House debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2022


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

4:19 pm

Photo of Patrick GormanPatrick Gorman (Perth, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

This government is committed to integrity, honesty and accountability. In 2007 it was a Labor government that introduced the standards of ministerial ethics, introduced reforms to ensure that cabinet documents were made available to the public in a more timely fashion and introduced long overdue reforms to freedom of information, led by then senator Faulkner.

In 2022, it is again a Labor government which has the responsibility to introduce a higher standard of the code of conduct for ministers and their staff. Now we take the next step in introducing a National Anti-Corruption Commission. This is meaningful action to drive out corruption. It's something that was promised by the coalition but delivered today by Labor. We know that corruption can be devastating for our society. It enables serious and organised crime, it harms individuals, it harms our society, it harms our economy, it damages our national security, it destroys the vital trust that we need in institutions and it eats away at that fundamental Australian value of democracy.

During my time in this place I have always found it very strange that when I go and sit alongside local councillors at a citizenship ceremony in the City of Bayswater, those councillors are under a more stringent anticorruption regime than I am as a federal member of parliament. When it comes to finally getting to that point where we harmonise across the states and territories so that all levels of government are under an anticorruption regime—that is a good thing and it is well and truly overdue.

We aren't just putting the legislation into this parliament. We have already committed the funds necessary to make sure that this is a powerful watchdog with teeth. If you look at the funding allocated—$262.6 million to fund the National Anti-Corruption Commission—that is actually an investment in making sure that taxpayers get value for money out of all of the decisions that are made by government. To make sure that this is a strong, effective and independent body there is annual funding of $67.4 million from 2026-27. This will secure the National Anti-Corruption Commission as an independent statutory agency; one with a broad jurisdiction to investigate allegations of serious or systematic corruption across the Commonwealth public sector.

I'll remark again that I am so disappointed that some people have chosen to use this debate, of all debates, to attack the public servants who serve us so well. They weren't just junior members of the opposition backbench; they were people who'd previously served as Acting Prime Minister. They chose to use this debate to attack the public servants, the vast majority of whom work incredibly hard doing so much for our country, trying to do the right thing in developing and delivering policy that improves the lives of all Australians. This should be a debate where we actually praise our public sector, where we say thank you for giving us the strong institutions which we rely upon, and I, again, say thank you to our public servants for all of the work that they do.

When we talk about scope, again, this will cover the entire public sector of the Commonwealth. It will include federal ministers, federal parliamentarians, staff, statutory officeholders, government entities staff, companies and contractors. It will cover any person who adversely affects or could adversely affect the honest or impartial exercise of a public official's functions. In that sense it enables government. It enables the public to have confidence in the decisions that are made. It enables those many tens of thousands of public servants—who do the right thing by the taxpayers of Australia every day—to have confidence in doing their job professionally and well and in accordance with the law.

Importantly for the construction of this bill—and it is a hefty piece that's on the table just there—it was constructed in consultation with a range of experts. It was also done in consultation with the parliament itself. Again, I want to thank the committee members who were involved in reviewing this legislation and who have recommended improvements to this bill, drawing upon their experiences and, indeed, the long march that many people have been on in looking for this to finally get to the floor of the parliament in 2022. As the Prime Minister has highlighted today, it is so important that it is the decision of the commission as to where they choose to investigate. The commission and commissioners will have the discretion to commence investigations on their own initiative, as well as on the basis of referrals from anyone. Any Australian citizen will be able to make a referral to the National Anti-Corruption Commission, making sure that this truly empowers the citizens of Australia. It will have the power to investigate conduct that occurred before its establishment. It will hold public hearings where there is a public interest and in exceptional circumstances—again, not a decision for anyone here; a decision for the independent commissioners—and will have the funding, as I mentioned before, to ensure it has the staff capabilities and technical capabilities to do its job properly.

What we all want is for this commission to be able to consider those referrals, initiate timely investigations and undertake corruption prevention and education activities. I think it's really important, and the legislation and the explanatory memorandum outline this, that the National Anti-Corruption Commission will not simply be an investigator; it will also be an educator, committed to that big project of raising the standard of our public administration, because promoting anticorruption best practice is as important as stamping out corruption where it is happening—we know that prevention is better than cure—and providing valuable information and insight into corruption so that decision-makers and policymakers can make better informed decisions about how we design policy to prevent or in some cases identify corrupt practices.

What's also important is that we note, as I outlined earlier, corruption doesn't just have a cost in dollars; it has a cost in what it does to our society, and in some places corruption enables serious organised crime. That's why the preventative functions of the National Anti-Corruption Commission will allow it to investigate the existing vulnerabilities in the public sector, the sorts that criminals may seek to exploit or may indeed be exploiting today. The National Anti-Corruption Commission will be able to consider measures that can be implemented further to stop such corruption from occurring, and in doing so it will draw upon a growing set of expertise that exists across Australian academia, the public sector and the private sector, where we are becoming regarded as a leader in anticorruption work, but starting to do that coordination piece across the agencies of states and territories. The existing agencies cover some parts of our public sector, and now this great coordinating agency will be able to lead at a national level.

Thinking about how this fits into broader efforts from the government to restore integrity to our national government, I've already mentioned the strongest code of conduct for ministers that has ever been in place for any Australian government in history, but we're also working across the parliament to implement the Set the Standard report to ensure Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces are safe and respectful. We're looking at ways to increase the transparency and integrity of political donations in Australian federal election processes, and we've already taken steps to ensure that processes for appointments to key independent institutions are transparent and merit based. For too long, Australians were without a government they could be proud of. They had a government they felt they could not trust. This is about restoring that trust not in a particular government but in the institution of government.

I do note an integrity commission will not stop every bad decision, and it will not guarantee that every government decision will be a good one. No Western Australian will ever forget the decision Prime Minister Morrison made in the middle of the COVID crisis to support Clive Palmer against the people of Western Australia in the High Court—not corrupt, but a terrible decision, which was made through the coalition cabinet. A number of people who helped make that decision and backed that decision now sit on the frontbench of the opposition. The entire weight of the Commonwealth's legal resources was thrown behind Clive Palmer in that case. Over three days they called multiple witnesses and vigorously cross-examined Western Australia's public health experts, and when they finally agreed to give up, what did they do? They signed a cheque for a million dollars to cover Clive Palmer's legal fees—like I said, not something that would necessarily instantly draw itself to being examined by this body but the sort of thing that shows you that no anticorruption body can save a bad government from bad decisions.

If I think about some of those bad decisions, I go into a range of areas. I think about the broken promises to not cut the ABC, the broken promises when it came to putting in penalties for wage theft and the broken promises to act on climate change. That ties it back to what we are doing today because, in fact, this legislation delivers on something that the Australian people were promised in 2018. It was a promise of the then Attorney-General, the member for Pearce, that this legislation would be put in, should they be re-elected in 2019, and then nothing happened for three years. Again, in restoring the faith that people should have in government, it is important that we get this legislation done. It is important that we get this legislation done now so that we can allow that commission to start doing the work that is so long overdue in restoring integrity and restoring trust in government.

4:30 pm

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

I rise to speak in support of the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022, and I move:

That the following words be added after "protections":

"; and:

(3) notes that the exceptional circumstances requirement for hearings to be heard in public is likely to lead to very few investigation hearings being held in public and is not in line with the public expectation of increased accountability and transparency".

This bill goes a long way to addressing one of the most important issues influencing the shape of Australian politics today. The crossbench has long campaigned for prioritising a federal integrity commission, and I'm glad that the government has made good on its election promise to create such a body and to ensure both that it has teeth and it has the power to investigate retrospectively.

We need this bill because at present, until the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the closest thing we have to an integrity commission is the Auditor-General's office—a body in the past few years which has questioned a long list of scandals including: car park rorts, the sports rorts scandal and the Leppington land sale of Sydney's second airport to name just a few. As a result of these scandals, public trust in Australian politicians and in our democracy is declining at a rapid rate. We need a National Anti-Corruption Commission to uphold standards of integrity, and demonstrate that our democracy is robust and people can trust us.

Importantly, this bill has the potential to create a serious National Anti-Corruption Commission. It will have broad jurisdiction to investigate public sector corruption. It will provide for prevention and education to bolster anticorruption measures. It will have retrospective powers. It will have the ability to hold public hearings, although limited—and, as such, the reason for my amendment. It will have the ability to initiate its own investigations and take referrals from the public and the parliament. It will be overseen by a parliamentary joint committee and an inspector. It's a good bill, but it can be improved.

The crossbench are again leading the charge to make this bill better. In several respects I believe it does not go far enough, and I will speak to these areas where I believe it is deficient. There are several issues. The first, and I believe the most critical, are the limitations on public hearings, the definition of 'corrupt conduct' and the identity of the chair of the parliamentary joint committee. I'm also concerned about the independent funding for the commission and the absence of a whistleblower protection commissioner. These two issues are far-reaching and important, and will probably need to be the subject of separate legislation, but I want to flag that without them I consider the proposed commission comes up far too short. I'm also concerned about referrals from parliament, as well as the need to set parameters for the timing of reports to ensure that the commission hands down reports in a timely way, for legal professional privilege and for opportunities to respond to findings of corruption.

Opinion polling and public commentary as well as electoral trends all indicate that the public feels strongly that legislation of this kind is needed. The government, in its explanatory memorandum, states:

The NACC Bill would strengthen corruption prevention across the Commonwealth government, by enabling the NACC to undertake public inquiries and provide advice on corruption risks and vulnerabilities and strategies to address them.

These aims are laudable, but I think the government's bill fails to achieve this in three major respects.

Firstly, I consider that corruption prevention is seriously constrained by forcing the commissioner to limit public hearings to where he or she decides there are exceptional circumstances. There are three main objections to the inclusion of this threshold. The first is that the word 'exceptional' is an uncertain requirement, which would encourage challenge in a court of law. I agree with the Centre for Public Integrity that this could be exploited by well-resourced litigants to both delay commission investigations and obtain knowledge of the material that the commission has against them. This is hardly likely to 'strengthen corruption prevention', to use the government's own words. The second objection is that no Australian jurisdiction other than Victoria has adopted this approach. In its submission to the parliamentary inquiry, the Victorian IBAC has stated that it believes this is an unnecessary hurdle which has hampered it in carrying out its role. The IBAC submission pointed out:

… the Victorian Court of Appeal has determined that, for circumstances to be 'exceptional' under s 117 of the IBAC Act, they must be 'clearly unusual and distinctly out of the ordinary' compared with the allegations of corrupt conduct ordinarily investigated by IBAC. This has had the effect of placing an artificial limit on IBAC's ability to conduct examinations in public.

Thirdly, if the concern is that public hearings may unfairly damage a person's reputation, I would point to the proposed section 73 of the bill, which already lists, amongst the matters which the commissioner may take into account in deciding whether to hold a hearing in public, 'any unfair prejudice to a person's reputation, privacy, safety or wellbeing that would be likely to be caused if the hearing, or the part of the hearing, were to be held in public'. Having taken this into account, I strongly agree with the Centre for Public Integrity that having to consider whether there are exceptional circumstances on top of that, on top of the public interest, is an unnecessary and inappropriate further hurdle.

Secondly, I have serious concerns about the definition of corrupt conduct. I support the amendment proposed by the member for Indi:

Corrupt conduct is also any conduct of any person (whether or not a public official) that impairs, or that could impair, public confidence in public administration and which could involve any of the following matters …

And the proposed amendment goes on to list a number of matters. I strongly agree with the Centre for Public Integrity that, without this additional wording, the legislation would be inferior to that of all other Australian jurisdictions other than WA and Tasmania. I note that the government has said that other conduct that could adversely affect public administration, such as external fraud, will continue to be dealt with by existing integrity agencies such as the Australian Federal Police. However, I agree, again, with the Centre for Public Integrity that focus on individual criminal acts and actors may cause an anticorruption commission to miss the forest for the trees and may therefore militate against 'strengthening corruption prevention', the very lofty goal of the government's own explanatory memorandum.

Thirdly, I'm very concerned at the fact that the chair of the parliamentary joint committee must be a member of the government. Since the chair will have a casting vote, I'm concerned about the effect on the independence of the committee. I believe that the chair must not be a member of a political party that forms part of the government. I support the amendment proposed by the member for Indi to that effect. This is an opportunity for the government to be bigger than politics. With all the rhetoric and all the words that have been said in the public domain about wanting to improve trust in government and improve trust in politics, this is an opportunity to truly be multipartisan and establish a joint committee that will ensure independence. It is so incredibly important for the Australian public to have trust that this is done to the utmost degree, and here is an opportunity for the government to step up to the plate.

Next, I turn to the two issues which I mentioned earlier are also of great importance but which have wider-ranging implications and which justify consideration for separate legislation. The first is the need for independent funding of the commission. While I note that the parliamentary joint committee must report to both houses of the parliament on whether the commission has sufficient funding and whether its budget should be increased, I agree with the Centre for Public Integrity and other members of this place that this gives no long-term security for the commission. The centre has proposed a model which would set up an independent funding tribunal, which would oversee the annual budgets of key accountability institutions, including the commission. I commend the work done by the centre in this respect and consider that this proposal should be the subject of separate and more detailed consideration by the parliament.

Secondly, there is the need for a whistleblower protection commissioner. I welcome the fact that part 5 of the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill allows any person to refer a corruption issue to the commissioner and provides that under certain circumstances heads of Commonwealth agencies, including intelligence agencies, must refer certain corruption issues to the commissioner. However, I note that the anticorruption bills introduced by the crossbench in 2018 and 2020, including by the member for Indi, would have established a whistleblower protection commissioner. Such a body is absent from the government's draft legislation. I refer to the joint statement of support for the commission signed by me and 14 other crossbenchers and to its call that the bill should include provision for a whistleblower protection commissioner. Given that the bill fails to do so, I believe that this should be further addressed and discussed by the parliament in separate legislation to be considered and proposed.

Finally, there are other issues on which amendments will be proposed at the consideration in detail stage. In summary, the first of these is that the commission should be obliged to deal with corruption issues referred to it by the houses of parliament. This would be an exception to the discretion which the commission would otherwise have as to whether or not to deal with corruption issues referred to it. This is a place where we represent our communities and the Australian people and, if it were determined in this place that a matter needed to be investigated by the commission, I believe it is appropriate that that should occur.

