House debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022

Bills

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

12:46 pm

Aaron Violi (Casey, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

Through my election campaign I committed to supporting the establishment of a national anticorruption commission to play a key role in building trust in politics, and I am proud to be standing here today delivering on my promise by supporting this legislation to establish that commission. All of us in this place come from different parts of this wonderful country. We hold different views. Our values differ, and so do our personality traits. That is the value of a representative democracy. But as politicians and representatives the one trait we should all share is our integrity, and that is why I am supportive of a National Anti-Corruption Commission.

As I said in my first speech, there is no greater honour, privilege or responsibility than representing your community and your family's home in federal parliament. It is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly and a privilege that should always be met with integrity. Our democracy is fragile. Trust in our institutions is vital to its survival. However, we must also never forget that behind all these investigations are people and families and the need for natural justice. Personally I find it concerning that this bill removes the fundamental legal right to privilege against self-incrimination and legal professional privilege. This is why I'm supporting our amendments to ensure that it is done only when absolutely necessary, because of the significant impost on fundamental rights, and these amendments are supported by the Law Council of Australia.

As an example of the power these institutions can hold over everyday lives, I wish to share a real-life example of the impact of the Victorian anticorruption commission. I note that this morning the member for Bruce shared the story of Amanda Stapledon and that her story is seared in his memory. So too is it seared in mine. Amanda Stapledon was a former mayor of the City of Casey, and earlier this year, under investigation from the Victorian anticorruption watchdog, Amanda took her own life. Amanda was a long-term city councillor, serving on council from 2008 until her death earlier this year. When she died, she was described as someone who had dedicated her life to her family and to helping others.

Amanda was one of a group of former Casey councillors investigated by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission. IBAC conducted weeks of public hearings about a group of councillors' alleged corruption through late 2019 and 2020. Amanda, described by her friends as loving, caring, genuine, honest, fun-loving and family first, spent the final two years of her life looking over her shoulder, growing increasingly isolated and racked with anxiety about her fate. On Friday 14 January 2022, IBAC's draft report arrived, shackled by laws preventing her from talking to anyone about this other than a lawyer. The ex-mayor had to handle it alone. She took her life three days later.

We must never forget the impact these investigations have on the lives of public officials and their families. It's not just members of parliament and public servants that will be answerable to this commission; it will apply to the ADF; the AFP; NDIS; aged-care workers; and any contractor, subcontractor, or person exercising a power under a law of the Commonwealth. I am not suggesting that these people or politicians should have special protections or a different standard. But I do believe that they deserve natural justice and the right to be innocent until proven guilty. And we need to strike the right balance. Amanda's example shows how important this balance is and how getting it wrong can have tragic and unnecessary consequences.

The commission will be able to commence inquiries on its own initiative after receiving a referral from anyone, including anonymous members of the public and whistleblowers. It will also have the power to hold public hearings. Over recent weeks the National Anti-Corruption Commission has been subject to review by the Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation. The provisions of the bill have been carefully considered. The coalition has approached this process with good faith and the intention of ensuring the bill gets the balance right between stamping out corruption and protecting the rights of everyday people brought before the commission. The Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills made extensive recommendations to improve the bill, highlighting concerns around loose definitions and the use of coercive powers without adequate safeguards in place. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights noted concerns about the use of gag orders and their long-term application, which can harm the mental health of people brought before the commission, as we devastatingly saw with the passing of Councillor Amanda Stapledon.

These concerns are not just things that we can sweep under the carpet. That's why the coalition are introducing amendments that will ensure the commission applies its powers fairly and reasonably with the right balance. Firstly, we are introducing an amendment that will close the loophole the government inserted for their union mates. The government talks a big game on integrity, but when it comes to unions that goes out the window. They try to deny that there is a union exception, but it is there, plain and clear. I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that the commission does not apply to union officials exercising a power under the law of the Commonwealth. The question is: how is it that John Setka from the CFMMEU wouldn't have to answer to the commission, but ADF and NDIS workers in my electorate would? If Labor is serious about integrity, there should be no loopholes, which is why we're putting forward our amendment.

We're also putting forward other amendments, backed by experts from the Law Council, the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, and the SA Bar Association. We think it's important that it's not just a single commissioner alone that decides to commence a public hearing. The government's bill gives too much power to one single official. We believe it should be shared between the commissioner and the deputy commissioner.

We also think that it should be compulsory, not optional, for the commissioner to consider other factors before deciding whether a public hearing is appropriate, and this is important because no person is above reproach and we need to have those safeguards in place. It is important to remember that these are real lives that we are dealing with, with this legislation. The commissioner should have to consider whether confidential information is involved, whether there would be unfair prejudice to a person's reputation or whether a person giving evidence has any particular vulnerability, such as being under coercion by another person. This amendment was supported by the Queensland Law Society, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australia Institute.

When I think about this bill I think back to Amanda Stapledon and how we can improve the system to be more balanced. I believe one thing we need to do is make sure that these investigations have a time limit. Amanda's investigation went for two years. The unknown is traumatic and steals years from people's lives. Our amendment proposes a 12-month time limit on investigations.

We must also look to limit gag orders that prevent people from disclosing that they have appeared before the commission. In the interests of mental health, people should be able to make a disclosure to an immediate family member, as long as they are not a person of interest, as well as to a medical or mental health professional. Whether people before the commission are innocent or guilty, appearing before the commission will be a traumatic and stressful time for them, so giving them the right to share that with a loved one and a mental health professional is so important, because we all know how important is to be able to talk and share the troubles that you are having.

One of the most fundamental components of our legal system is the ability to appeal, or receive a review, when decisions are made. This commission should be no different. We know from history that no commissioner or judge is infallible. Mistakes, unfortunately, can be made, and we have to have a safeguard to give people the right to appeal that decision. All decisions of the commission should be subject to review under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act, and we are introducing an amendment to allow that to happen. For this body to be successful, it needs to have the trust of the public and it must be balanced, and it must stand up to ongoing operations.

We are supportive of this bill, with these amendments, because corruption is wrong and it should, and must, be stamped out. It was a coalition government that introduced Australia's first ICAC, in 1988. We want this commission to succeed, but we must balance the need to stamp out corruption with the need to protect the lives of those people brought before the commission. Ultimately, while this commission will play a key role in building trust with the community, it rests with all of us in this House to act with integrity and to essentially answer to ourselves on the representatives that we want to be, the culture that we want in this House and how we want to be viewed by the public. A commission will play a role in holding representatives to account, but delivering integrity and trust in this House is through the actions of all of us as elected representatives.

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