House debates

Monday, 29 July 2019

Private Members' Business

National Integrity Commission

6:08 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) congratulates the Government on its commitment to establish a Commonwealth Integrity Commission to investigate and prevent corruption in the public sector;

(2) congratulates the Opposition on its commitment to establish a National Integrity Commission to investigate and prevent corruption in the public sector;

(3) notes the major and significant contribution that a robust and well-functioning integrity commission can make to sustain and reinforce public confidence in the integrity of Australia's democratic government, parliament, and public service; and to help control corruption generally in Australia, in line with our international obligations;

(4) notes that to achieve these objectives, the design and implementation of a robust integrity commission should include:

(a) a broad jurisdiction to investigate and help prevent any serious or systematic abuse of entrusted power for private or political gain ('corruption') at the Commonwealth level, including but not limited to criminal offences;

(b) the ability to self-initiate investigations;

(c) the ability to receive, investigate or refer information about corruption from any person, including directly from Commonwealth staff or other whistleblowers;

(d) improved measures for the protection of whistleblowers in the Commonwealth public sector and more generally;

(e) the ability to hold public hearings for investigative purposes, for any corruption concerns within jurisdiction, where in the public interest to do so;

(f) the other powers needed for effective investigation, including to question people, compel the production of documents, seek warrants to enter and search premises, make public reports including findings of fact and recommendations, and refer matters to relevant prosecutors;

(g) the power and responsibility to properly coordinate the Commonwealth's role in a national anti-corruption plan, working with state and territory agencies, other regulatory agencies for the private sector, and civil society;

(h) the power and responsibility to lead comprehensive corruption prevention policies and procedures across the Commonwealth public sector, procurement and service delivery;

(i) full jurisdiction over Commonwealth parliamentarians and their staff;

(j) the creation of the commissioner(s) as an independent officer of the Commonwealth Parliament, appointed by and reporting to a bipartisan joint standing committee of the parliament, and only terminable on address from the parliament for proven misbehaviour or incapacity; and

(k) sufficiently well-resourced funds and personnel; and

(5) calls on the Government to work towards implementing an integrity commission that adheres to these key principles.

A federal anti-corruption commission or integrity commission is overwhelmingly supported by the Australian public that this parliament seeks to represent. According to polling from The Australia Institute, 80 per cent of those surveyed support the establishment of an anti-corruption commission, with only six per cent opposed to it. Two-thirds of people said they described lower levels of trust in the federal parliament and a third of respondents said that there were very low levels of trust.

Australians know that we desperately need an anti-corruption commission with broad jurisdiction to investigate and help prevent any serious or systematic abuse of entrusted power for private or political game, yet 12 months ago the government opposed a federal anti-corruption commission. With the support of the crossbench, the former member for Indi, Cathy McGowan, renewed the spotlight on the long-running campaign to make our federal leaders properly accountable and to ensure that they and we have the integrity of our decisions subject to full and proper scrutiny. Under growing pressure the government was convinced. Even if they have come to the party a little late, it's a welcome addition. I and my Centre Alliance colleagues also welcome the initial consultation of the government's proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission model, and we encourage the government to continue its public consultation as the model develops.

I recognise that we are in the early stages in the process and that we currently only have a broad outline of the government's proposed model for an integrity commission. However, what's on the table at the moment falls far short of a genuine, fully functional, independent anticorruption body—one with teeth. Centre Alliance is keen to work with government to make sure that we address these shortfalls.

The detail of this motion outlines the principles that Centre Alliance views as fundamental for an integrity commission to be effective at investigating and preventing corruption in the federal public sector, including the parliament and the ministry. All of the principles are crucially important. We want an anticorruption body with teeth, as I said, to help restore trust in our parliament and bring out the best in Australian democracy. I wish to focus on three of those principles in particular in my remaining time here today.

Firstly, the commission must be able to hold public hearings when the commissioner deems it appropriate. I have listened to the predictable howls that any public meeting will lead to a star chamber, the notorious English court of the early modern era. However, the key distinction is that unlike the Star Chamber, an anticorruption commission would only be able to make findings of fact and recommendations and would not be permitted to make findings of guilt. If a public hearing has a real or perceived threat to a person's reputation, that can easily be addressed by allowing an independent commissioner to determine on balance whether it is more appropriate for a public or private hearing to proceed. It should also be noted that the possible use of public hearings would not detract from the impartial, independent role of the judicial system to prosecute alleged offences. Where a person has a criminal case to answer, they will get their day in court.

Secondly, the commission needs to be able to initiate investigations itself, including by way of complaints directly from the public. That is why we need to have whistleblower protection even stronger in this place. If the government acts as a gatekeeper to investigations of corruption, the gate will only open when it suits them.

Thirdly, the commission needs to be adequately resourced in order to do its job properly. The current government budget appears only to be allocating $42 million a year to a commission, although Transparency International indicates that around $100 million a year is the quantum needed to ensure that we have a robust commission. While Centre Alliance is not wedded to a specific amount, suffice it to say that the commission should not be starved of funds.