Secondly, I believe that the commissioner should have discretion in deciding whether or not to hear in private evidence that would disclose legal advice or a communication protected by legal professional privilege. I agree with the Centre for Public Integrity that to make this mandatory would be to leave it open to well-funded litigants to exploit this right, with the effect of delaying or disrupting the commission's work.

Thirdly, I believe that there must be a time limit on the opportunity for a person or entity that is the subject of a critical finding by the commission to respond to that finding. Currently it's stated to be 'a reasonable time', but I think that this should be changed to 'three months or such longer period as is determined by the commissioner'. We should not have a situation where persons investigated indefinitely delay the conclusion of an investigation by not providing that response.

Lastly, I believe the provisions relating to the requirement for and timing of tabling of investigation reports in parliament where public hearings have been held in respect of an investigation should be extended to all investigations, whether hearings have been held in public or in private. The Australian public want to know if investigations are being held, and they want to know the outcome of those investigations. At the moment, there is much too much provision in this bill that keeps it behind closed doors and provides a standard for politicians that is wholly different to what the rest of the public gets.

There should also be a time limit of 12 months for the tabling of a report after the last hearing is held, because as we see in numerous jurisdictions—I look at New South Wales, where it's been over 12 months without any report in relation to the investigation into the previous Premier of New South Wales—delay in reporting leaves a cloud of uncertainty over a person for an unreasonable amount of time. I think it is incredibly important that the legislation provide direction and a time limit of 12 months for the tabling of such reports.

Ultimately, I strongly support the establishment of a National Anti-Corruption Commission, along with many members of this crossbench and of this parliament. We know the public have had enough and they want to see government, politicians and third parties held to account. I strongly urge the government to consider the 2022 election outcomes and the strong community support for returning integrity, accountability and transparency to government. This can be done by accepting amendments proposed to better this legislation. Otherwise, it's disappointing. It's a good bill but not a great bill, and it is one that may well fail to deliver what Australians so clearly want: a return to transparency, accountability and integrity in Australian politics.

Photo of Maria VamvakinouMaria Vamvakinou (Calwell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Dai Le (Fowler, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment.

4:45 pm

Photo of Tony ZappiaTony Zappia (Makin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to say a few words in respect of this legislation, the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 and the associated bill. Confidence in public administration, including in government, the parliamentary system, politics and politicians, is at an all-time low in Australia. We often speak with pride about Australian democracy, in particular of having a democratic political process. However, even democracy can be corrupted, as we have seen within Australia on too many occasions and as has been exposed by state and territory integrity commissions and other government initiated inquiries in the past.

Whilst corruption is often seen more so as a problem in overseas countries, the reality is that it can occur anywhere and it can take many forms. To quote Bono, someone who is well known as a musician:

The worst disease in the world today is corruption. And there is a cure: transparency.

Transparency is best served when there is nothing to hide, and that is more likely to occur when those holding positions of authority and power are themselves open to oversight and scrutiny.

That is exactly what this legislation does, and it is long overdue. Importantly, it should restore public trust in government and government departments. This legislation has been extensively and intensively scrutinised, perhaps more so than most other legislation that comes before this parliament. It also draws on years of experience of existing state and territory anticorruption commissions. Indeed, in my time in this parliament, I don't recall any legislation that has been scrutinised as much as this bill. The reality is discussion about this legislation has now been ongoing for five or six years, in the lead-up to this last election and before that, when there was discussion about the previous government's legislation.

Interestingly, in looking at this legislation and at the comparisons with the state jurisdiction legislation, it is notable there is a scarcity of overseas comparisons we can draw on. In that respect, it would be fair to say that Australia is possibly a leading country in the establishment of anticorruption commissions. That in itself is nothing to be proud of because it implies, perhaps, that we have a problem with corruption in this country, but the reality is it's more so the case that we want to ensure in this country that we don't have corruption, and that's why we have taken the initiative here in the federal parliament. States and territories did so earlier in their own jurisdictions for that very reason—to prevent corruption from occurring.

This legislation went to a joint select committee of this parliament, for it to look into the legislation in detail and to call for public submissions in respect of it. It was interesting that we were presented with a very wide range of diverse opinions from interested parties, each of whom were able to share their very personal understanding and experiences of dealing with corrupt matters. It wasn't simply a case of looking at submissions from people who had an opinion or a point of view; it was a case of looking at submissions from people who had had direct experience in dealing with matters of corruption, and, in some cases, from people who were in fact investigated. That enabled the committee, in my view, to look at the legislation in a much more precise way than would otherwise normally occur when we as a parliament establish committees and the committees look at submissions that are based on opinion more than fact. But, in particular, the committee heard from commissioners of the state and territory anticorruption commissions that have been in place, in some cases, for many, many years. In doing so, the committee was able to draw on the experience of anticorruption commissioners that had actually gone through all of the issues that are often raised and that have been raised in the course of this very debate.

I also note, and I stress this point, that the committee also heard from Jaala Hinchcliffe, who is the current commissioner for the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, or ACLEI. That is an agency that has now been in place for about 15 years, operating at the federal level under very similar guidelines to what this legislation proposes for the National Anti-Corruption Commission. And I come to this debate having had the privilege of serving on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement, which is the committee that oversees the work of that agency. So I have seen a federal anticorruption commission in operation, from the perspective of being a member of that committee. Again, when I look at this legislation, it's through the eyes of someone who has had the benefit of that experience, which others may not have had.

In the course of the joint select committee hearings, I noted that there were some amendments proposed that were ultimately adopted by the government. There were a number of suggestions made, in good faith, by people who had made submissions, that they believed would make the legislation just that little bit better. There were a lot of very good submissions, I have to say, but I want to refer to one in particular, which talked about a range of matters but focused on the issue of private and public hearings, which is one of the issues that seem to be the most contentious from what I hear from other members in respect of this proposed legislation. That comes from Mr Bruce McClintock SC.

Mr McClintock was the inspector of the New South Wales ICAC between 2017 and 2022. He is currently the inspector of the Northern Territory ICAC. But he has also been in the position, in 2005, where he conducted an inquiry into the New South Wales ICAC itself, and then he looked at the New South Wales legislation in 2015 as part of another inquiry. He's a person who has had an incredible amount of experience in actually overseeing how these commissions should and could work. With respect to the issue of public and private hearings and how well the agencies work, he made this point, which I think goes to the crux of what we need to be conscious of when we're looking at this legislation:

… ultimately the quality of these agencies—

he's referring to anticorruption agencies—

depends upon the people who are appointed by the government to run them. If you appoint a zealot to run an agency like ICAC, you'll have problems …

…   …   …   

Ultimately, you have to appoint the right people and trust them to get on with the job. If you appoint the wrong people it won't matter what's in the legislation …

I believe that that comment really sums up the situation as I see it, from the perspective of having watched a number of state based commissions operate over the years and also from the ACLEI committee hearings in Canberra.

It seems to me—and, again, I rely on all those experiences—this legislation gets the balance right. While the amendments that the government has taken on board, I believe, make some improvement to it, broadly speaking, the legislation from the outset was well structured and drew on the shortfalls and problems that had been highlighted from within those other commissions. This legislation, in my view, ensures that through the consultation period and by listening to all of those who made submissions based on the advice of people like Mr McClintock that it will get the effectiveness, the fairness and the public confidence restored as a result. It is much more likely to be effective if we get the right person in the role than anything else.

The parliamentary committee did make some recommendations in respect to the protection of journalists, the remit of the inspector, the commission's ability to initiate its own inquiries, permitting the disclosure of information to medical practitioners, removing the wording 'corruption of any other kind' in paragraph 8(1)(e), and informing a person of the outcome of the investigations. It also picked up on three recommendations from the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

I want to go to the issue of private and public hearings. It was clear to me from the evidence presented to the committee that there was overwhelming support from those experts in the field and those in the best position to know that private hearings is the way to go, other than in those exceptional circumstances—albeit that the wording has now been taken out. There might be occasions when a public hearing might be appropriate but, generally speaking, private hearings were supported, overwhelmingly, by those experts. And there is good reason for that, as other members have spoken about in this debate and highlighted. In particular, the legislation makes clear that the commissioner's role is to conduct an investigation. The second sentence in the very first paragraph of the explanatory memorandum says:

The NACC would be an independent agency that would investigate and report on serious or systemic corruption in the Commonwealth public sector, refer evidence of criminal corrupt conduct for prosecution, and undertake education and prevention activities regarding corruption.

The fact that it is an investigation makes it very, very different to other inquiries and certainly very different to a royal commission, which I have heard some people try to compare it with. It is not a royal commission; it is an investigation, and it is different to other public inquiries that are held from time to time. Indeed, there is no other government investigative agency that conducts public hearings. I can say that, over the past 15 years, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity has never conducted a public hearing. Yet, in the time I have been a member of the committee that oversees that commission, I have never once seen anyone approach the committee and say, 'We need to change this and have those hearings in public.' We have never received anything of the sort, which, to me, suggests that there were no problems with the way that agency was conducting its responsibilities.

The critical thing that was also raised with respect to public hearings was this: if a public hearing is held then the evidence or the statements made at the public hearing may very well interfere with a possible prosecution that might follow from the investigation if a prosecution is recommended by the commissioner by the end of the investigation and that in itself would undermine the whole purpose of the anti-corruption commission.

I would like to go into many of the other matters. But, just in summing up, this legislation has been not only widely discussed out there but scrutinised by some of the best legal minds in this country. Whilst I accept that there are some minor changes that might make it a little bit better, at the end of the day it will only be when the legislation is in place and a commissioner appointed that we'll see how well it functions. At that point, if there have to be any other minor amendments, then so be it. But I suspect that, right here and now, the legislation as it stands is the way to go.

5:00 pm

Dai Le (Fowler, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the National Anti-Corruption Commission legislation currently before the house. Corruption has occurred in the past in all political parties, and, for this reason, the Australian public wants to see action now. To preserve the integrity of our democracy, it is important that we get it right. In a recent investigation by the New South Wales ICAC into political donations to the Labor Party, two men committed suicide because they were none the wiser about their involvement and could not fathom prosecution for a corrupt activity they believed they were innocent of.

One was a director at a building developer company, Wu International, who tragically took his own life prior to giving evidence at the inquiry. Based on a Sydney Morning Herald report, the deceased man was visited by two ICAC officers who delivered a summons for his compulsory private hearing on 25 June 2018. That visit, according to the suicide note he left his family, triggered memories of what happened to his father in China, who was interrogated by China's police and ended up in jail. According to the story, the man told his wife and daughter that he didn't want them to be associated with a criminal, even though he stated in his suicide note that he was not found guilty at the time of writing the letter to his family. He also seemed traumatised by the ICAC officers turning up on his doorstep, as well as by being told not to discuss his summons with any family member. As he stated in his suicide note:

They told me not to discuss it with any family member; in reality I have also chosen not to tell you either, to prevent you having to worry about it …

The note was translated into English in the report. A father and a husband, this director had no-one to turn to, no support to help him with his mental anguish, and I have no doubt of his feeling of shame and loss of face.

While I strongly support any measures that reduce corrupt conduct, the investigations cannot result in people feeling such pressure that it will lead them to take their own life. We need to be cognisant of the repercussions of such public investigations on the lives of people, especially when it comes to witnesses—and witnesses who are of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds—who are not the perpetrators but who come before the commission to provide their account and are there to assist with the inquiry. A cultural lens needs to be adopted because the issues of shame and loss of face weigh heavily in some communities.

The corruption inquiry into donations to the New South Wales Labor Party and those of other political parties put many faces to the corrupt conduct of those who donated and those who handled the money, and it damaged the reputations of those associated with the process. But who really were the guilty people? Who has been found to be really corrupt? Are they still in the system? We know all too well the name of Eddie Obeid, who's currently in jail serving time for his corrupt conduct during his time in the New South Wales parliament. But surely there are more. And what happened to the individual dubbed 'the $100,000 man', who provided the cash in an Aldi bag? How did he influence the Labor Party? Who benefited from the $100,000 donations? Who were the main beneficiaries of his donations? Who else did he influence? What happened to him and the people who donated to the major parties? Has this ICAC investigation fixed our political system? Has it made it any better?

Restoring trust in politics and politicians will take more than an ICAC inquiry, which brings with it huge sensationalist public scrutiny—as well as damaging reputations for decades to come—or, in the case of the two suicides connected to the New South Wales ICAC, leads to loss of life. We need our democratic institutions to operate effectively, with purpose, accountability and transparency, and to earn the trust and confidence of the Australian people. If you walk along the streets and talk to people, it has become general knowledge, unless of course you live under a rock, that among the professions least trusted by Australians are government ministers and politicians in general—just above used-car salespersons and lobbyists.

A study by the Australian National University in January 2022 found that a little more than three in 10 Australians, or 34.5 per cent, had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the federal government. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2019 Australian Election Study found trust in government reached its lowest level on record, with just one in four Australians saying they had confidence in their political leaders and institutions. ICAC in New South Wales and similar bodies have tried to bring back integrity and accountability to our political system and processes through public inquiries and scrutiny, but I doubt if it has restored the trust that many of us now holding public office desire.

There are high expectations of what the National Anti-Corruption Commission will achieve once it is established, and rightly so. Trust in our elected representatives is low with the Australian public. I hope what we're trying to achieve in this House with this bill is small steps towards restoring our public's faith in our political processes and people. This is why I will be proposing amendments to enhance the work of the commission in trying to weed out corruption within our political processes. Having a solid understanding of how to engage respectfully and effectively with our culturally diverse communities will enable the commission to eventually get to the bottom of finding out the real culprits involved in corrupt behaviour. Investigators need to be trained and mindful of how to engage with CALD communities to get the maximum benefit from their investigations, while ensuring we do not face future tragic outcomes.

I applaud the effort that has gone into constructing this bill, with the leadership of the member for Indi, and the consultation which has seen community groups and multiple sectors contribute to the committee's report on the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The government should be commended for recognising the importance of this bill and for their willingness to cooperate with the crossbench to give this bill the robust debate it deserves and hear from all sides of the chamber. But I feel it is my duty to raise concerns about the potential harm the bill will cause in the lives of some multicultural communities and individuals from culturally diverse backgrounds across the country if we don't put in place measures to create a culture of inclusivity within the commission and assist people to participate in providing evidence or have dialogues with the commission and investigators, without resorting to self-harm.

