Wednesday, 23 November 2022
National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022, National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022; Second Reading
I'll start as the Prime Minister did a little while ago in this place: honesty, accountability, integrity, trust. I've spoken before in this place about the need for us to rebuild the ethical infrastructure of our nation. Great disservice and great damage was being done to the ethical infrastructure of this nation under those opposite over many years, and our government is rectifying that partially with the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022.
Australia enjoys a strong international reputation as a country with robust institutions, rule of law and integrity, but we've been sliding down the rankings. We see this in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures trust in government by its citizens. That data showed that, between 2012 and 2018, Australia slid to 13th place in the index. A 2018 Australia Institute report calculated that perceptions of growing corruption in Australia shaved four per cent off our GDP due to the hit to business confidence. That had a real cost to us of $72 billion. Then there is the enormous five per cent of GDP that corruption is thought to cost the global economy in plundered wealth. Between 2018 and 2021, Australia dropped five more slots to reach 18th place in the Corruption Perceptions Index. That was obviously a concern to us and to all Australians of good faith.
As a result, it played a role in us now being on this side of the chamber. It has been our commitment, and we are now discharging our responsibility, to bring this legislation into being. As Pope Francis has said, 'The corruption of the powerful ends up being paid for by the poor.' That $72 billion that is embezzled from, or not created in, Australia, costs us all. It is investment for roads, for social housing needed by the many, that is squandered by the greed of the few.
But corruption of course is about more than dollar figures in the GDP; corruption is often compared to a social disease that aggressively spreads, if it is not treated as early as possible. As US President Joe Biden once said:
Corruption is a cancer, a cancer that eats away at a citizen's faith in democracy, diminishes the instinct for innovation and creativity …
The rotting effect of corruption is to sink into the joints of our democracy and corrode from within, because, like it or not, even the unsubstantiated whiff of corruption is as good as proof of corruption in the minds of many citizens, when the accusation trends on Twitter.
When a politician, regardless of party affiliation, subverts Commonwealth guidelines for allocating public money to advance a political or personal interest, that is corruption. When an official bend the rules of a tender process to help a mate bidding for a government contract, that is corruption. When a minister steps down from office and monetises as their wealth of inside information and contacts in a lucrative lobbying gig in the portfolio they formerly held, that is corruption—or at least, it could be.
Establishing a national anticorruption commission with the power to investigate such cases under the supervision of this parliament is the most effective way to tackle corruption at a federal level. We members and senators cannot afford to maintain the status quo—the languishing of ethical standards that we have seen in the last decade. The status quo is one where only 40 per cent of the population is satisfied in our democracy, down from 85 per cent in 2007. That is an appalling loss of faith in our democracy. These are the results of a research project by the new Museum of Australian Democracy, which predicted that, on current trends, fewer than 10 per cent of Australians would see this parliament as being legitimate by 2025. That was the trajectory that we were on under the former federal government.
Just think about what that would mean for a minute, if that were to come to pass. If, as the Museum of Australian Democracy project predicted, 90 per cent of voters one day didn't believe that our democracy was the very best form of government, that wouldn't be good at all. But what the world looks like when democrats become the minority is something history has rightly taught us to fear. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer found that the bubble of trust in government, business, media and NGOs recorded in 2021 has now burst. Politics is seen as a dividing force in our society. This trust deficit is literally tearing our societies apart. Sixty-one per cent of Australians responding to this study reported feeling unable to have civil debates about issues they disagree on. While trust in our political institutions is only one part this larger national pattern, it is a very important part of it. A federal anticorruption body alone may not be able to reverse the tide of perceptions that took decades to set in, but it is a formidable step towards restoring trust in our politics, in our democracy and in our fellow Australians.
Trust is the living spirit of this institution. Without it this place is simply cement and steel—a statue. It is a beautiful building but it's dead without the trust of those who we are called to serve and are elected to serve. Our democracy has no future without the belief of most of our citizens that despite its limitations this is still the highest form of government. That's why the Albanese Labor government takes our promise that we made to the Australian people seriously, and that is to tackle corruption and to restore trust, integrity, honesty and accountability to federal politics. This legislation gives effect to the principles we took to the election and that were endorsed by the Australian people. It delivers on a commitment by the Albanese government to legislate a powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission. It also draws on the best elements of state and territory anticorruption commissions and laws. This bill provides the commission with a broad jurisdiction to investigate serious or systemic corrupt conduct across the Commonwealth public sector.
The commission will have the power to investigate ministers, parliamentarians and their staff, statutory officeholders, employees of all government entities and contractors. It will have discretion to commence inquiries on its own initiative or in response to referrals from anyone. It will be able to investigate both criminal and non-criminal corrupt conduct occurring before or after its establishment.
The commission defines corrupt conduct as an abuse of office, breach of public trust or a misuse of information by officials. To stamp out this behaviour the commissioner will have a full suite of powers similar to those of a royal commission. The commissioner will be able to use these powers to undertake an investigation into a corruption issue. The overarching principle here is that all of the work of the National Anti-Corruption Commissioner will be conducted in the public interest, in the interests of those that we serve.
The commission will be independent. It will be the commissioner who will decide where the public interest lies. The commissioner will decide whether the hearing is going to be public or not. The commissioner will be able to make findings of corrupt conduct but not of criminal liability. Criminal liability can only be determined by a court.
Importantly though, and I stress again, this commission will be independent. Anyone subject to a critical finding must be given a chance to respond out of procedural fairness. I believe that this commission, with its independence enshrined, will be able to conduct investigations on its own initiative or in response to allegations from any source, overseen by a parliamentary joint committee and an inspector. The parliamentary joint committee will be made of 12 members—three government, two opposition, one from the crossbench from each house and a government chair with a casting vote. The inspector will deal with any corruption issues arising in the commission and complaints about the commission as well. Transparency is essential. The commissioner's investigative function will be balanced with strong safeguards to ensure that corruption investigations do not cause undue reputational damage, and that is incredibly important. This legislation provides strong protections against criminal offences and immunities for whistleblowers. The bill also ensures that there are appropriate protections for journalists and their sources.
The government has committed $262 million over four years for the establishment and operation of the commission. The National Anti-Corruption Commission is a nation-building reform, will assist us in rebuilding the ethical infrastructure of our nation and will hold us all up to the very high standards both that our citizens expect of us working in the federal realm and that our citizens deserve. May this only be the start of the national task of stamping out corruption and restoring faith in our democracy, because we do have the foundations of a great democracy. Our government is after that goal of more trust in our democracy, because that's what our citizens deserve. We will restore faith in our democracy again, and this bill goes to that most important task.