So I say to the government that the Australian people will thank us if we can get this anticorruption commission right. Let us make it a true commission of integrity and ensure that it adheres to the practical and legal principles that would allow us to restore faith and hope in the integrity of our democracy.

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Do we have a seconder for the motion?

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

6:13 pm

Photo of Julian LeeserJulian Leeser (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Australia is one of the six oldest continuous democracies in the world. We have multiple mechanisms for keeping power in check and preventing corruption. We pride ourselves in this country on an independent judiciary and the benefit, as we know, of fair, regular, free elections and a robust and searching media that holds both elected officials and agencies to account. We have independent authorities and independent regulators. We have good reason to celebrate the health of our democracy.

But the work on greater transparency is always ongoing. In the last few years there's been significant investment in a range of mechanisms to deal with the prevention of corruption and fraud. In 2015 our government announced $127.6 million to establish the Serious Financial Crime Taskforce. The following year we committed an additional $15 million to the Fraud and Anti-Corruption Centre within the Australian Federal Police. In December 2016 we released our first National Action Plan under the Open Government Partnership. In 2018 we endorsed the second action plan, which, among other things, will enhance the transparency of political donations and funding and expand open contracting and due diligence in procurement.

The Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority was established in 2017, which strengthens public accountability about the expenses parliamentarians use. I think of the work that the intelligence and security committee has done in relation to the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, which provides a mechanism for registering when foreign agents and so on want to have an influence on the political process in this country.

In December last year the government announced that it would establish a Commonwealth Integrity Commission. That commission will enhance the existing integrity arrangements across the federal public sector and Commonwealth law enforcement agencies. If we're committed to meaningful measures to ensure corruption can't take root in our federal institutions, we need to make sure that we get the design of this commission right.

I'm from New South Wales. The experience of my state demonstrates that we need to approach this issue cautiously. The Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales has, by any measure, a mixed history. Under ICAC's watch Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald were able to misuse their positions, as members of parliament and ministers of the Crown, to carry out numerous corrupt actions, and ultimately they both went to jail.

Labor was in office for 16 years. During their years in office this corrupt conduct went unchecked despite the presence of ICAC in New South Wales. It wasn't until they'd actually left office that these men were pursued. Yet ICAC, through its processes of public shaming, managed to destroy the careers of two honest and upright premiers in Barry O'Farrell and Nick Greiner.

If someone's broken the law and acted improperly it's absolutely right that the law should catch up with them, that they should be punished. We need to ensure that our agencies have the necessary resources to investigate and prosecute when appropriate. However, we have got to be very careful that the Commonwealth Integrity Commission doesn't repeat the mistakes of ICAC, which can destroy a person's reputation even if that person is never ever prosecuted. It risks shaming and destroying the careers of good people while missing the mark on those who are genuinely corrupt.

Before ICAC was introduced, a Labor icon, the former New South Wales Treasurer, Michael Egan, warned about exactly this. He said, 'The government has no mandate to set up a star chamber. It has no mandate to deprive the citizens of this state of basic civil liberties such as a right to natural justice. It has no right to invade the confidentiality of proper solicitor-client relationships… It has no right to set up an "Australian gestapo", as the

President of the New South Wales Bar Association has aptly described it.'

These same words of caution should sound regarding the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. The motion that the member for Mayo has put forward suggests that a commission that has the potential to generate show trials, instead of doing the meaningful work of preventing corruption, risks undermining rather than enhancing public confidence in the process. A body with wideranging powers outlined by the member for Mayo would be a confused body and should pose very real questions about the separation of powers.

Public hearings do not enhance public confidence in our institutions in relation to these corruption commissions. Rather, they achieve the opposite. The suggestion of corruption when it's misplaced can undermine confidence in appropriately giving the public a belief that good leaders can't be trusted. A person's reputation built over a lifetime can be unfairly tarnished in an instant. Unfortunately, mud sticks. That's why in designing a new Commonwealth Integrity Commission it's important that we avoid the pitfalls of the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption.

6:18 pm

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to start by commending the member for Mayo for this motion. I agree with the member for Mayo that the majority of Australians would like better and more robust oversight of our Commonwealth public sector, and particularly our Commonwealth parliament.

There is something within this motion though that I have to question, because the motion starts by congratulating the government on its commitment to establishing a Commonwealth Integrity Commission. I have to question where that commitment actually is, because I haven't seen that commitment.

Just this week, Australians have again witnessed what can at best be described as questionable behaviour that a federal integrity body would have had the imprimatur to monitor and investigate. Within the LNP ranks, we've got the minister for energy who continues to refuse to answer questions about his meetings with the environmental department that involved his personal interests. Rather than answer to an inquiry, the minister and the Prime Minister, who is actively working to protect him, produced a letter written six months after a meeting and addressed to someone else to try to claim that the minister was not, in fact, acting for his own interests. I don't believe that the Australian people will be fooled by this. If we had a federal integrity body, we would not have to pursue these issues in parliament. A federal integrity body would have the mandate to fully investigate this mess. This government would like to hold others to account. We often hear them talk about the big stick. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what that 'big stick' means. But it doesn't seem that they're very good at holding themselves to account, unfortunately, because it's not just this week that has exposed possible breaches by this government. Over the past few months, we have seen scandal after scandal after scandal.