You have heard my story, showed empathy about my struggles and welcomed me as a migrant and refugee who left war-torn Vietnam, dreaming of a better future. I stand in this House, the people's house, not just representing the diverse electorate of Fowler but also as a voice for multicultural Australia. I stand here in the chamber and can speak English. Unfortunately, not all migrants and not all Australians are afforded the same opportunity to the English language. There are many communities across the nation that primarily speak a language other than English, and it is because of these barriers that these communities are targeted by corrupt individuals looking to use them in their corrupt activities.

In recent years, to advance their own corrupt agenda, political parties have used and taken advantage of Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who do not understand our political system. The most widely known example is branch stacking. You saw it in Victoria; you've seen it in New South Wales; and, if you are a member of certain political parties, you probably have watched it unfold before you. It happens more often than not. It is something that happens all the time, but it is rarely spoken about because of the possible backlash, the bomb it could throw on one's career. In addition to branch stacking, political parties see multicultural communities as walking ATMs, and they are regularly used as fundraising tools during election campaigns. Some multicultural groups and communities feel that donating funds to political parties is the only way to have a say and make a contribution to the political process—a belief that's reinforced by corrupt individuals seeking to further their political agenda.

You may be wondering how this relates to vulnerable and marginalised communities and how it relates to this bill. It is multicultural communities who are targeted in these campaigns for power by individuals wishing to climb the political ladder, often at their expense. Often it involves some cash and signing on the dotted line to become a member of a party you do not believe in or really understand anything about. In my mind, undoubtedly this is a form of corruption as financial incentives are used to gain power. But in a cultural context maybe someone is only asking a relative for a favour. Is it a favour or is it corruption? Where do the lines cross? When summoned to a corruption investigation most people will not understand that they are simply participating in an investigation. It is almost as if you are being charged for a crime and you have no idea what the crime you committed was.

Since my election to office, I have had dozens of constituents walk into my office, with jury summons or government correspondence, to seek help to translate because they themselves cannot understand what is being asked of them. It is, therefore, in my proposed amendments that the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill include provisions for translation services, both in the process of summoning an individual and during the commission's process. This will reduce the risk of trauma caused by language barriers and allow linguistically diverse Australians to participate in the commission's processes in an efficient manner.

The job of the commission is to investigate corruption, but, from my perspective, we still live in a society that upholds the belief of innocence until proven guilty. The potential mental health impacts of being summoned before the commission can cause lasting trauma, especially if the person in question does not have a support network and is unable to speak about the investigation in public due to the confidential nature of the commission's work.

I urge both sides of the chamber to support my amendments, including providing mental health and support services to individuals who seek help through a qualified social support worker or a qualified health practitioner, along with provisions to protect the disclosure of any information discussed between a person and a support person to the commission. Over recent years, our nation has seen firsthand the impact of mental health and its long impacts on Australians.

I hope my amendments, which I will move in the consideration in detail stage, will be adopted by the House to ensure Australians can trust they will be supported during the commission's process by the commission offering the necessary support. It will reduce the trepidation a person, especially those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, may experience. It may even encourage individuals to be more cooperative throughout the process.

5:12 pm

Photo of Alicia PayneAlicia Payne (Canberra, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased today to rise to speak on this historic bill—National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022—to establish a National Anti-Corruption Commission for Australia. This bill will fulfil an important election promise to legislate this Anti-Corruption Commission with the teeth. It will end the years of inaction that we saw under the previous government, who made a promise but failed to deliver on it in that term.

This is an important measure that many people in our community care a lot about. When I talk to people in the electorate that I represent this is something that they're very passionate about, because people want to see the people who represent them in this place held accountable. They want to trust in our democracy. Where we see corruption, and people able to get away with it, it undermines trust in our democracy and it undermines trust in our politicians. As we know, trust in our politicians and our system is continuing to decline and this is something incumbent on all of us in this place to address. Obviously, most people who wish to represent their community want to do so in an honest and transparent way and really want to serve their communities in this place. This measure is important in ensuring that that trust with the community is upheld. I am very pleased that this has been one of the first priorities of the Albanese Labor government.

I want to commend the fantastic work that the Attorney-General, the Prime Minister and the whole team have done. I also want to thank the committee that have looked at this bill and recommended some amendments, which were agreed across the different representatives of different parties on that committee, and, as we should, we are listening to those. We put it to that committee in order to get the best possible bill. We want all members of this parliament to support this National Anti-Corruption Commission. I want to commend their work.

As I said, trust in government and our public institutions has plummeted in the past few years. Transparency International's corruption perception index saw Australia fall 12 points and its ranking drop from seventh to 18th; we actually went from 14th to 18th in the last year alone. The Economist democracy index also recorded a similar drop, with Australia going from sixth in 2012 to ninth this year. This bill will help stop this rot and restore faith in politics by bringing accountability, integrity and a higher standard to public office.

Australians had to listen to three years of excuses under the previous government before it finally gave up and admitted it would not deliver on its promise to establish a national anticorruption commission. The election results show that this meant a lot to the Australian public; they did not forget that promise and the fact that it was not delivered on. They were fed up with broken promises, cronyism, dodgy deals, secrecy, a ministerial code of conduct that was broken with impunity and a government-wide contempt for the truth. We've seen a change of government, and I'm proud this is high on our list of priorities. We are absolutely committed to this bill and governing in the country's interest, not only in our own. Australians have waited long enough. They want and deserve better.

This bill will empower the National Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate serious or systemic corrupt conduct across the Commonwealth public sector. It will have the power to probe ministers, parliamentarians and their staff, statutory officeholders, employees of all government entities and government contractors. It will have discretion to start inquiries of its own initiative or in response to referrals from anybody who wishes to make one. It will be able to investigate both criminal and noncriminal corrupt conduct, and there will be no limit to how far back in time it can go to seek out and stamp out corruption.

The definition of 'corrupt conduct' will be key to the commission's jurisdiction. It is key because it is consistent with existing definitions at the state and territory level, and with the Commonwealth Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act. The definition captures conduct that involves abuse of office, breach of public trust, misuse of information or corruption of any kind. Conduct by any person that adversely affects the honest or impartial exercise of a Commonwealth public official's functions will also be included. Existing integrity agencies will continue to deal with other conduct that could adversely affect public administration such as external fraud.

The commissioner will have powers similar to those of a royal commission, and will be able to use these powers to launch an investigation if the commissioner believes serious or systemic corrupt conduct is involved. The commissioner will be able to order the production of information to undertake preliminary inquiries in order to determine whether an allegation could be serious or systemic corruption. That independence of the commissioner to direct those inquiries is an incredibly important part of the design of this anticorruption commission.

The decision to hold public or private hearings will rest with the commissioner. Public hearings will be held where the commissioner is satisfied that it would be in the public interest and that exceptional circumstances justify doing so. This has been a key point of discussion around this bill, and something that people in my community have raised a lot with me; they have been concerned about the 'exceptional circumstances' provision around public hearings. But there are important legal reasons why not all hearings should be public. It's important to not prejudice future investigations that come out of it, and initial investigations may need to be private in order to get the information needed. This bill strikes the right balance to ensure the benefits of holding public hearings are balanced against the potential negative impacts. Relevant factors in determining whether to hold a public hearing will include the nature of the corruption issue, the benefits of public awareness and unfair prejudice to reputation, privacy, safety or wellbeing that may be caused. This is important so that the pros of holding hearings in public are balanced with other potential negative impacts. Without limiting what the commissioner can consider when determining whether to hold a hearing in public, the legislation will prescribe a number of relevant factors, and it's really important they're considered.

Reporting at the end of investigations will provide transparency and also support the commission's prevention and education function. After completing a corruption investigation, the commissioner will be required to prepare a report setting out their findings and recommendations. 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. The reporting requirements will ensure that reports are made public where matters dealt with in a corruption investigation are already in the public domain or where it is in the public interest to make the findings of an investigation public. Reports will be required to be tabled in each house of parliament when a public hearing has been held during the course of the investigation. When reports are not required to be tabled, reports may nonetheless be tabled and made public under the usual processes of the parliament.

The commissioner will also be able to publish public versions of reports when satisfied it is in the public interest to do so and if procedural fairness requirements have been met. The commissioner will be required to provide procedural fairness, by ensuring that those who are subject of a critical finding, opinion or recommendation in a report are afforded an opportunity to respond.

I want to talk more about the prevention and education functions. These are really important facets of the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, because what we ultimately want it to do is prevent future corruption, and part of that will require educating people about what that is. It will have a mandate to undertake corruption prevention and education functions, including undertaking public inquiries to examine corruption risks and vulnerabilities, as well as measures to prevent corruption. The commission will provide guidance and information to support the public sector to understand the concept of corrupt conduct and to identify and address vulnerabilities to corruption. This work will be informed by the insights the commission draws from its investigations and the intelligence it collects about corruption. The commission will also engage in broader public education about its role in corruption risks and about the avenues to report corrupt conduct.

As I've said previously, it's critically important that the commission be independent, and this will be secured in a number of ways. The commission will be able to conduct investigations on its own initiative or in response to referrals or allegations from any source. Agency heads will be required to report any corruption issue in their agency to the commission if they suspect it could be serious or systemic. The appointment of the commissioners and deputy commissioners will be subject to approval by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Anti-Corruption Commission, and the appointees will have the security of tenure comparable to that of a federal judge. The legislation provides for the parliamentary joint committee to review and make recommendations on the sufficiency of the commission's budget.

The commission will be overseen by the parliamentary joint committee and an inspector. The parliamentary joint committee will comprise 12 members—three government, two opposition and one crossbench member from each house, including a government chair with a casting vote. In addition to confirming appointments and reviewing the commission's budget, the committee's oversight role will include reviewing the commission's performance and its annual reports. The inspector will deal with any corruption issues arising in the commission and complaints about the commission.

Another really important issue that many have raised is the risk to people's reputations, which could affect the ability to investigate serious allegations. The commissioner's investigational function will be balanced with strong safeguards to ensure that corruption investigations do not cause undue reputational damage, including the requirement for hearings to be held in private unless there are exceptional circumstances; the requirement for the commissioner to clarify the capacity in which a witness is appearing at a public hearing; the requirement for certain sensitive evidence to be received in private; a provision for non-disclosure discretions about a notice or summons or to protect sensitive information; an express ability for the commissioner to make statements at any time to avoid damage to a person's reputation; and provision for the inclusion of statements in investigation reports where it is appropriate and practicable to avoid damage to a person's reputation. If the commissioner forms the opinion that a person has not engaged in corrupt conduct, a statement to that effect will be made. If a person gives evidence at a hearing that is not the subject of any findings or opinions in relation to the corruption investigation, a statement will be made to that effect.

The legislation also provides, importantly, strong protections for whistleblowers against the adverse consequences, including criminal offences, and immunities. Public officials making disclosures to the commission will also be protected under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013. The Attorney-General intends to introduce separate reforms to the Public Interest Disclosure Act to improve whistleblower protections, with the aim of having these reforms in place when the commission commences operation. There are also protections for journalists. The bill ensures that there are appropriate protections for journalists and persons assisting the journalist in a professional capacity. This includes an exemption from answering questions or providing information that would enable the identity of a source to be ascertained.

The bill recognises existing rules for political and parliamentary activities and makes it clear that the use of public resources to conduct parliamentary business in accordance with the Parliamentary Business Resources Act 2017 or the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 is not within the commission's jurisdiction. It also confirms that political activities that do not involve or affect the exercise of powers or functions by a public official or the use of public resources cannot constitute corrupt conduct. The commission will only be able to investigate a matter that falls within the jurisdiction of the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, or the Australian Electoral Commission if the AEC referred the matter of to the commission.

The government has committed substantial funding to this commission, $262 million over four years, for the establishment and ongoing operation of the commission. This will ensure that the commission has the staff, capabilities and capacity to triage the referrals and allegations it receives, conduct timely investigations and undertake corruption prevention and education activities. It provides for the parliamentary joint committee to regularly review and report on the sufficiency of the commission's budget.

This is a really important bill and a historic moment for this parliament that we are establishing this National Anti-Corruption Commission. I'm incredibly proud that the Albanese Labor government is delivering on this promise, unlike the previous government, that failed to do so. This is really important for our communities and for the trust that Australians hold in our democracy.

5:27 pm

Photo of Bridget ArcherBridget Archer (Bass, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Integrity is the cornerstone of democracy. I'm so pleased to be standing here today to speak in support of the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022. The road leading to the establishment of this bill has been long, sometimes difficult and emotionally testing, but I cannot adequately express how deeply grateful I am to be standing here today as we take the final steps towards rebuilding trust with the Australian people.

Two years ago this month I first spoke in this place on the importance of the establishment of an integrity commission, one that was a key promise of the coalition at the 2019 election, and just one year ago I stood in this House to second a motion by the member for Indi to suspend standing orders to allow her Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill to be debated. As I said at the time, this was not a decision I took lightly at all. It was difficult. But I held a strong view then, as I do now, that the establishment of a robust integrity commission was of the utmost importance. We owed it to the Australian people to deliver a commission they could have faith in, and not least because this was a promise that we had made to them.

In fact, it was a study of the 2019 federal election that saw some startling statistics, and as an elected representative I was shocked and saddened. The Australian Election Study, conducted by the Australian National University, found that Australian's satisfaction with democracy was at its lowest since the dismissal in 1975. Just 59 per cent of Australians reported being satisfied with how democracy was working, down 27 percentage points from the record high of 86 per cent in 2007. Professor Ian McAllister, who led the study, said that the findings were a wake-up call, going on to say:

In one of the most worrying findings from our study, a little over one-in-10 Australians, 12 per cent, believe the government is run for 'all the people'.

In contrast more than half, 56 per cent, say government is run for a 'few big interests'.

…   …   …

With faith in democracy taking major hits all over the globe, winning back the people's trust and satisfaction would appear to be one of the most pressing and urgent challenges facing our political leaders and institutions.

He concluded:

I've been studying elections for 40 years, and never have I seen such poor returns for public trust in and satisfaction with democratic institutions.

