Monday, 26 October 2020
Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill 2020; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
Every member here will have vivid memories of the first time they walked into this chamber as a new member of parliament. For me, it was the first time I felt the true depth of the duty to consider and debate robust laws, to measure up to the expectations of our individual constituents and to work hard to advance our democracy with respect, diligence and grace. These are the values I know all decent MPs hold dear as well.
It is an honour to introduce the Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill 2020. This bill will establish the Australian Federal Integrity Commission, or AFIC, as a new independent body responsible for the implementation of a national pro-integrity framework. The focus on pro-integrity, not anticorruption, is deliberate. This is a principles bill based on the robust Beechworth principles. It's also a consensus bill that is designed the be owned by all MPs who care about making a real contributions to the law reform that their constituents are crying out for. I have collaborated with MPs from across this parliament since February, when I sent individual letters inviting all MPs to work with me on this. Some of those MPs are here right now; some are watching from afar. All of those MPs should feel pride in and ownership of this bill.
This is the right bill for this parliament to debate. This is the right time for this parliament to have this debate. This bill would restore the public's trust, confidence and pride in the integrity of their MPs and their democracy. This is a bill that could define this 46th Parliament and us as parliamentarians.
The Australian Federal Integrity Commission will have appropriate powers of assessment, investigation and referral. This will enable clear and practical responses to allegations of serious and systemic corruption issues at the federal level in the public interest, backed by procedural fairness and whistleblower safeguards. AFIC will be empowered to receive and consider public referrals. It is absolutely vital that any Australian and all decent public servants have a reputable body they can trust with corruption concerns and that they'll be protected and supported as whistleblowers.
As a safeguard, the bill also includes statutory definitions for frivolous, vexatious or otherwise baseless claims. This empowers AFIC to vet referrals and collect information about perceptions of integrity at the same time. AFIC will work off a clear and sensible definition of 'corruption' that is fit for purpose. AFIC's purview will be broad when it comes to its pro-integrity work through education, prevention training, policy leadership and research.
When it comes to investigations and inquiries, AFIC must focus on conduct that is serious or systemic in nature, such as conduct that constitutes a criminal offence, grounds for dismissal or a substantial breach of an applicable code of conduct.
AFIC will also be empowered to hold public hearings when in the public interest. I have spoken at length with many MPs across the parliament about their views on public hearings, and I have incorporated numerous provisions in part 5 of this bill that assuage their concerns. All persons called to give evidence before AFIC will have a rolling right to request a private hearing and can present their reasons for this in private with the commissioner. The commissioner must base that decision on the comprehensive public interest test in section 86, which balances the overarching need for public accountability and transparency with qualitative factors, such as: objective advice from a new assistant commissioner for public interest about how serious or systemic the corruption issue is and how important it is to rectify it in Australia; the confidential nature of any evidence, such as a journalistic source; any unfair exposure of a person's private life or unfair prejudice to a personal reputation, even if by simple association with the commission by name; and whether the person is under the direct control of another, such as a junior staffer working for a minister. Witnesses will also have the same protections as those who appear before the High Court. I want to take a moment to expressly thank the member for Curtin who, as a former legal counsel and academic, contributed feedback and input into this critical public interest clause.
I also want to thank the member for Wide Bay for our constructive discussions and his contributions to sections 71 and 76, which will require AFIC and the relevant minister to publish a standalone report setting out the evidence that exonerates a person who's been through the AFIC process and ultimately cleared their name. These contributions are what make this bill special. They show how we can get this done together.
This bill strengthens natural justice and the rule of law. This bill does not apply new laws to past facts. If conduct was criminal at the time, it was criminal at the time. All integrity commissions at state level are retrospective. This bill is no different in that regard and allows AFIC to look into the past so we can learn from our mistakes and improve. This bill is the culmination of over a decade of prior consultation, over a decade of committing inquiries and over a decade of evaluations of the strengths and witnesses of the ICAC laws that exist in every jurisdiction in this country except this one.
A decade ago I was a nurse and a rural public health researcher in Wangaratta who cared about good outcomes for good people. I have not changed since then, and I bring that same passion to this bill. In a recent town hall meeting where I shared this bill with my constituents, one attendee put it bluntly. They said: 'We are the people, and it seems like the people have been designated to last place, scribbled in on the last page in the catalogue of what really matters in our democracy. We need to be able to trust and feel secure in our government. We need this bill to pass.'
This bill and the push for debate on this bill has the endorsement of some of the finest legal minds from the High Court, Federal Court and Supreme Courts across this nation. As put by the honourable Margaret White, the former Judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland and the first woman to claim such a title:
When it is established, for surely it will be as no right-thinking person could resist the principles which underpin it, it will elevate Australian public life immeasurably.
This is the right bill for this parliament to debate. This is the right time for this parliament to have this debate. This is the bill our constituents are calling upon us to pass. This issue will define this parliament and us as parliamentarians. I commend this bill to the House, and I thank my colleagues from across this floor who support debate and who support the ultimate passage of this bill.
I second the motion moved by the member for Indi. In the remaining time, I would like to say over 80 per cent of Australians support that we have a federal integrity watchdog. It is well over time. States and territories all have one, and it would be wrong to assume that the same need is not here at a federal level.
All sides of politics claim to support that there be a Federal Integrity Commission, but the Australian people have seen little action. In the last six months, we've seen many legislations pass this parliament, and it is well overdue that we now have some accountability over our governance. There has been a disregard or a carelessness to accountability and good governance in the last few years. That is dangerous and, I would say, an insult to the Australian people. It is well over time that we, this parliament, put in place a body that can ensure public funds and public actions are for the good of the Australian people and that we have a national body that investigates corruption and integrity.
The SPEAKER: The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.