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

1:00 pm

Sally Sitou (Reid, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

During this year's federal election campaign, I had the great pleasure of doorknocking all across my wonderful electorate of Reid. It's an electorate that takes in a corridor running from the inner-west of Sydney by the harbour in Drummoyne, right along the Parramatta Road through to Burwood, Lidcombe and Sydney Olympic Park. It's an electorate as diverse in its demography as it is in the languages that it speaks. We're a multilingual community with many families speaking Chinese, Lebanese, Korean, Italian, Greek or Hindi. We are a community where more than half of use were born overseas.

As you would expect from this diverse community, there is a diversity of opinion. We all want what is best for our families and our futures, but I think it's fair to say there is a diversity of views about how get there. With this diversity in mind, it was truly extraordinary to see the unanimity with which my community expressed its views on one particular subject, that of integrity. In amongst the thousands of conversations I had with residents, the issue that came up regularly was people's desire to see integrity back in parliament.

At the tail end of the last coalition government, there was a feeling across my community that federal politics, and perhaps politicians themselves, could not be trusted. The Governance Institute of Australia just released its report on the least trusted occupations, and there are no surprises there. Politicians filled up the top spots. State, federal and local politicians took out the first, second and fourth spots; real estate agents took out the third. It is a sentiment expressed in other surveys, too. In 2018, Griffith University's Australian Constitutional Values Survey found a considerable slide in trust in government between 2012 and 2018. An ANU study found only 59 per cent of Australians were satisfied with how democracy was functioning, a 27 per cent drop from a record high in 2007. Over the past decade, according to Transparency International, we have fallen down the rankings of the Corruption Perceptions Index. On a scale out of 100, Australia's score in 2012 was 85. In 2021 that had dropped to 73, a 12 point drop. We experienced the biggest drop amongst all OECD countries, alongside Hungary. These results are deeply dispiriting, because they mean the public no longer trusts government to act in their best interest. A cynicism has set in.

But I know good governments matter; they change lives. I know that because they changed mine. Successive governments of all persuasions made critical decisions that had an impact on my family. This allowed a family fleeing conflict to come to this country and thrive here. It is essential we build trust with the public again, because we are here to serve them.

Trust in politics is the glue that holds our democracy together. It is the foundation on which this place is built. Every time a voter walks into the voting booth on election day, they are putting their faith and their trust in those with the privilege of being elected. The trust in us is given freely by the electorate, but it is conditioned upon us as parliamentarians acting in the best interests of our electorates, not for personal gain. We are trusted by our constituents to act with integrity, and this is the covenant between those who govern and those who are governed. It's simple to say, but extremely hard to rebuild once trust is lost. But rebuild we must. In every state and territory there is an anticorruption commission. They oversee state, territory and local governments. The only jurisdiction without one is the federal government, and we're hoping to change that.

In my home state of New South Wales, the Independent Commission Against Corruption exposed corrupt behaviour—corrupt activities that have meant that the interests of individuals were placed over the public's and the community's interests, corruption committed by representatives at both levels of government, local and state, by both major political parties, including the party I am part of, the Labor Party. And it saddens me to say that, but I'm grateful to the Sydney Morning Herald's investigative reporter Kate McClymont for exposing this corrupt behaviour. And I'm grateful to the Independent Commission Against Corruption for its thorough investigation, because I don't want to be part of a party that has corrupt representatives. I want their behaviour exposed, investigated and prosecuted. It's time for us to hold federal parliamentarians to that level of scrutiny and accountability so that the public can trust us again. That's why I'm so proud to speak on this bill, because fundamentally this is a bill about rebuilding trust and integrity in our politics.

The key features of the National Anti-Corruption Commission are fairly well known, but it's worth briefly outlining the key points. In fact, one of the only benefits of having taken so long to establish a federal version of an anticorruption commission means we can draw on the best of those state and territory examples. The commission will have the power to investigate ministers, parliamentarians and their staff, statutory office holders, employees of all government entities and contractors. It will be able to investigate both criminal and non-criminal conduct and will have retrospective powers. The commission will have the powers of a royal commission. It will have investigative powers that allow it to seek out information if it is of the opinion that an issue potentially involves serious or systemic corrupt conduct. The commission will operate independently, at arm's length from government. We know that independence from government is a key feature of all the different models across the country and is fundamental to building civic trust in the institution.

The commission will have the authority to conduct investigations on its own initiative or in response to referrals or allegations from any source. Recent amendments have bolstered this independence by clarifying the commissioner's authority. The commission will be overseen by a parliamentary joint committee and by an inspector. That parliamentary joint committee will be multipartisan, with three government ministers, two opposition members and one crossbench member from each chamber. Importantly, appointees to the commission will have limited terms and security of tenure comparable to that of a federal judge. Our government has gone about seeking the input of members of all persuasions across this House. We have done that deliberately, because we want members of this place to get onboard with this important reform.

Now is not the time to play politics. Now is the time to strengthen and improve our politics, because that's what the public wants to see. I want to thank the crossbench for their constructive approach to this bill. Where we have been able to find common ground and consensus we have. We have moved amendments to change the definition of 'corrupt conduct' and strengthened whistleblower protections by amending the Public Interest Disclosure Act. On the points where we have difference of views—namely, the debate over public versus private hearings—I accept that this is a delicate and difficult question. We know that public hearings are an important element in uncovering, exposing and deterring corruption. Once you accept that this legislation is about public trust in our institutions then you have to accept that there needs to be room for the public to view these proceedings.

However, a balance needs to be struck. We have to weigh those public interest rights against the rights of the individuals concerned. Reputational harm and harm to an individual's welfare are important considerations, too. Weighing up these two considerations, I think it's right that the commission will be able to hold public hearings where it is in the public interest and where exceptional circumstances justify them. The model being proposed by the government leaves it for the commission to determine when it should hold hearings in public and whether that threshold has been met. So, while I respect and to some extent share the concerns of those views expressed by the crossbench, I believe we have landed in the right place.

I want to thank the crossbench for their collaborative approach to this bill, and I'm glad that those opposite are starting to come on board to the idea of a National Anti-Corruption Commission. Integrity in our Parliament should not be the domain of one party. For us to regain trust with the public, we need the whole Parliament to get on board. This bill reflects the best of the state and territory models. Importantly, this legislation was an election commitment that we on this side of the House take seriously. I'm incredibly proud that the Albanese Labor government is bringing in this legislation as a matter of priority, and I'm proud of the consultative way we have done it. It has shown some of the best of what this place can offer with extraordinary input from the crossbench and community stakeholders across the country. I hope that it marks an inflection point in this country's view of its politicians.

I want to briefly turn to my electorate, to the people of Reid. I consider it the privilege of my life to be elected to this House. The trust that you've put in me to act with integrity is absolutely core to how I have acted thus far and will continue to act as your member. Your trust weighs on me, just as it should, and I can tell you that it weighs on this government, just as it should. We will repay your trust.

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