Only nine months after the 2019 election, any trust we did have was put to the test, as public officials across Australia asked so much of their constituencies as the pandemic took hold. The pandemic is a good example of why there needs to be a high level of trust so that our communities can have confidence in the advice we're giving them. As elected representatives we cannot take any trust we do have for granted, and nor should we ever believe or act as though we're above reproach. We must do everything we can with the power and privilege that we hold in this House to build back the trust that has eroded over time. And as we are the only jurisdiction in Australia without an integrity commission, this is much overdue.

Throughout my first term as the federal member for Bass I spoke with many members of the northern Tasmanian community who wanted to see measures put in place that ensured that politicians were accountable for their actions. Despite some within this place dismissing the establishment of an anticorruption commission as a fringe issue and not an issue that our communities care about, I had no doubt that it is deeply important to Australians. Some of the communication I've received from constituents in my own electorate and across Tasmania include: 'Now more than ever we need strong ethics in government. We need an ICAC with teeth, a strong national anticorruption body that can actually enforce the ethical standards necessary in a functional democracy.' And: 'Politicians should not have a different set of rules to everyone else. Exposing corruption needs to be seen to be done to restore public confidence in our political system.'

Many in my community also expressed much frustration over the lack of consequences for public officials. There's a strong perception that there's one set of rules for parliamentarians and another for the general public. Right across the private sector, businesses have put checks and balances in place to ensure that their employees are held to a certain standard, with repercussions in place for breaches. Parliamentarians should be no different, was the sentiment of many northern Tasmanians—and they are right. During question-and-answer sessions with a group of migrants a few years ago I was struck by the focus on trust in government and trust in those elected to represent their constituencies. With many having migrated from countries where corruption by public officials was rife, this level of concern was understandable.

While I don't believe we're in dire straits, last year it was reported that Australia had plummeted in Transparency International's latest Corruption Perceptions Index, the world's most cited ranking of how clean or corrupt every country's public sector is believed to be. Australia fell by four points on the 100-point scale in 2021. And while we were ranked seventh out of 180 countries in 2012, level with Norway, last year we had fallen to 18th while Norway had moved up to fourth place. Some may consider 18th of 180 reasonable, but these findings concern me. Democracy is fragile, and it requires vigilance to protect it.

At the core, this bill is about restoring public trust and is explicitly anticorruption, which is important. But I also want to see an increased focus on the positive promotion of integrity in public life. When it comes to those involved in politics, a pro-integrity focus can help lay the strongest foundations for building public trust and ensuring that the public has confidence in our democracy. And it may seem idealistic, but if elected representatives were to view their actions and decision-making on matters, no matter how big or small, through the lens of integrity, we may start avoiding some of the challenges that continue to overshadow much of the good work undertaken in all levels of government.

While I am overall supportive of this bill, there are a few areas that in my mind need refining, including what constitutes corrupt conduct. I'm of the firm belief that any definition must be viewed through the lens of how it will ensure trust and confidence in our public administration for people who interact with government. Additionally, as raised by the member for Clark, it's a necessary part of the integrity framework that we must also look at in ensuring that strong protections are in place for whistleblowers who do come forward. Far too often, people's lives are destroyed when they come forward to report wrongdoing. I note that the Attorney-General has acknowledged that there'll be additional legislation to deal with this issue, and I look forward to reviewing that in further detail when it becomes available.

I commend the member for Clark for his tireless dedication to this issue over many years, and I reconfirm my support for strengthening protections for whistleblowers. I believe that the number one job of a local member is to listen to their community—their issues, challenges, needs and desires—and to take those views to Canberra. As such, any project delivered or funding secured for the northern Tasmanian region while I've been the member is, I believe, due to the strong representation I bring on behalf of my community. So it's disheartening to see that there's a level of scepticism that exist in communities across the country when it comes to the funding of projects. As parliamentarians we need to take the necessary measures to bring back public trust in how government funding is utilised and delivered.

A significant source of debate on this issue has centred around whether there should be a public versus a private approach to any hearings, and this is certainly a component of the legislation that has concerned my community. This is a matter I've explored at length, and I'm inclined to support amendments during consideration in detail to remove the exceptional circumstances test in favour of a public interest test. I believe it's an unnecessarily high bar, and ultimately discretion should rest with the commission. It's also of critical importance that the public has confidence in how the government of the day supports the NACC committee. Should the government of the day not follow the recommendations of the committee with regard to finances and resources, I think it's reasonable for the minister to explain their reasons to the parliament, and I'm of a mind to support amendments that will achieve this.

Notwithstanding these improvements that I would like to see, this is a good bill and worthy of the House's support. I sincerely look forward to seeing this legislation passed with broad support because, as I've previously expressed, any bill put forward must be a result of nonpartisan collaboration. It cannot be a political instrument, or it will be doomed to fail before it begins and it will be in my view counterintuitive to enhancing trust. I believe that what we have in front of us today has succeeded in this goal, and I do want to congratulate the government and in particular the Attorney-General for the work that they've undertaken to get to this point.

I'd also like to acknowledge and thank the work of my own colleagues the shadow Attorney-General and the member for Menzies on the work that they've have undertaken on this bill. Since taking on his role after the recent election the shadow AG's door has always been open to me, and we have had many constructive conversations on this issue. The member for Menzies is a wonderful asset to the parliament. From our many discussions I know how important the establishment of an integrity commission is to him, and he has worked diligently in his role on the committee reviewing this legislation. Indeed the entire committee deserves much credit for the work that they did in a very short time frame to provide a comprehensive report on the legislation.

Many people have championed this cause over many years, but of course I believe that there's one person in particular who deserves acknowledgement for the fact that we are finally here today debating this critical piece of legislation. It would be remiss of me not to mention my friend the member for Indi, who has worked incredibly hard to help shape a commission that not only is anti corruption but has a focus on the positive promotion of integrity, and she has led that by her example and in particular her commitment to bringing everyone on the journey. The member for Indi's unwavering determination is to be admired and applauded, and I'm proud to have had the opportunity to work with her.

Democracy is a value we cherish in Australia, and indeed Australians have fought and died to uphold and defend our democratic freedoms. We must remain vigilant to threats that would erode it, and integrity is central to that aim. This legislation strengthens our democracy, and I commend the bill to the House.

5:38 pm

Photo of David SmithDavid Smith (Bean, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This has been a long and comprehensive debate, with many strong contributions from across the chamber. For legislation as important as this, anything less than a full and frank debate would've been a missed opportunity. No member of this place can say that they have not had the opportunity to rise and speak on this bill, and if they haven't, there's still time tonight.

Integrity in government was one of the issues that determined the outcome of the 2022 federal election. Across Australia the voters wanted a change. Indeed the very make-up of this chamber is a reflection of this fact. Before the 2022 federal election, voters across Bean frequently told me they wanted to elect a government which would return integrity and trust to parliament. For many it was the most important issue that they wanted to see addressed. In one instance a retired Commonwealth public servant explained that he was keenly watching the work on the integrity commission, noting that he'd always upheld the APS values and code of conduct. However, he was ashamed that there aren't the same clear values for federal politicians. This is another part of the integrity ecosystem that we need to turn our attention to as well. This retired public servant was not alone. The people in my electorate, and indeed across Australia, had no trust in the previous government's willingness to address these matters and restore trust and integrity into government.

The previous government had already broken their promise to establish an effective anticorruption commission. It was 2018 when they stood before the Australian people and promised a robust, resourced, real system that would protect the integrity of Commonwealth and public administration. Of course, this was never met. Instead, they voted dozens of times to block the establishment of a national anticorruption commission with teeth, or prevented one from even being debated, including proposals put forward by the member for Indi. At best they developed a weak exposure draft, which was so bad that the Centre for Public Integrity denounced it as 'a sham designed to cover up corruption' and 'the weakest watchdog in the country'.

Meanwhile, scandal after scandal went unchecked, and public trust in government continued to diminish. There was clear evidence to this effect. A Vote Compass survey found that 85 per cent of Australians believed that corruption was a real problem in this country, and, according to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, Australia had plummeted seven places since 2012, from 11th out of 180 countries to 18th. These were alarming findings. As argued by Transparency International, corruption erodes trust, weakens democracy, hampers economic development and further exacerbates inequality, poverty, social division and the environmental crisis. This argument was supported by other studies. For instance, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Australia Institute released a report in 2018 that found worsening perceptions of corruption in Australia had potentially reduced GDP by over $72 billion or four per cent.

It's clear that we must restore public trust and integrity to government—to protect our democracy and our social contract and for our economic wellbeing—and this legislation is critical to this mission. Before the election, we promised to deliver a national anticorruption commission as a priority, and now is our opportunity to do so before we rise this year. We can deliver on our promise to the Australian people, including the residents in my electorate that have so clearly expressed their frustrations.

Since being elected, we've gone straight to work. Drawing on the best elements of state and territory anticorruption commissions and laws, we've introduced the bill to establish the commission. We have taken a collaborative approach to informing and strengthening this bill. Comprehensive consultation has been undertaken with legal and integrity experts such as the Centre for Public Integrity, Transparency International Australia and the Law Council of Australia. The government has also held a series of roundtables and individual meetings. The Attorney-General's Department consulted with all relevant government departments and key agencies on the draft legislation, including the consequential and transitional provisions bill.

This bill is a reflection of listening and a product of consultation. The government has listened to feedback, and the amendments to the bill reflect this. On 10 November, the Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation handed down its advisory report on this legislation. It made six recommendations to strengthen the legislation, which were unanimously supported by the committee. The six recommendations include, firstly, extending protections to persons assisting a journalist in their work as a journalist from being compelled to identify or provide information that would assist to ascertain an informant's identity; secondly, providing the inspector with a proactive audit function limited to the commissioner's use of witness summons and arrest warrant powers; thirdly, expressly providing that the commission may commence an investigation on its own initiative; fourthly, permitting the disclosure of information that is subject to a non-disclosure notation to a medical practitioner or psychologist; fifthly, removing clause 8(1)(e), 'corruption of any other kind', from the definition of 'corrupt conduct'; and, finally, requiring the commissioner to advise a person of the outcome of a corruption investigation if the commissioner investigates the conduct of the person and has formed the opinion or made a finding that the person has not engaged in corrupt conduct.

These are sound recommendations, and the government has agreed to these amendments. Further to this, the government has agreed to most of the recommendations from the reviews of the legislation conducted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills respectively.

This approach of engagement, consultation, review and listening means that this bill was the strongest and most comprehensive integrity package before this place. It also means that it has the best chance of receiving the support of a majority of this parliament, something essential to restoring trust across this parliament.

Most importantly, the bill's principles, taken to the election, have been endorsed by the Australian people. For instance, we promised that our National Anti-Corruption Commission would cover a broad jurisdiction, with the capacity to investigate serious or systemic conduct across the Commonwealth public sector. This bill captures ministers, parliamentarians and their staff, statutory office holders, employees of all government entities and government contractors, and any person who attempts or conspires to improperly influence a Commonwealth public official.

The commission will operate independently of government, with a full suite of powers similar to those of a royal commission. It will have discretion to commence inquiries into serious or systemic corruption on its own initiative or in response to referrals. This includes from whistleblowers, who'll have strong protections, and there are exemptions for journalists to protect the identity of sources. It will have the discretion to undertake investigations of both criminal and non-criminal conduct and refer matters to another agency, or to take no action. It will be able to refer findings that could constitute criminal conduct to the Australian Federal Police or the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

Importantly, the bill grants retrospective powers. It will have the power to investigate allegations of serious or systemic corruption that occurred before or after its establishment. After what we have seen over recent years, and the diminishing public trust in government as a consequence, this is extremely important.

To restore public trust in government, it is also important for the commission to have the power to hold public hearings. This bill supports this power, granting public hearings in exceptional circumstances and where it's in the public interest to do so. The question of pubic hearings and this bill has been a source of some discussion and commentary recently. It's important that the structure of the public hearing function is done in a way that balances reputational and wellbeing safeguard considerations. It is worth looking into this matter a little further and in detail.

The commissioner's investigation function will be balanced with strong safeguards to ensure that corruption investigations do not cause undue damage to a person's reputation or wellbeing. These include requiring hearings to be held privately, unless the commissioner is satisfied that it is in the public interest and exceptional circumstances justify holding a hearing in public; requiring the commissioner to clarify the capacity in which a witness is appearing at a public hearing; requiring certain sensitive evidence to be received in private; provision for nondisclosure directions about a notice or summons, or to protect sensitive information; permitting disclosure of information that is subject to a nondisclosure notation to a medical practitioner or psychologist; an express ability for the commissioner to make public statements at any time to avoid damage to a person's reputation; and provision for the inclusion of statements in the investigation reports, where it is appropriate and practicable, to avoid damage to a person's reputation.

If the commissioner forms the opinion that a person has not engaged in corrupt conduct, a statement to that effect would be issued. Furthermore, if a person gives evidence at a hearing and is not the subject of any findings or opinions in relation to the corruption investigation, a similar statement to that effect would be issued. While I acknowledge that there may be different views on the question of hearings, the considerations of wellbeing and reputation are sound ones to guide us in considering these matters. In the pursuit of the guilty, we must not allow the innocent to be caught up as collateral casualties.

This bill ensures stringent oversight of the commission, establishing a parliamentary joint committee and an independent inspector of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The committee's oversight role will include reviewing the commission's performance and its annual reports. The inspector will deal with any corruption issues arising from the commission and complaints about the commission. The commission will also operate with procedural fairness, and its findings will be subject to judicial review. Collectively, these principles will establish a National Anti-Corruption Commission with real power and authority.

As promised before the election, this legislation is a priority for this government. Our goal is to have it up and running by mid-2023. Work is already underway to ensure that the commission is led by the most capable and qualified people, consistent with our commitment to restoring transparency and merit to statutory appointments. We've begun the search for Australia's first national anti-corruption commissioner. Any appointments will be subject to the passage of the National Anti-Corruption Commission legislation and approval by the parliamentary joint committee.

It will be well funded. As outlined in the budget, the government has committed $262 million over four years for the establishment and ongoing operation of the commission. This funding will ensure that the commission has the staff, capabilities and capacity to properly consider referrals and allegations, conduct timely investigations and undertake corruption prevention and education activities. This funding is very important to the proper functioning of the commission. We can present the best-designed organisation to the House and empower it with all of the necessary legislative powers—as we have—but, if we don't provide adequate funding for the operation and staffing of the commission, its powers will never be properly exercised.