There is the awarding of a contract costing taxpayers almost a quarter of a billion dollars to Paladin Holdings in a closed tender process conducted behind closed doors. And when questions are asked about the issue, the response of the Minister for Home Affairs, who is responsible for this, is to refuse to comply with the Senate order to produce relevant documents. Apparently, this minister believes that Australians don't deserve to know exactly where their tax dollars are spent and whether such contracts represent value for money. Then there's what has become known as 'watergate'—the Australian version—again implicating the minister for energy and the former agricultural minister, who signed off on an $80 million purchase of water entitlements from a company of which the energy minister used to be a director and which is also a Liberal Party donor. And these are just a couple of examples of the double standards shown by this government time and time again. They are quick to use their judgement of others. They are quick to pull out their so-called big stick, particularly when it means they can distract us from what's going on in the coalition party room or behind closed doors.

It's pretty clear to me that this government is not serious about integrity. And I must say that I do not agree with the member for Berowra that the current suite of arrangements is adequate for ensuring oversight. Things like the Serious Financial Crime Taskforce and the fraud centre that the member mentioned, among others, just do not speak to the significant issue of the possibility of misconduct or corruption by Commonwealth employees and, particularly, by members of parliament. They just don't speak to that. We certainly do need a federal integrity body. As I said, a federal integrity body would be able to investigate and monitor the kinds of things that we have seen coming out of the LNP government over the past few months. If the government is actually serious about this, where's the legislation? Where is the legislation being pushed through as a matter of urgency this week before we adjourn? It is nowhere to be seen. I think it's very clear that this government is actually quite terrified of what a Commonwealth Integrity Commission could expose.

6:23 pm

Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of the member for Mayo's motion. As the member notes, both the government and opposition have publicly committed to establishing a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, thereby recognising and accepting the need for such a body. I congratulate both sides for their commitments, and I do note that, in the 2019-20 budget, the government allocated $104.5 million over four years to establish the commission. These are all steps in the right direction, because there have been a string of issues raising political integrity in recent years. They include the $444 million contract granted to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation without a tender or due diligence; a $420 million contract awarded to the unknown Paladin Group, again without tender or competition; past and present politicians helping Liberal Party donor Helloworld win a $1 billion contract for federal government travel; and the appointments of former politicians and ministerial staffers to the AAT by the government.

Meanwhile, Labor is also under fire for the influence of unions over its policy and direction. Members of the federal government have the opportunity for nepotism and favouritism in appointments and the granting of contracts, the misuse of confidential information, conflicts of interest, misuse of entitlements, decisions that favour political donors and crossover appointments between industry lobbying and parliament. Yet, there is no criminal sanction against any of these actions.

Currently, such conduct is self-regulated by parliament and rarely results in real action or investigation. Of 2,200 people surveyed by Griffith University in mid-2018, 62 per cent believed politicians were using their position to benefit themselves or family, and 56 per cent thought that they were favouring businesses and individuals in return for political donations or support. The results also show strong support for the creation of a federal anticorruption body, with two-thirds supporting the idea. The second National Integrity System Assessment produced by Griffith University and Transparency International Australia in April 2019 further confirms that trust in public institutions is under unprecedented pressure, much of it driven by concerns about corruption.

Australians have an expectation that the Australian parliament and public service meet the highest standard of integrity. We urgently need an effective, national anticorruption body, and the current government's proposal falls far short of what is needed. Sixteen of Australia's most senior judges have recently set out a model for what is needed. They say that a national anticorruption body must be an independent, well-resourced statutory authority with broad jurisdiction to investigate any conduct that undermines honest and impartial public administration. It must have the investigative powers of a royal commission—including the powers to hold public inquiries—and the powers to make findings of fact and referrals to the DPP. It must have appropriate parliamentary oversight. The former member for Indi proposed a national integrity commission along those lines.

Instead, the government has proposed a watered down version that is seriously flawed. Under the government's proposal, investigations would be limited: to criminal conduct only—not the conflict of interest, misleading conduct or secret deals that need to be stopped; to where there is a reasonable suspicion only, which, in legal terms, is so high a bar that nothing would be investigated; to public officials only—not the people attempting to influence them; and to referrals of the public agency itself, when most whistleblowing is from within an agency. These limitations mean that there would rarely, if ever, be a full inquiry. The ability to hold public hearings would be severely curtailed, even though the power of hearings that are held in public was clearly evident during the recent royal commissions, especially into the banking industry. Australia must have an anti-corruption body with real teeth. The government should take heed of the principles outlined in the motion and draft legislation accordingly.

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned. The resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.