House debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022


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

11:38 am

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Prime Minister) Share this | Hansard source

Honesty, accountability, integrity, trust: these are at the heart of what we are doing here right now. The establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission will change federal politics for the better. It will improve our democracy for the better. At a time where we have a global contest between democratic systems and authoritarianism, we need to do all within our power to ensure that our great democracy is trusted; that our politicians, our public servants are accountable; and that there is faith in the processes that overwhelmingly are conducted in good faith with people of integrity, with people who are honest.

But in order to ensure there is support we need to also ensure and recognise that there have been failings in the past and that the system of holding people to account has gaps in it. That's what this legislation does. A National Anti-Corruption Commission will investigate serious or systemic corrupt conduct across the entire Commonwealth public sector. This was one of our key election promises, and it resonated deeply with the Australian public. They want to know that their hard-earned tax dollars are spent transparently and in the interests of the nation. All of this can be further supported with a National Anti-Corruption Commission. It's one that we will deliver.

One of the elements that has undermined faith in our democratic system is politicians making promises that are clear and unequivocal and that they then fail to act on. The former government promised in 2018 that they would have a national anticorruption body. Not only did they not deliver it through the parliament; they did not even introduce legislation. That in itself raises questions about why that was the case. I suspect I know why. There were elements within the former government that avoided having a process that held high public office holders to account. We know now what we didn't know before the election: even down to who held what portfolio was not done in a transparent way by the former government. The Treasurer of Australia didn't know that he shared the portfolio and wasn't responsible for it. It's that sort of hidden process that undermines faith in our system.

We need to have a National Anti-Corruption Commission that builds on the strengths and safeguards of state anticorruption commissions that are already successfully operating in Australia, one that has no tolerance for corruption no matter who is responsible, no matter which party they may be a member of, or for that matter if they are not a member of any party, no matter where they come from.

The Commonwealth is the last jurisdiction to establish an anticorruption commission. This has allowed us to select the best design features from the state and territory commissions. Where our predecessors held out a promise but never mustered the energy to take the next step, the government I am proud to lead has come through and come through in a timely manner. Ahead of the May election, Labor went to the Australian people and told them that one of our biggest priorities would be to have an independent and effective National Anti-Corruption Commission. Australians voted for that change. We are delivering that change. We are getting on with the job. That is why this is important legislation, to take one important step towards strengthening our democracy by stamping out corruption that distorts and degrades the fabric of our community; by destroying the ecosystem in which cynical political self-interest or financial interest can flourish; by creating the conditions in which trust in government does not merely survive but thrives. We can do that by ensuring there are consequences for inappropriate behaviour which amounts to serious or systemic corruption.

The whole parliament can own the National Anti-Corruption Commission, because it has to belong to the whole country, and I pay tribute to the Attorney-General for the leadership that he has shown in this matter. I assure the parliament he has been relentless in driving this change forward in a timely manner, but I pay tribute to others who have been a part of this process as well. In particular I want to single out the member for Indi, who was a consistently strong voice on this throughout the last term of the previous government, a time when we needed all the strong voices we could get, and I pay tribute to all those who participated in the joint cross-party parliamentary committee, which came out with unanimous recommendations. That's a good thing. I have spoken about changing the way that politics is conducted in this country. This is an example of walking the walk, not just talking the talk. This government has a majority in the House of Representatives. But we sat down and collaborated across the parliament with anyone who wanted to engage with us on these issues, and that is very important as well.

Together we are working to create the best possible Anti-Corruption Commission that we can, a powerful anticorruption body with teeth and, most importantly, a fearless and completely independent body. I've been asked a range of times, 'Would your National Anti-Corruption Commission investigate A, B or C?' The question misses the point. An independent body decides what they'll investigate. That's the whole point. That is what we have ensured here can occur. An anticorruption body is needed that no government either can direct or can weaponise. The commission will be able to conduct investigations on its own initiative or in response to referrals or allegations from any source.

Another key part of the commission's independence has to be ensuring that the decision as to whether a hearing is held in public is a decision that rests entirely in the hands of the commissioner. That's the point, and that is the way in which best practice should operate, contrary to some of the comments that I've heard about the New South Wales ICAC, the Independent Commission Against Corruption. According to the ICAC's own report, just 3.5 per cent of its hearings were public in the 2020-21 financial year—3.5 per cent. Yet if you looked at some of the commentary made, you would think that every hearing of the ICAC is held in public. It is not, and it wasn't established for that purpose. The figure for the previous year, 2019-20, is a similar number.

Of course, there are important roles for public hearings in the National Anti-Corruption Commission, and that's why it has been one of our key design principles for almost four years. There are a number of factors outlined in the bill the commission may consider before deciding on this: the seriousness or systemic nature of the corrupt conduct; any unfair prejudice to a person's reputation, privacy, safety or wellbeing that would likely be caused if the hearing were held in public; and the benefits of exposing corrupt conduct to the public and making the public aware of corrupt conduct. They're pretty serious considerations that the commissioner will make, because there are also very concrete reasons for holding hearings in private, including to avoid prejudicing an ongoing investigation or related criminal proceedings, to protect the privacy of witnesses or to ensure national security information is protected from disclosure. This threshold that we've established here strikes the right balance to ensure that the benefits of holding public hearings are balanced against potential negative impacts.

The joint select committee that was established to inquire into the bill did an outstanding job. Made up of government, opposition and crossbench members from this place and the Senate, it delivered a unanimous report. The bill was developed in consultation with a range of stakeholders, including caucus colleagues and people from across the parliament but also eminent persons in academia and the judiciary, to ensure that the commission is robust and effective. This is parliament operating at its best, in my view.

In the recent budget, the government provided $262 million over four years for the establishment and ongoing operation of the commission. We will establish the NACC because public money should always be invested in the public interest. We will establish it because the health of our democracy depends on the integrity of our institutions and the transparency and the fairness of our laws, and because the trust that is generated by that accountability and transparency helps to build national cohesion, bringing the country together, overcoming divides, finding common ground. They're the key elements for building a stronger and more prosperous Australia. They're the principles that drive the government that I'm proud to lead.

This isn't about politics. We are hoping that this legislation is voted for by all 151 members of the House of Representatives and all 76 senators. That would send a very good message to the Australian people about this. I pay tribute to the people who have been prepared to vote for this for a long period of time. But I welcome people changing their position as a result of the mandate that we received in May.

Australian democracy is an extraordinary achievement. I have had the great privilege of meeting leaders at the G20, at APEC and at the East Asia Summit over the past short period. The truth is that many of those leaders that we engage with aren't the leaders of representative democracies. We engage on the basis of respect and putting our national interest. But our democracy can be fragile and can be undermined. That's why we need to make sure that our democratic systems, our public services, are as strong as they possibly can be. That is why this National Anti-Corruption Commission legislation is so important. It will have direct results over a long period of time in making people think again about some of the rorting of public funds that we have seen in recent times. It will have an impact on whether there is an abuse of power by people in the bureaucracy or by elected officials over a period of time. It will make a difference as well, I think, in the commitment that we have made. We are trying to make a difference by delivering on our promises. That's a part of our democratic system that we should not take for granted.

I conclude by congratulating the Attorney on the outstanding job that he is doing, and I call upon all members of this House to vote for this legislation.


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