Funding is such an important part of the story here. As I said, the government has committed substantial funding over the next four years for the establishment and ongoing operation of the commission. This funding is almost $90 million more than the previous government was publicly prepared to put forward. The funding will be critical to the operations of the commission. It will ensure that the commission has the staff, capabilities and capacity to triage referrals and allegations it receives and conduct timely investigations.

I'm proud of what we have achieved so far. We are on track to deliver what we promised to Australians and my constituents in Bean. This bill will establish a National Anti-Corruption Commission with real power and authority. Importantly, our approach consistently meets the path of cooperation and collaboration so that all Australians are heard. Ultimately, the agenda of this government is driven by us working to make sure that all Australians are heard. The establishment of a National Anti-Corruption Commission will begin the important work of restoring the faith of the Australian people in their parliament and government.

As I've said at the beginning of my contribution to this debate, this has been a long discussion. I look forward to seeing the support for this bill from right across the parliament.

5:53 pm

Sam Birrell (Nicholls, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I support an anticorruption commission. Corruption is insidious, and it undermines our public institutions. It must be rooted out—no ifs, no buts. But that's not to say that the pursuit of corrupt activity should all take place in the glaring spotlight of public hearings. The National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 will give extraordinary powers to the commission to investigate not only parliamentarians but also public servants, contractors and any person exercising powers under the laws of the Commonwealth. We must get the framework right. People in public life, particularly those elected to office, should not be immune from scrutiny, but there must be limits that protect fundamental rights that apply to every Australian citizen. The goal is integrity, not harm in the pursuit of it.

It is common, in my experience, for people who could and perhaps should make a contribution to public life to say they are deterred by the intense, unwavering and sometimes unfair scrutiny. The most basic right of any accused person is the assumption of innocence in the absence of finding guilt. We have seen all too frequently where the activities of integrity bodies enter the public domain and the allegations, often untested, take on a life of their own. Reputations can be ruined, careers can be destroyed and families can be torn apart. It can be trial by media sometimes. The commission has the power to impose nondisclosure notations or gag orders on people. These prevent them from disclosing that they have appeared before the commission. Our view on this side is that it is essential that there be limited exceptions to this in the interests of the mental health of the people who come before the commission. People should be able to make a disclosure to an immediate family member—as long as they are not also a person of interest—a medical professional or a mental health professional. This is essential to prevent people feeling like they have nowhere to turn and was supported by the Law Council of Australia.

The bill abrogates the privilege against self-incrimination and legal professional privilege. Our amendments ensure this is only done when absolutely necessary because of the significant impost on fundamental rights; again, these amendments were supported by the Law Council of Australia. We also think it is important that investigations do not go on indefinitely. Our amendment would impose a 12-month time limit on investigations. The National Anti-Corruption Commission must be framed for the real world, not for a misguided notion.

I and others in this place take offence to a line that is frequently peddled by some Independents and so-called Independents, that the political system is inherently corrupt, that political parties are corrupt and—if you follow the flawed logic—that the members of those parties are also corrupt. I entered this place not for personal gain but to serve the people of Nicholls and the nation, and I know that is true of many people on all sides of the chamber. The motivation is, I believe, universal, and matters that will fall under the ambit of the commissioner are the rare exception, I believe, not the rule. We do little to engender trust in political processes and politicians by framing the purpose for establishing an anticorruption body in this way. This place and the other place are the proper forums for prosecuting issues of competency and accountability. Sometimes for Independents, particularly, and others, having been elected in large part on claims of a lack of accountability, the answer is to use these processes in this place to expose that. A corruption commission is singly focused on corruption and should be framed as such. It should be framed as something that is focused on corruption and not as a political forum or, worse, as a political tool.

There is a glaring omission in this bill—that is, unions. While this bill proposes a commission with broad powers, the powers of a royal commission, there is a glaring omission when it comes to the reach of those powers. Parliamentarians and Canberra public servants, but also Australian Defence Force, Australian police, NDIS and aged-care workers, contractors, subcontractors can all be scrutinised but not unions. The amendments we propose would ensure the extraordinary powers of the commissioner apply in a fair and reasonable way, including closing the loophole that government has inserted for its union mates. Why shouldn't integrity also apply to unions? Why should they receive a 'get out of jail free' card?

This bill isn't perfect. There were six recommendations from the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation—or the NACC, as it is called in offices around this place—and a plethora of additional comments from the coalition members of that committee. I particularly congratulate the newly elected member for Menzies on bringing his legal background to bear. Ensuring that the bill gets the balance right between stamping out corruption and protecting the rights of everyday people brought before it is an important balance. There is no place for corruption but there is also no place for trampling on the human rights of people.

Extensive recommendations from the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills highlighted the concerns around lack of specificity in definitions and use of coercive powers without adequate safeguards when they're not truly a last resort. Further recommendations came from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, including concerns about the use of gag orders and their long application, which can harm the mental health of people brought before the commission, and about the broad use of contempt offences. The inquiry of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security into the telecommunications surveillance powers that would be given to the National Anti-Corruption Commission is still ongoing.

We've engaged in good faith because we want the National Anti-Corruption Commission to be, as the Attorney-General stated during question time, as good as it can be—thank you, Attorney-General. We want to strengthen the NACC. The coalition's amendments are about strengthening the National Anti-Corruption Commission and its ability to pursue corrupt conduct. This is sensibly balanced against protecting the fundamental rights of those who come before the Anti-Corruption Commission and restricting the harm that might be inflicted by the unnecessary or premature airing of allegations. Justice must be seen to be done, and this isn't always the case. It's most certainly not the case when the accused—who, if it were a criminal case, would have the right to face their accuser and to mount a defence—are, in this domain, subject to gag orders and an inability to participate in any public forum.

Eminent experts in this field, including the Law Council of Australia, the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties and the South Australian Bar Association, have sought to ensure that this bill has adequate protections. We think that our amendments reflect this and that the commissioner should not be the sole decision-maker on the commencement of a public hearing. We think that good governance would require that this power be shared between the commissioner and a deputy commissioner. This proposal was supported by the Australia Institute, the Victorian Inspectorate and others. It should be compulsory, not optional, for the commissioner to consider factors—including whether confidential information is involved, whether there would be unfair prejudice to a person's reputation and whether a person giving evidence has a particular vulnerability, such as being under direct instruction or control of another person—in determining whether a public hearing should be held. This was supported by the Queensland Law Society, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australia Institute.

It's appropriate to have a National Anti-Corruption Commission. The commission requires substantial powers in order to pursue corrupt activity. Corruption isn't endemic, but it's an ever-present threat to our institutions and proper governance. The powers of the commission need to be broad given the conduct it will be tasked to investigate, but it should not be unfettered power. There must be protections for those who will come before the commission, including sensible limits on public hearings and gag orders. The National Anti-Corruption Commission is not and cannot be a political forum, and it cannot under any circumstances be a political tool. It needs to exist to expose corruption and bring those engaged in it to account, and it should have the necessary powers to do that job but no more.

6:03 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased to rise in support of the government's National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022, because on 21 May this year the Albanese Labor government was elected with a mandate to establish a powerful, independent and transparent body to rectify an apparent gap in our national integrity frameworks. We're delivering on this promise, and we're doing it right now, this year. Our Labor government is serious about rebuilding faith and trust in our democratic processes and ensuring that the federal government is always focused on the interests of the Australian people, not on its own political self-interest.

There is no greater priority now, because a government is nothing without integrity. As members of parliament we're elected via a democratic process—a robust, independent democratic process. We must be accountable to the Australian people, who put their faith in us to govern this country. If there is no oversight then there is no transparency.

But, shamefully, for the last decade we've seen the consequences of a Liberal government who operated behind closed doors. We saw plenty of very questionable behaviour. We had a Prime Minister in the member for Cook who appointed himself into several ministries, which was a shock to all Australians but perhaps there were none more shocked than his own coalition colleagues in the Liberal and National party rooms. If ever there was a definition of questionable behaviours, the former government embodied it. While this might not meet the definition of 'corruption', it no doubt offends our democratic system of government. It no doubt offended the Australian people, who made their voice known at the ballot box on the 21 May.

Two years ago I spoke in this chamber about integrity and, more specifically, the lack of it under the former government. At that time we'd seen the former government use a $100 million public grants program as a Liberal Party re-election fund in the sports rorts scandal, which impacted Newcastle's own Newcastle Olympic Football Club. They had a terrific application, by all accounts, had it been assessed by an independent body—well, it was in fact found to have scored very highly. But they were denied funding in that round, and we all know why now. We've all seen the colour coded spreadsheets. We've all been through the nasty, grubby sports rorts scandal that took place under the watch of the former government.

We've seen the immeasurable harm that the disgraceful and unlawful robodebt scheme caused for thousands of vulnerable Australians, and all of us on this side of the House have had to try to support so many of our constituents who were caught up in that unlawful scandal.

Dan Repacholi (Hunter, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It was despicable behaviour, and we are yet to see the full account, to see whether people in fact are held to account for that terrible injustice.

We watched the former government pay $30 million to a Liberal Party donor for land worth $3 million in the airport land scandal. And we saw the Australian National Audit Office have their funding cut as punishment when they did their job and started to uncover some of those scandals. We witnessed the Liberals appointing dozens of Liberal Party colleagues and friends to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Even now we are still uncovering more and more shocking stories of inappropriate use of federal government programs and taxpayer dollars under the Liberals.

No wonder the former government never brought a bill before the parliament to establish an integrity commission despite repeated promises to do so. It would have exposed them and the inconceivable lack of integrity that was on display to all who chose to look. Is it any wonder that Australians are feeling a profound distrust in government and a disappointment in democratic institutions. That is a blight on everybody. Now it is incumbent on this government to try to restore that trust. We've seen repeated research after each election cycle where trust in our system of government and our democratic institutions is now at record lows—plummeting—and that is in nobody's interest.

At the end of the day, Australians need to be able to trust government, to trust that we will always do the right thing. A national integrity commission has been a priority, allegedly for the whole parliament, but it's not until now that we're going to see a bill to try to tackle some of those profound and now entrenched feelings of disquiet amongst the Australian people. It may seem like common sense but, quite simply, we want to close the door on corruption. The time for sweeping things under the carpet is over. The time for ignorance and negligence went out the door, and it should never, ever be allowed to surface again. Labor are in charge now, and we are going to clean this up. Shockingly the Commonwealth is the only Australian jurisdiction without an anti-corruption commission, and I think that says a lot. The bill before the House now to establish a National Anti-Corruption Commission is the single biggest reform to the Commonwealth integrity framework in decades.

We have the Attorney-General sitting with us in this debate. I want to acknowledge not just your hard work now but your incredible dedication to pursue this issue of anticorruption and ensure that our national parliament would be in step with all the other jurisdictions around Australia. I want to put on record that thanks and appreciation to you as somebody on our side who has really driven a long process now of consultation, and we do appreciate that.

It's one of the many steps the Albanese Labor Government is taking to return honesty, accountability and integrity to government and to rebuild trust amongst the Australian people. We know that corruption erodes trust and distrust weakens the ability of government to deliver vital funding and reform to improve our country and our communities. The establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission shows that Labor are taking our role in government seriously. We want to be the best we can be, because we want to build a better future for all Australians. That's why this powerful and transparent commission will operate independently of government, and that is so important. The commission will have wideranging powers and responsibilities. It will be able to investigate criminal and non-criminal corrupt conduct and investigate ministers, parliamentarians, their staff and statutory officeholders, as well as employees of all government entities and contractors.

Importantly, it will work right across government to prevent corruption from occurring in the first place. Prevention is absolutely where we need to be focused. By all means we've got to address corruption wherever it tries to infect our systems, but let's double down on our efforts to prevent it in the first place. We know that one of the biggest issues in addressing corruption is people having the confidence to speak out about corrupt conduct without fear of retribution, and that's why this legislation will, very importantly, provide strong protections for whistleblowers and exemptions for journalists to protect the identity of their sources. This legislation gives the commission broader powers to educate the public sector about corrupt conduct and how to prevent corruption, as well as educating the wider public about corruption and how to report it to the commission, and that's such an important and very Labor focus, to ensure that we have got an adequate public education program that scaffolds around the work of the Anti-Corruption Commission, because we are trying not just to lift the tone of this parliament and government processes but to engage all Australians in a discussion about how to ensure and protect our systems of government and our institutions.

It will be an Anti-Corruption Commission with teeth. Spending taxpayer dollars should be open and accountable, and appointments to government boards and tribunals must be open and accountable. The federal public sector should be open and accountable. If corrupt behaviour occurs there must be a way to investigate and punish inappropriate behaviours, and this legislation will give the Anti-Corruption Commission powers similar to those of a royal commission. It's vital that we get this right. Corruption does not stop at territory, state or international borders; nor should our efforts to stop it in its tracks. In designing the commission we have reviewed, analysed and utilised the best aspects of state and territory models and we've worked closely with integrity experts. I must say, this is probably the only silver lining to being the only jurisdiction that hasn't had an anticorruption commission, that we're able to take some time to examine what has worked in each of the other jurisdictions. We've drawn on those existing models, with a particular focus on the prevention and education aspects, because, while it's important to investigate corruption, it should never have the opportunity to eventuate in the first place. That's what the aim of a Labor government is.

But that's not all. The establishment of a national anticorruption commissions forms an important part of a broader integrity framework with large reforms, including effective protections for whistleblowers; enhancing the transparency and integrity of political donations, including real-time disclosures; and a merit based and transparent appointments process. We are also considering options to establish a federal judicial commission to reinforce trust in the judicial system. We are committed to the principles of the Open Government Partnership, of which Australia is a member, and we'll develop an action plan to improve the level of open government, transparency and accountability in this country.

We're tracking fraud in the NDIS, and a new Fraud Fusion Taskforce is being established. We've established a new and robust ministerial code of conduct, and we are developing parliamentary standards for all parliamentarians, staff and, indeed, all people who work, visit and engage in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces, because we have been found lacking. Nobody in this parliament can deny the fact that we failed in our duty over successive governments to ensure that there were proper levels of accountability and real consequences for failing to provide safe and respectful places to work. That is a focus of this government now, and we'll be having a lot more to say about that in the future.

