshold, under section 73(3), the additional 'exceptional circumstances' threshold for public hearings is unnecessary. Moreover, it hinders public confidence that the Anti-Corruption Commission is a transparent and accountable body. It is worth noting that polling by the Australia Institute shows, clearly, that the overwhelming majority of Australians support the NACC being able to conduct public hearings in broader circumstances. I speak for a lot of people when I go to that issue. I know it's a concern shared by many of my colleagues, especially those on the crossbench.

The other deficiency is getting less attention, but it is important nonetheless—that is, the lack of whistleblower protections. The bill essentially replicates protections from the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013, but we know, and the government has already acknowledged, that the PID Act 2013 is seriously deficient and urgently in need of reform. Why we would cut and paste out of a deficient act into this bill surprises me. Here's hoping that, as we race to improve Australia's whistleblower protection legislation, what will be the NACC Act by that stage is promptly and thoroughly amended itself.

Now, of course, an anticorruption body is very important in itself, but it is only one of a group of essential building blocks for cleaning up governance, public administration and politics in this country. Unless we create all of the building blocks and put them together, we won't have an effective solution. This bill before us is fabulous, despite its deficiencies, and it's great to see that it will be realised, but the government has to move very quickly to the other building blocks, which are: whistleblower protection; media freedom laws; and political donation reform—all of which the government has said it will act on in this parliament. But, as always, the devil will be in the detail about how effectively they do that.

When it comes to whistleblower reforms, I would bring the parliament's attention to a report released just this morning—I note that the member for Bass was there at the launch with me. It is a report by Griffith University, the Human Rights Law Centre and Transparency International Australia, Protecting Australia's whistleblowers: the federal roadmap. Now, this is indeed a roadmap—a blueprint, if you like—of what needs to be done to not only provide effective protection for whistleblowers but also allow them to ventilate their concerns, effectively, both in the public sector and the private sector. This is the blueprint. I wish the Attorney-General could have been there at the launch this morning, but at least I know he's got a copy of this for when he goes through the process of reviewing the Public Interest Disclosure Act and the relevant sections of the Corporations Act—and now the relevant section of what will be the NACC Act soon. Look at this. It's no good saying the Moss review of 2016 provides the blueprint, because some of that now is out of date already. It's six years old. That is the blueprint.

I also have referred to media freedom laws. If we're going to get rid of corruption in this country, among other things we need whistleblowers to identify corruption and to speak up, but then we need the media to give voice and publicity to those concerns raised by the whistleblowers. That will do a number of things. It will inform the public, especially when there aren't public hearings going on, and it will also provide some protection to the whistleblowers themselves. If I can rather indulgently reflect, nearly 20 years after the start of the Iraq War, on my own whistleblowing experience, it was probably only the extensive media coverage that I got instantly which gave me comfort personally and also protected me from the wrath of a very angry government. They very quickly would have come to the conclusion that they could hardly jail me, because I would have become a political prisoner in the circumstances. So that is the importance of media freedom laws.

Of course, donation reform is the other essential building block. I moved a private member's bill earlier this year that sought to really clean up political donations, and I was disappointed that it didn't receive the support of either the previous government or the previous opposition, the current government. Well, I had to put my trust in the Attorney-General when he told me in recent months that they will move on this. The sorts of things that are required when it comes to political donation reform obviously include a much lower disclosure threshold. The figure being used often is maybe about $1,000. For any donation over $1,000—either a single donation or when the sum of small donations reaches $1,000—that should be disclosed, and that should be done virtually instantly—perhaps up on the AEC website or by some other electronic means so that it can be disclosed almost straightaway.

We also need a cap on donations. Not only should we lower the threshold for when donations are disclosed but we should limit the amount of money that any one donor, be it an individual or some sort of entity, can donate to any candidate or any political party, because, as my old friend Nick Xenophon used to say, if someone donates you $1,000, they support you; if they donate you $100,000, they've bought you. I think that's a truth. No-one hands over huge donations without expecting a return on that investment, and they often get a good return on that investment. So let's bring down to a sensible level the total amount of money that any donor can donate to any politician, candidate or party during any election cycle—and that's another point. Donations should be measured over the election cycle, not one at a time.

Also, we could broaden the definition of a donation. At the moment, you can have these extra entities—let's say something like Clubs NSW—that might run a political campaign that favours one political party or the other. Well, I would say that anything that materially benefits a candidate, a politician or a party should be treated as a political donation and recorded as a donation, both by what I am now calling the donor and by the candidate, politician or party that is materially benefiting from that expenditure.

In talking about expenditure, why don't we, when we're looking up political donations, also limit the amount of money that any of us can spend when we're campaigning? It was just downright immoral for Clive Palmer to spend $100 million to buy one Senate seat. I don't think you'll find anyone in Australia, apart from one senator and one Clive Palmer, who would think that that was an ethical way to spend that sort of money.

We could also have prohibited donors. Obviously tobacco and liquor, but what about the gambling industry or the fossil fuel industry or the sorts of big donors that are going around at the moment getting a good return on their investment—a very, very good return on their investment? In fact, that might help to explain why the former resources minister sat on the evidence of fraud in the coal industry and didn't act on it. It would certainly be a very interesting question for some investigative body to put to the former resources minister. So they're the building blocks.

An anticorruption body—great! I commend the government. Much improved whistleblower protections? I understand the government will move on that—great! Another building block. Media freedom laws so that the whole community can learn of what's going on. And political donation reform.

To that end of improving the whistleblower component of our integrity measures, I move:

That the following words be added after CPI:

"; and:

(1) notes that the bill essentially replicates protections from the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 which, given the known deficiencies of the Act, is grossly inadequate; and

(2) calls on the Government to:

(a) review whistleblower protections in the bill to ensure that protections for whistleblowers are strong, comprehensive and fit for purpose;

(b) urgently reform the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 and the Corporations Act 2001; and

(c) establish an empowered and well-resourced Whistleblower Protection Commissioner to facilitate the effective implementation and enforcement of whistleblower protections".

I'm absolutely delighted that the member for Bass will be seconding that amendment in due course.

In closing, I'm very proud to stand here today and I'm happy to say, through you, Speaker, to the Attorney-General: good on the government for finally getting cracking on a federal integrity agency. It still has those deficiencies in 'exceptional circumstances'. I still hold out hope that the government might drop just two words from the bill. And while I acknowledge the shortfalls in the whistleblower provisions in the NACC Bill, I do take this opportunity, through you, to say to the Attorney-General: as soon as we clean up our whistleblower laws we need to amend the NACC Act at the same time to ensure that those improvements are transferred across all federal legislation. There's much talk about the PID Act but there's very little talk about the Corporations Act. And while the amendments to the Corporations Act are well-intentioned, it does seem they are deficient. They can be improved as well.

I call on members to support my amendment. It's something I think we would all agree with in principle, and it doesn't in any way prevent the bill from progressing. So I do call on members to support my amendment, and I look forward to supporting the amended, or at least the unamended, NACC Bill in due course.


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