Australians made very clear that they want a federal parliament that is honest. They want us to be accountable. They want this parliament to be transparent in its operations and its transactions. They want us to restore integrity and confidence in the very heart of our democracy, and that's what this bill does. I couldn't be more proud to stand as a member of the Labor government that is introducing this bill. I sincerely hope that there will be multiparty support. I know there are lots of amendments and lots of negotiations underway, but nobody in this chamber would want to vote against the establishment of a national anticorruption commission. Nobody could go home to their electorates and look anyone in the eye and say, 'We had an opportunity to correct a historical wrong in the Australian parliament, and we failed to stand up and do our duty.' I'm not going home to the people of Newcastle with that message, I can assure you. I don't think anyone in this parliament wants to be telling that story. So I encourage everybody to vote in support of this bill before the House. There is no time to delay. Our Labor government is setting the standard, cleaning up this place and making sure we are a government the Australian people can trust.

6:18 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Government Services and the Digital Economy) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to rise to speak on the National Anti-Corruption Bill 2022 and the related bill. I begin by expressing my support for a national anticorruption commission. I want to discuss, firstly, why corruption is a bad thing and hence why a mechanism to detect and counter it is needed. Secondly, I want to touch on some appropriate factors that need to be balanced. Thirdly, I want to speak of ways to improve the bill through amendments.

Let me start with the proposition that corruption is a bad thing. Corruption corrodes public trust, undermines the public confidence on which our institutions depend and reduces the effectiveness of government because, if officials or politicians are interested in enriching themselves rather than delivering good public policy outcomes, then we have a government which is not doing what it should for citizens. The coalition has always been strongly concerned about the risk of corruption and having appropriate mechanisms to deal with it.

It was a coalition government which legislated Australia's first anticorruption commission—the Greiner government in New South Wales. Our previous Commonwealth government developed a detailed model for a Commonwealth integrity commission in the last parliament. We released an exposure draft, hundreds of pages long. We went through a detailed process of public consultation. As we repeatedly made clear, we stood ready to deliver this legislation the moment that Labor indicated its support.

We'd seen suggestions by the Attorney-General and by the Labor members that in some way the Labor side of politics is a watchword for purity and integrity in public conduct. That's a claim that is simply laughable to anybody with any knowledge of Australian political history. Think of the notorious criminal conduct of former New South Wales Labor members of parliament Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald. Think of the troubling record of criminality on the part of officials of the notorious CFMMEU, one of the Labor Party's major donors—and that record of criminality has frequently been commented on by judges. Think of the conduct of recent Labor members of parliament like Craig Thomson, the former member for Dobell.

Look at the glaring contradiction between Labor's rhetoric on this bill and its abolition of two important integrity institutions in the workplace: the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the Registered Organisations Commission. These bodies have done extraordinarily important work in providing oversight of unions, including dealing with the risk of corrupt union officials, and history teaches us that that is not a remote or distant risk at all. These bodies were hated by union officials, who did not like the scrutiny that they were subject to. Labor has wasted no time in dancing to the tune of their paymasters in abolishing those bodies. It is quite extraordinary that the CFMMEU and the ACTU have complained about the same powers in relation to the Australian Building and Construction Commission that the ACTU and the CPSU have supported in relation to the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

I turn now to the question of appropriate factors which need to be balanced up in establishing the regime under which a national anticorruption commission will operate. Many of our state anticorruption commissions have extremely wide powers. But, sadly, some of them do not have appropriate procedural safeguards so that innocent people do not become collateral damage. We need to be mindful of the great personal cost incurred by those who are falsely accused of corrupt or fraudulent conduct by such bodies. Sadly, there are too many instances of reputations and livelihoods destroyed, often leading to significant mental trauma and in some cases to suicide.

The presumption of innocence has been part of the golden thread of justice in common-law countries for many centuries for very good reason. This presumption is supported by the rules of evidence and many other procedural safeguards. These important principles should not be lightly sacrificed. We need to appropriately balance the rights of those who are called before the National Anti-Corruption Commission with the objective of effectively identifying instances of corrupt conduct. Many of these matters have been considered by the Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation, and they have recommended several amendments to the bill to provide extra procedural safeguards.

The coalition, and quite a number of organisations making submissions, have argued for further safeguards, and in doing so we do not seek to hamper the work of the National Anti-Corruption Commission but to make it more robust and accountable and to ensure that it is a body that is beyond reproach. As the shadow Attorney-General told this House, as he has developed the coalition's position on this bill, he has met not only former commissioners and advocates for this bill but also people whose lives and careers have been ruined by their appearances at one of the state commissions. Indeed, he's met people who have been bereaved by suicide because of the actions of one of the state or territory commissions. These are matters which need to be very carefully weighed up as this parliament considers this bill.

I turn therefore to the question of ways in which this bill may be improved. Issues with this bill have been ventilated through the parliamentary process and through committee processes. The coalition has engaged through this bill in good faith across the parliament. We have engaged with our communities and with stakeholders. Many coalition parliamentarians have engaged with constituents and stakeholders, as I know parliamentarians across all sides of this chamber have. Certainly, I have been approached by constituents, and I've had many constituents advocate strongly for a national anticorruption commission, and, as I've indicated, I support the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

But I've also had constituents share with me troubling instances of experiences at the hands of state anticorruption commissions which could only be described as manifestly unfair. The coalition has had regard to these issues and others and to all of the extensive consultation we've done in developing our careful and considered amendments. I do want to particularly acknowledge the shadow Attorney-General, the member for Berowra. I sit next to him on the front bench, my electorate adjoins his and I've worked closely with him since he came into the parliament. He is doing outstanding work on this bill and on the other elements of his extensive workload, bringing a measured and thoughtful approach to his work.

The parliamentary Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation has tabled an advisory report into the bill. Included within that report are a number of recommendations from coalition participants which go to the theme I've touched on: getting the balance right in this bill. Section 1.191, for example, details our concerns that it would be unfair to apply court-like transparency without court-like rules of evidence. Related to this theme, the committee expressed serious concern with the impact of public hearings on a person's mental health. There is a real risk of suicidal ideation or suicide as a result of appearing before a public hearing whereby one's integrity, identity and person may be tarnished. In section 1.235, coalition participants expressed the view that protections for those appearing before the commission should be increased by requiring the commission to give explicit consideration to a person's wellbeing and to other relevant factors.

A clear area where this bill needs improvement is the inexplicable and unjustifiable special treatment it provides for union officials exercising a power under a law of the Commonwealth. The carve-out, in sections 12 and 14 of the bill, for union officials exercising a power under a law of the Commonwealth undermines the character of the commission as an integrity commission, and the coalition is very clear that we seek to have that carve-out removed. The government has been very, very cagey about this particular carve-out. There is no explanation for it in the explanatory memorandum. It is a complete mystery. Well, it's not a complete mystery; any rational person can work out very clearly why the Labor Party's done this, but they've made no effort to justify it. When questioned, the Attorney-General's Department could not give a satisfactory answer on the reasons for the exemptions. When he was asked on Insiders about this carve-out, the Attorney-General initially denied it. He then justified it on misleading grounds.

The troubling fact is that Labor has made this provision broad enough so that the commission can call before it anyone who exercises a power under a law of the Commonwealth, except union officials. The Prime Minister was asked in question time about why this carve-out exists for union officials. His initial response was to claim that union officials don't need to be covered by the Anti-Corruption Commission, because they're covered by the Fair Work Ombudsman and Fair Work Commission, and this legislation is about plugging gaps, not duplication. The shadow minister for defence then pointed out that the Australian Defence Force is also covered by other bodies, such as the ADF military code of conduct and the inspector-general, and, taking at face value the justification the Prime Minister had offered, he then, very reasonably, asked, 'Why is the Australian Defence Force included in the National Anti-Corruption Commission but senior union leaders are not?' In view of the rationale proffered by the Prime Minister for the exclusion of senior union officials, which was that they were covered by other bodies and processes—something which is equally true of the Australian Defence Force—there was a complete failure by the government to provide an answer.

The following day in question time, the Prime Minister was asked again about union carve-outs and why union officials are specifically exempted from being subject to the operation of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The Prime Minister then changed his line and again tried to deny that this carve-out existed. It's a simple fact. It's in sections 12 and 14 of the bill.

We have the extraordinary situation in which the conduct of Indigenous rangers is subject to the scrutiny of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. We on this side of the House certainly do not question or criticise that. But what we do question, what we do criticise—very clearly, very specifically and very pointedly—is if it's appropriate for the conduct of Indigenous rangers to be subject to the National Anti-Corruption Commission, what can be the possible justification for excluding from the scrutiny of the National Anti-Corruption Commission the actions of union officials who are exercising powers granted by a Commonwealth rule? Why is it that a union official will be able to exercise a power under the Work Health and Safety Act or the Fair Work Act to shut down a worksite for alleged safety reasons and not be subject to the scrutiny of the commission if that union official's conduct raises questions as to whether there is corrupt conduct? It is quite extraordinary, inexplicable and indefensible that an Indigenous ranger, in the course of carrying out his or her duties, is subject to the jurisdiction of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, that a worker within the National Disability Insurance Scheme is subject to the National Anti-Corruption Commission but the one category of person who is not subject to the National Anti-Corruption Commission is a union official.

What an extraordinary coincidence that the unions have collectively donated tens of millions of dollars to the Australian Labor Party over the last decade or more and that they are being provided with a shield from the scrutiny which, properly and appropriately, ought to apply to union officials exercising a power under Commonwealth legislation. There is scrutiny, which we on this side of the House agree is entirely appropriate, that will be exercised in respect of parliamentarians, in respect of public officials and in respect of a wide range of categories of others who are exercising powers under Commonwealth legislation. It's remarkable that union officials are given a carve out.

The Attorney-General is at the table right now. He's being unusually silent. It's out of character. But he has an opportunity to explain to the Australian people, to explain to the parliament why there is special treatment for union officials. He can explain to the Australian people why there is a carve out for union officials that is not available to any other category of person who is exercising a power of the Commonwealth. That is, in the coalition's view, a question, the answer to which is absolutely obvious. And if the Attorney-General and if the government wish to achieve the confidence that ought to be achieved in this very important body, then what they should be doing is amending the bill or supporting the coalition's amendment which would remove this unjustifiable exemption for union officials.

The coalition supports this bill. I support this bill. Aspects of the process have been very undesirable. We will be moving amendments to seek to improve the bill.

6:33 pm

Matt Burnell (Spence, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on what I feel are arguably some of the most important pieces of legislation that I have spoken on during my relatively short time here in this, the 47th Parliament. I am, of course, referring to the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 alongside the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022.

We all know that this legislation, in one form or another, has been several years in the making. This legislation is of vital importance. The debate surrounding the establishment of such a body has been one that I followed closely long before my election to this place.

It is of vital importance because the National Anti-Corruption Commission gives us, as members of this place—the parliament, the legislature, a pillar of our constitutional democracy in Australia—the best chance we have of restoring public faith and confidence in those institutions and others across the entire Australian government, the Australian Public Service and other key public institutions.

The establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission has been an election commitment of the Australian Labor Party since the lead up to the 2019 election. Now the Albanese Labor government is once again fulfilling these commitments in a concerted fashion. Being a part of an Albanese Labor government that is coming to this place and introducing the National Anti-Corruption Commission legislation makes me extremely proud. This is a truly historic moment in the lead up to what I hope will be this parliament coming together to pass these bills and bring some integrity into our system.

I am cautiously optimistic. This cautious optimism stems from the knowledge that, although in this place we may have some differing views on the margins regarding this legislation, we are mostly on a unity ticket on the principle that underpins this legislation. In fact, the constructive nature of this debate in this place so far provides more ammunition for this cautious optimism. It makes you wonder just what we as a parliament can accomplish together when we lead with common goals and find ourselves in lockstep to turn these common goals into tangible outcomes.

This bill has received numerous submissions, many of those from the same people, the same organisations that lamented previous governments' attempt at this, the national integrity commission. But this government listens. Much work was undertaken to get the balance right, as this debate drew even closer, whether it be by the recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights or the Joint Select Committee on the National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation, which produced an informative report, one that I have keenly paid attention to and I believe this government has done too. These are all very important steps, ones that need not cause undue delay to the process but will help to draw all sides of this parliament towards a model for the commission and an outcome we can all be proud of, one that we can go back to our electorates and to our families with our heads held high.

I mentioned earlier the Labor Party's position on a National Anti-Corruption Commission dating to before the 2019 election. Without looking at events that led up to this in the federal sphere, for a moment it is worth examining the actions of state and territory governments over the years. These commissions go by many varied names and varied means across the country, but all seek the same ends—to investigate and weed out corruption where it is suspected to exist within public institutions. In New South Wales, the Northern Territory and in my home state of South Australia, they are called an Independent Commission Against Corruption, or ICAC, often used as a rallying cry for this debate federal ICAC. Well, we are pretty close to it now. In Queensland, we have the Crime and Corruption Commission. This is mirrored by Western Australia's Corruption and Crime Commission. In Victoria, it is the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, IBAC. And lastly, in Tasmania and the ACT, they have their integrity commissions. The first of these bodies to be established was the ICAC in New South Wales back in 1989, and the last of these were the integrity commissions in the ACT and Northern Territory in 2019 and 2018 respectively. Now, in 2022, we still are yet to have one covering the federal government. I can't wait to restate the obvious and outline why.

It may be true that the National Anti-Corruption Commission may not be called what we might be familiar with in our home states, but an ICAC by any other name would smell as sweet. The National Anti-Corruption Commission is no less broad-based, no less independent and no less a safeguard to the integrity that underpins our institutions. Having our democratically elected representatives attempting to protect our democracy is a manifestation of democracy itself. This is especially true when it goes about its core business to eliminate the stench of corruption and impropriety where it sees and suspects it. That stench can be a strong one, whether it be perceived or actual. It is one that lingers if not taken care of swiftly. We owe it to the public to make every effort to have a mechanism to investigate and weed out serious and systemic corruption where it exists, and to deter it from occurring in the first place.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission has aims beyond investigating corruption. Its broader aim includes reducing the likelihood of corruption festering and metastasising unchecked. I am pleased to see that it aims to educate the public sector to better identify suspect behaviours and help to correct certain attitudes in people that might, one day, lead to someone crossing that line of no return, and aims to teach scores of staff across departments, ministerial and electoral offices that, if they see something, they should say something.

Though I have used a fairly conciliatory and fair tone over the course of debate thus far, it would be remiss of me not to provide some much needed context to the House as to why an Albanese Labor government took office with an election commitment to introduce a National Anti-Corruption Commission. However, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the actions of the previous government or, more astutely, the omissions of the previous government in this space.

The average person over the last couple of years would see the former Liberal-National government go through cycles of action. By action we mean an announcement, statements to the effect of supporting an anti-corruption commission and then radio silence—dead air. This occurred as a pattern. Each instance lasted until someone managed to have the grit and perseverance to force it back onto the agenda. Then there would be another pithy gesture, an exposure draft to nowhere, one reviled by the many eminent organisations and academics that took the time to make a submission in the hope that the benefit of their expertise would be taken into account. They certainly got their hopes up a little too high, considering who was at the helm at the time.

The leading figures in this game of policy hide-and-seek were, of course, the former Prime Minister, the member for Cook, and the now former member for Pearce, who at the time was the Attorney. As we know, the member for Cook had the gall to blame the Labor opposition for why the government at the time's bill was not introduced to the House. Of course, they expected everyone in this place to support it without amendments. The former government never introduced legislation if it knew that Labor opposed it. At least by this time nobody was buying it, even from within their own ranks. In the end the exposure draft of the federal integrity commission died of exposure.

If we had to go by the former Prime Minister's statements, he was all for an Anti-Corruption Commission. However, he opted to use the cover of the New South Wales ICAC investigations, which were exactly what the doctor ordered, to undermine what was needed for an Anti-Corruption Commission. But at the start, like I said, he seemed to be eager to get this done. If only the member for Cook was secretly the Attorney-General at the time, he could have pushed this through the chamber personally. But the rest is history. It's now time to look forward.

Now we have a new Attorney-General, one who cares about integrity in government and about fulfilling our election promises to the Australian people. We also have a new member for Pearce, who was elected to this place for the first time alongside the likes of me. I'm sure the new member for Pearce has a much less tolerant view of corrupt conduct and thus I am sure that she will be joining me to support this bill. Now, we are almost there. We will, hopefully, soon have a National Anti-Corruption Commission, one with safeguards yet with teeth that will gnash at those suspected of involvement in serious or systemic corruption but ,to all others and to the public at large, those teeth will look like a broad smile.

Sadly, some people out there, in an attempt to diminish the importance and necessity of the National Anti-Corruption Commission being established, will say that this isn't the typical issue that the average punter cares about. If that's true, that is a glaring indictment of us as an institution. It means that too many out there think that we as an institution are beyond redemption. As a parliament, we need to start passing the pub test again. I can't allow this to be the status quo that I walk into as a member of this place.

From the tone and course of the debate over the past day or so—and one rather late night last night—it was quite comforting to see many of my fellow class of '22 members who sit across all parts of the chamber making active contributions to furthering this debate. There is nothing wrong with wanting to restore some of the shine that has been lost in where you work. Now that I and my classmates have joined this place, we are stepping up and stepping forward to be part of the solution.

Lastly, I do lament somewhat that the National Anti-Corruption Commission is something that has to be introduced and that there are people out there, whether elected as public officials or working within the public sector, who don't exhibit strong values such as the need to have their probity above reproach. But, alas, we must introduce the commission. We know this—or at least most of us here do, in one form or another. I have opted not to repeat the statistics that many others have over the course of the debate, but those numbers need to start moving in another direction. Whether it is Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index or a poll put out in the field by a research firm or a university, perception matters so much. I know I'm addressing a room full of politicians who know this self-evident truth all too well.

So I commend this bill. Lastly, I say that I hope this commission gets the support it deserves so this profession of ours can have a modicum of mobility restored to it. We have all put our hands up to serve. Let's show the people who put us here that we are serious about winning back their trust.

6:47 pm

Photo of James StevensJames Stevens (Sturt, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in favour of the creation of a National Anti-Corruption Commission, and I've been waiting for the opportunity to do this for some years, ever since entering this place in 2019.

I want to start by pushing back against some claims that speakers have made in this debate and that others have made publicly—this claim that trust in politics in this country has never been lower. This is a kind of attack on Australian democracy and Australian government. It is right to have a National Anti-Corruption Commission, but that's not a concession that the reason we need one is that there's all sorts of rampant corruption occurring. We've had our political challenges in this country over the decades in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia—certainly not in the era we're in right now. I'd be surprised if members of the Labor Party are now suggesting that things are lower than they were on 11 November 1975, which is the Labor Party's great reference point, I would have thought, for apparent low trust in government and our institutions. I doubt that, if we stopped anyone on the street in Tehran, Baghdad, Kabul or Moscow and put to them the proposition, 'I'm here from Australia, and, God, it's never been so bad in Australian politics; it's just horrendous in Australia,' they'd love to hear stories of torture, murder and governments imprisoning their citizens, with no concept or pretence of democracy.

So the suggestion that things are in some diabolical circumstance in our democracy and in our politics is absolute, complete rubbish. I get the need for hyperbole in debates, both in this chamber and in the media, but I'm going to stand up for democracy in this country and for the privilege and honour of serving in the Australian House of Representatives and say that we are not some cesspit of corruption and we do not have deep challenges of trust or confidence in our democracy. Other people around the world literally die seeking to come to a country like this for the things that we dispute and argue about to be the challenges that they've got to face, compared to what they're facing in the regimes that they live under around the world.

It is completely ridiculous to push this suggestion that we've got a crisis in our democracy and that trust in politics has never been lower, because people almost anywhere else, in any other corner of the planet, would absolutely love to live in this democracy. People's jaws would be on the ground at the sorts of examples that are used to suggest there's this complete crisis of confidence. The jealousy of living in this beautiful country is something that we should be proud of. It's pretty appalling that there are people who want to rubbish it in the process of an important debate—one that I suspect is going to end up in unanimity in supporting the creation of this new institution. But I push back against the lunacy and stupidity of some of those comments because they are absolutely ridiculous.

I definitely support having a national integrity body, but I also dispute that we don't have an integrity framework in place at the Commonwealth level. That's incorrect. There are lots of very esteemed bodies and agencies that safeguard the integrity of our systems and undertake investigations into criminal activity, and they do an excellent job. We might find, having created this body, that one of the things it confirms is that we don't have serious, systemic corruption in federal government in this nation. This is probably a good price to pay—although this is an expensive exercise—if it confirms that to all the people who want to claim there's some kind of rabid corruption occurring throughout politics and government at a federal level. If nothing more, the creation of this body will go to show that that's not the case.

It will also go to show that we do have a robust framework in place already. Corruption is a crime, and, if someone is being corrupt, they absolutely can be reported to the Federal Police—if the corruption is of a federal nature—investigated, prosecuted, and potentially sent to jail. That's the other thing that really disappoints me in this debate—the suggestion that we need a corruption commission because at the moment you can get away with corruption. That's complete rubbish. So, in supporting the creation of this body, I think that will be a good outcome to look forward to, because creating a body that doesn't result in significant uncovering of major systemic corruption will, of course, give people confidence that it isn't occurring.

That's happened in my home state of South Australia. We created our ICAC. The legislation passed and the body came into effect around 2013. That's over nine years ago—coming up to 10 years. I believe it's fair to say that that body was initially given spectacular and extraordinary powers and was very well resourced, and it has had effectively no significant successful prosecution whatsoever. In fact, and regrettably, it has become an institution of embarrassment bordering on scandal. We have an awful situation at the moment in South Australia where a prosecution has been abandoned because of very poor conduct from the ICAC in withholding pertinent evidence from a trial. The public servant involved has had the charges against him dropped. His life for the last few years has been ruined, and I think there will be very serious repercussions for the South Australian ICAC as an investigation brings the reality of what happened there to light.

Regrettably, this is also the case in the Northern Territory. We see some very poor examples of practices of the Northern Territory ICAC. And, of course, once these ICACs—or the NACC as we'll have at a federal level—lose credibility through poor conduct and poor behaviour then it is very difficult to get that back. That's a regrettable example that I hope the NACC sees as a very important watchword for them to be very wary of the need for a robust system of integrity within their own organisation and the need to act with a great deal of responsibility with the powers that they are being given.

Let's make no mistake, the powers of this entity, like other entities, are very significant. As the Manager of Opposition Business pointed out, they are not bound by some of the appropriate mechanisms that are in place in our criminal justice system. There are very important principles in defending oneself in the criminal justice system, like the right to silence. Some of the coercive powers that are provided to these agencies, not just the NACC but other agencies have them as well, are a reminder of how important it is for us to be extremely vigilant as a parliament in making sure that those powers are handed over because they are necessary and that very significant monitoring of the exercise of those powers is in place.

There have been some important points made in the course of this debate. There have been elements of amendments that have been foreshadowed both by the opposition and other people in this place, and the other place, around that, because we want to make sure that this body that we are creating is doing what it is meant to do and not doing what it is not meant to do. Regrettably, a lot of these bodies at the state and territory level are more infamous for doing what they're not meant to be doing than what they are meant to be doing. But we have an open mind and hope that the NACC indeed fulfills the objectives that we, as legislators, are putting in place in creating this agency through these bills.

I am also very nervous about the importance of all of us defending the fundamentals of parliamentary privilege. We are going to have to do this as a parliament. It is not a matter for the government. It is the matter for parliament. We know the very ancient origins of parliamentary privilege. We know that we also have a statute from the 1980s that further qualifies that privilege, and we know through House Practice how that operates. There is an extreme risk—and there are examples in the state jurisdictions of these bodies not having an appropriate respect for parliamentary privilege. It's going to be vitally important for presiding officers now and into the future to ensure that we as a parliament, this chamber and the Senate, are standing up for those very important rights. Nobody, including a NACC, should have the ability to intimidate legislators, members of this place or the Senate, in any way in us undertaking our vital responsibilities as parliamentarians. The privilege that we are given, which is very appropriately called privilege, is one that we as a chamber are sovereign over. It is absolutely vital that this body, like any other body, never ever encroaches upon the very important protections that we have as parliamentarians and there is a risk of that. We have seen it happen in other jurisdictions. I will be part of being very vigilant around that as deputy chair of the privileges and members' interests committee. I'm sure all of us as parliamentarians share the very important, vital need to safeguard privilege and ensure that this body, and any other body that has all kinds of powers, never uses those powers in breach of that privilege.

I want to close by disputing some attacks on our democracy and some claims by some contributors in this debate that the decisions we make as members of parliament, as governments and alternative governments, need some kind of accountant's process put over them, and that we as community leaders and representatives should have some kind of restraint or filter, by some mathematical process, around the commitments that we make in election campaigns, the ideas that we advance and the things that we say that we will do if we are elected when we are campaigning for election to this place. I get the political points, and people can talk about the things that previous governments have done that they don't like. That's something called democracy. As Winston Churchill said: 'Democracy is the worst form of government, except for every other form of government that's ever been conceived.' There are elements of democracy that those of us who participate in it don't necessarily like at times, but we also accept that we do want to live in a democracy. It is absolutely the reality that if you want democracy, you have democracy holus bolus.

It would be outrageous if this body ever thought they could interfere in appropriate decisions that this chamber, and any government formed in this chamber, decides to make. In an election campaign, if I want to announce that a Liberal government will build a monorail from the south to the north of my electorate, and the people of my electorate re-elect me, and they elect a majority of other members of parliament who form a government that had that policy of that monorail, then—whether or not it is a sensible idea in the eyes of an accountant or any other process—that might happen.

At the end of the day, in a democracy we get to make commitments, take them to the people and put a platform forward, and the people decide if they want to vote for that or not. We would not be a democracy if we said that decisions that are made through the democratic process have got another hurdle that they have to clear, which is justification to some kind of non-elected entity as to why we've made commitments to the people that we represent, and then they, as participants in our democracy, like the ideas that we've got and vote for them.

The examples used in this debate are around decisions of governments that people don't like. That is the reality of living in a democracy. I don't like most of the things that those opposite take to elections. It depresses me when they win an election—one in every five or six—and get to come in and implement those crazy ideas that I don't support, but that is their right by virtue of being democratically elected to form a government. I really don't like it when they do things they didn't tell the people about in an election campaign, but the reality is: if they form a majority in this chamber, they get to do the things that governments get to do. I will absolutely resist any suggestion that we need some kind of undemocratic restriction on the exercise of democracy in this country. With those comments, I commend this bill to the House.

7:02 pm

Photo of Anne StanleyAnne Stanley (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make my contribution on the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022. Labor took a set of bold and wide-ranging ideas that for most of a decade were put into the too-hard basket to this year's election. We have systematically and properly been preparing legislation to meet our commitments to the Australian people, and the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission is one of these. The idea was a policy platform that the previous coalition government promised in 2018 and did not deliver.

Around the world, political disengagement is at an all-time high. Here in Australia, enrolled voter turnout in the last decade has gone from 93.23 per cent in 2013 to 89.25 per cent this year. In today's enrolment numbers, that equates to a drop of around 685,000 voters. In total, 1.8 million enrolled voters decided not to vote this year. While not all these people are disengaged, clearly many are.

Australians have corruption fatigue. A paper published by the Australia Institute in 2018 asserted that political corruption costs around five per cent of GDP worldwide. In Australia, it's estimated to cost four per cent, or $53.2 billion, a year. This is an issue that's only getting worse without proper oversight and accountability. The corruption perceptions index, or CPI, has shown that since 2012 Australia has declined in terms of corruption levels. Ten years ago we had a score of 85 out of 100, and now it's 73 out of 100. To put that in perspective, we've gone from a score that would see us rank equal fourth best in the world to a ranking of 18th. That's lower than the UK, Germany, Canada or New Zealand. Aussies are sick of seeing people with power or influence use their status to funnel public moneys in a manner that suits them or their party political future. There is an essential central need for an anticorruption commission to call out these acts and restore faith in politics. If those that are in these positions of status and power fail to be held to account for their actions, then what results is just a mirage of the image we call democracy. Eventually, if nothing changes, this mirage will no longer resemble a democracy; it will start to reflect the image of something else.

While it's important to note that Australia has not descended to anything that resembles other regimes around the world, the very notion that our society moving by any measure in that direction is, I think, worrying and alarming. This is something that our state governments understand, having well-established anticorruption commissions of their own, and it's a system that has served us very well, particularly in New South Wales. There have been countless cases where individuals and organisations have been brought to justice, on both sides of the political divide, when they otherwise wouldn't have without the corruption commission and the hearings that came from it. We've learnt from them, drawing on the best elements of each state and territory anticorruption commission.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission will have the power to investigate ministers, parliamentarians, their staff, statutory officeholders, government contractors and all government employees. Labor has worked extensively with legal and integrity experts to ensure that the commission is designed to adequately investigate and uncover corruption. That includes a breach of trust, misuse of information, abuse of office or adversely affecting the honest and impartial exercise of the function of Commonwealth public officials. And its powers will be retrospective. Whether corruption occurred before or after the commission's establishment, it will have the jurisdiction to pursue and investigate.

The definition of corruption will be consistent with the existing state and territory definitions, as well as the Commonwealth Law Enforcement Integrity Commission Act 2006. The National Anti-Corruption Commission will be allowed to operate with independence and will be resourced to investigate serious and systemic corruption. Independence is crucial to ensure that Australians can trust that the commission is acting in the best interests of the country.

This legislation will ensure the commission can conduct investigations on its own initiative and that the commissioner will serve a single five-year term, with deputy commissioners allowed up to two terms. Both appointments will have tenure comparable to a federal judge. The independence of the commissioners and the deputy commissioners is important to ensure the institution itself remains impartial and independent.

A key principle of the commission will be transparency to ensure trust and accountability in this process. That's why there will be oversight by the joint parliamentary committee to review the commission's performance as well as appoint the commissioners and deputy commissioners. The commission will be subject to reporting requirements at the conclusion of an investigation and must prepare a report with its findings and recommendations. Those investigations that are held in the public domain and have public hearings will have their reports tabled in each house of this parliament. The commission will be proactive with corruption, prevention and education functions. It will have the power to educate and provide information to the public sector and conduct public inquiries to examine vulnerabilities.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission will be transparent, independent and have a broad jurisdiction in what and who it investigates. The legislation before the House strikes the right balance, creating a strong anticorruption commission while also ensuring there is procedural fairness and safeguards. There will be broader safeguards for journalists and their sources, with additional protections that will ensure that investigations do not cause unnecessary damage to the wellbeing or reputation of a person. Those subjected to investigations will be notified of the outcome whilst those subject to adverse findings will be able to seek a review. The Australian people voted for a commission that adheres to those principles, and that is what is being delivered with this legislation. We will have the commission up and running by mid-2023, so we can start investigations as soon as possible and provide the education that is needed.

The Labor Party, when someone is found to be corrupt, are happy to deal with it appropriately. We don't make excuses for them, cover up for them or defend them. We oust them from the party. It's time the entire political system worked in the same way. It's important that transparency is at the centre of the National Anti-Corruption Commission and that the commission can make public findings of corruption when in the public interest. The Australian people deserve to know when corruption has occurred. This legislation will put integrity back in politics and restore faith in our political system to the Australian public. This bill is another election promise delivered by our government for the Australian people, and I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the honourable member for Werriwa. The question now is that the amendments be disagreed to, and I call the honourable member for Herbert.

7:10 pm

Photo of Phillip ThompsonPhillip Thompson (Herbert, Liberal National Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Deputy Speaker, and I'd like to acknowledge you in this place and your support for an anticorruption commission and of course the member for Moncrieff and her support for an anticorruption commission, and everyone in this place who's contributed today.

We do support a National Anti-Corruption Commission, but we will be proposing amendments to ensure that it is done right. We support integrity in politics. We've been supporting it for a long time, and we supported it well before the election. There's no hiding the fact that integrity and the establishment of a national body to weed out bad behaviour became an election issue. In fact, we heard about it quite frequently throughout the election campaign, and it became quite political. It's now a long time since then, and a lot has happened. And here, today, we have a bill in front of us. We support an anticorruption commission, but we have serious concerns about the form it takes in this bill. While we need a powerful body that is strong enough to not only punish bad behaviour but also act as a deterrent to those who are tempted to do wrong, we must make sure those powers don't go too far.

That's where the concern lies. We need to take serious care to get it right, because these are extraordinary powers that we're talking about giving to the commission. I have a number of significant concerns about this bill. They include the fact that an extremely broad range of Australians come under it, not only parliamentarians and not just public servants but also the AFP, the NDIS, aged-care workers and even people who simply contract to the government. But most concerning for me is the brave men and women of the Australian Defence Force. Yet union officials, despite exercising power under a law of the Commonwealth, aren't covered. Another concern is the mental health implications of those who are subject to gag orders or public hearings. This could have significant ongoing impacts on people's lives and be detrimental to their overall wellbeing. We also have concerns about who decides whether hearings should go public—public hearings are important, but they must be in exceptional circumstances—and that a decision should be made by a higher power than the commissioner.

I want to firstly address who will come under the commission, as many others on this side of the House have also done today and yesterday. As I've said, it's not just us here in this building or ministers who approve grants or the public servants who work throughout the country. It's also the Australian Federal Police, the NDIS and aged-care workers. It's any contractor or subcontractor or person exercising a power under law of the Commonwealth. And it's members of the Australian Defence Force. Looking at the bill, particularly clause 8, we find the definition of 'corrupt conduct', and we see that there are those who are covered by it. Essentially it is any conduct of any person, whether or not a public official, that adversely affects or that could adversely affect, either directly or indirectly, the honest or impartial exercise or performance of any public official's powers, functions or duties. This definition extends to the conduct of people outside the Commonwealth parliament and the public sector.

As a former member of the Australian Defence Force and as the shadow assistant minister for defence, I want to reflect on the implications of this. On the face of it, the wording is fine. The exercise and performance of public officials' powers, functions and duties should be honest and impartial. That is what the NACC is all about and, yes, absolutely the Australian Defence Force members are public officials and, yes, we need our ADF to act with integrity and honesty and, in my view, almost all of them do. So we should have a means by which concerns and allegations can be investigated and people who do bad things are held to account. But my concern is what are going to be the practical implications of the NACC going around and investigating members of the ADF or the AFP, for that matter? The ADF has a difficult task doing its main job, which is to fight and win our wars. They need to be fully devoted to the task. They need to be undistracted. How much time will ADF members have to spend responding to and participating in investigations of the NACC? How many will have to think hard about whether the evidence they give endangers national security? If the complaints are genuine, I have absolutely no problem with that. All public officials should co-operate. But the fact is, with these anticorruption bodies, there's a lot of time spent on these matters, there are vexatious complaints, there are allegations for which there is not enough evidence and there is already a body in the Australian Defence Force, the tribunal, that looks at all allegations throughout the Australian Defence Force. This is duplicating something it said it would not duplicate.

In New South Wales, in the 2019-2020 financial year, the ICAC received 2,416 complaints. It started 14 investigations, and six people ended up being prosecuted. If we see the same sorts of rates with this body, with all sorts of people covered by definition, that is a lot of lost productivity and a lot of distraction from key tasks for our taxpayer funded public servants and officials.

I understand not every investigation results in prosecution; it's not possible. You need to run an investigation to gather evidence to mount a case, but the hypocrisy in all of this is that Labor's mates, the union officials, once again will get a free pass through this legislation. We have seen it in the IR bill getting rid of the militant union-busting Australian Building and Construction Commission and we're seeing it with the National Anti-Corruption Commission. Unions can be some of the most corrupt organisations in this country—not all, but some definitely are. Even if they are acting under the provisions of Commonwealth law, they are not covered by the NACC. In fact, they are not just not covered; they are specifically excluded. It is there in black and white at item 2 of the table within subclause 12-3, which specifically excludes an official of a registered industrial organisation from the class of people the bill applies to. How can it be that union officials wouldn't have to answer to the NACC, but soldiers, as the 3rd Brigade in Townsville, would? Once again, we have a government that talks a big game on integrity but shamelessly looks the other way when it comes to doing special deals with their mates and the unions. That's why we on this side of the House will put forward amendments to close this loop the government has inserted for its union mates.

As the shadow Attorney-General outlined in his second reading speech, the implications of gag orders on the mental health of those involved in public hearings could be very significant and concerning. There is nothing more important than life. That means we must always be on our guard against decisions we make in this place that could adversely affect people's health and wellbeing, particularly when it comes to someone's mental health.

As many in this place would be aware, I've had my own battles with mental illness. While they were a result of my service, people who have been involved in an ICAC style hearing in the state system have suffered severe health implications. A gag order which prevents someone from speaking to their psychologist or psychiatrist about an ongoing investigation that is a huge part of their life at the moment is not going to be a good thing for that person's wellbeing. Anyone with any experience in mental health will know that bottling things up and not being able to share them with other people can have serious repercussions.

When we have situations where many investigations do not lead to convictions, as I mentioned with those statistics before, we have a potential for cases where people who are being investigated but are actually innocent are still punished in the form of mental ill-health. They suffer as a result. This is something the Australian Psychological Society felt so concerned about that they made a submission to the Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation. In that submission they said the following:

One's reputation is fundamental to their status, and social disqualification or damage/loss of that reputation can therefore be devastating. Shame and reputational damage can be incredibly harmful, with victims at risk of serious and life-threatening mental health conditions. Individuals who experience public humiliation and shame can suffer major depressions, suicidality, extreme rage, severe anxiety and even psychosis. These effects can continue over the long term and even for the remainder of that person's life.

These are real risks for anyone who is unnecessarily dragged through a public hearing or investigation, or is subject to a gag order. While we might think that's a situational finding of actual corrupt conduct, that these things are just desserts for bad behaviour, when there comes the potential for someone to die by suicide we must have measures in place to reduce those at risk.

The Psychological Society also submitted to the committee:

Regard for the mental health and welfare of participants during public hearings should be informed by psychological best practice, such as trauma debriefing, particularly when a high level of media interest is expected.

Given the potential for psychological consequences, the APS recommends that appropriate measures be taken to protect the reputation of participants in such hearings, particularly those who may unexpectedly find themselves caught up in an investigation by virtue of their employment with or for individual or organisation being investigated.

That's so important. It's a very important point. There are likely to be a lot of innocent people caught up in investigations who might only be a witness, who are not corrupt or suspected of being corrupt themselves. This is why I would like to see the committee's recommendation adopted for a carve-out for gag orders for medical professionals and psychologists. It should also include family members unless they are also the subject of an investigation. For public hearings, the right support networks must be made available to those who are called to give evidence.

Finally, we need strict measures in place to determine whether an investigation must proceed to a public hearing. The bill mentions the 'exceptional circumstances' test. It's a good thing. Public hearings should be the exception, not the rule. Furthermore, the decision as to whether an investigation proceeds to a public hearing should not lie with the commissioner alone; the opposition believes this power should be exercised by an independent external party who was not involved in the investigation. This must be an independent judicial officer who can look without prejudice at all the circumstances and determine whether the 'exceptional circumstances' test has been met on the basis of that information.

The Law Council of Australia noted in its submission to the inquiry:

The Law Council maintains its position that hearings should generally be conducted in private, unless the Commissioner considers that a closed hearing would be unfair to the person or contrary to the public interest. This draws upon the approach under the Queensland Act. The Law Council understands that public hearings in Queensland are rare, with zero conducted from 2009 to 2017, and three public investigations conducted since then.

… … …

… it's worth keeping in mind that the NACC is neither a court, nor is a prosecutorial body.

Plenty of concerns have been raised about this bill and throughout this time. We must protect those who are protecting us. I do not think that the Australian Defence Force should be included in this. There are already measures in place. Our brave men and women have a job to do. We need to protect them and we need to protect the mental health of Australians and of those who may be caught up in this bill.

7:25 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian people's faith in politicians and our parliament is at one of its lowest points. The Australian National University do a study called the Australian Election Study after every election cycle. In 2019, they found that satisfaction with democracy in Australia was at its lowest point since the 1970s constitutional crisis. The survey found that just 59 per cent of Australians were satisfied with how our democracy is working, and that figure had fallen 27 per cent since 1987. Australians have lost faith with politics and political leaders in this country—and is it any wonder? Under the previous government, there was a series of scandals and rorts that involved the use of taxpayers' dollars: sports rorts, car park rorts, regional development funds. We had a regional development fund that provided funding for the North Sydney pool upgrade. Now, in anyone's book, North Sydney ain't too regional at all, yet the previous government managed to find a way to give funding to the North Sydney Council to upgrade their pool.

Australians have had enough, and that's why, at the last election, they voted for change. They supported Labor's policy to establish a strong and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission. The National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 delivers on that commitment. It will establish a strong Anti-Corruption Commission with the powers to investigate and prosecute serious and systemic corruption. It will be independent from government. It will have the necessary powers to investigate alleged corruption by politicians and public officials, and those that engage with them. It will have the power to compel people to give evidence and to produce documents and materials relevant to its investigations. Importantly, it will have the power to conduct hearings in public so that the public can know what's going on, when and if it is in the public interest to do so.

Proposed amendments to the bill deliver on the recommendations made by the Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation. It represents the government listening to the people of Australia and the submissions that they made, and the recommendations of that joint committee. These amendments will broaden the safeguards for the protection of journalists in relation to search warrants and extend protections for their sources. They will improve safeguards for the wellbeing of persons who may require assistance to comply with a summons or notice to produce and expressly permit people to disclose information to a medical professional. They will require the commissioner to advise a person whose conduct has been investigated of the outcome of the investigation. They will amend the definition of corrupt conduct to clarify that the commissioner may deal with a corruption issue on their own initiative; require surveillance and interception warrants to be issued by eligible judges of a federal superior court; enhance the power of the National Anti-Corruption Commission inspector regarding witness summonses and arrest warrants; and narrow the grounds for bringing contempt proceedings.

This represents the Albanese government delivering an election commitment but acting on the constructive engagement from stakeholders and parliamentarians. It really represents the government listening to the Australian people, who said at the last election that they wanted a powerful anticorruption commission able to investigate allegations of corruption at a federal level. We've had them at the state level. The previous government avoided it, delayed it. This represents the Albanese government finally delivering a national anticorruption commission for Australia.