Wednesday, 23 November 2022
National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022, National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022; Second Reading
The Greens have been pushing for a federal corruption watchdog for 13 years now and will be supporting this bill. My colleague Larissa Waters, who actually had a bill pass the Senate to establish a national anticorruption commission last year, has been relentless in this space, along with Bob Brown, Lee Rhiannon, Christine Milne and independents Cathy McGowan and Helen Haines, as well as my colleague David Shoebridge in the Senate.
This bill is an absolutely important step forward when it comes to accountability and integrity. Indeed, this is a chance to get it right. Getting it right does mean listening to the whistleblowers and civil society organisations and associations who have provided excellent advice and feedback about amendments that we need to make to this bill. There is a strong public mandate for a truly independent, accountable and empowered commission that can get to the bottom of integrity matters, including porkbarrelling and dodgy donations. This bill gets right the establishment and powers of the commission generally. We strongly support the retrospective capacity. The test of serious or systematic is generally appropriate.
There are some key concerns, though, that we have with the final model, which we will seek to address with amendments in the Senate. The bill doesn't go far enough to establish an integrity commission with teeth. I will be seeking amendments to address the following issues. The bar for public hearings is too high. This has been well ventilated in public. Public hearings are an essential function of the NACC, and limiting those to extraordinary circumstances in a secret deal with Peter Dutton isn't acceptable. Secret trials won't stop corruption. Indeed, I think we're seeing the impact of two different types of anticorruption commissions across the country right now. In New South Wales, where there is a much better standard for public hearings in the New South Wales ICAC, the public is at least able to see the workings of that anticorruption commission, whereas down in Victoria with the IBAC we've seen a lot of rumours and innuendo around the operation of that IBAC without the capacity for the public to actually see what's going on and what's being investigated. I think that's an excellent example of exactly why we need a less stringent standard for public hearings than is currently proposed in this bill.
The oversight committee should be genuinely independent, which means there should be a non-government chair to ensure the government doesn't dominate the body. There was a commitment of $262 million to the NACC over four years in the most recent budget, but there is no independent budget process in place, meaning this could be significantly reduced by any future government at will. An independent process would be a better way to guarantee the NACC is not hobbled by those that it may be seeking to investigate.
We will move to exclude former politicians from being commissioners of the NACC. I don't think anyone in the public would think it appropriate that politicians be appointed commissioners of an organisation that is meant to investigate those past colleagues. We will also look to improve protections for journalists' sources and protect journalists' interests when warrants are issued, and we will propose changes that limit what type of corruption can be investigated.
I think it's worth being clear that the National Anti-Corruption Commission on its own is not going to be the silver bullet that deals with so many of the concerns in the public and the institutional influence that often big corporations in particular wield over our political system. It's worth noting that a lot of the concerns held by the public—which the Greens share—are that too often it seems like big corporations are able to wield enormous influence over the political process, often in what are, technically, legal ways. This does nothing to address the revolving door between politics and big business. Ministers and their senior staff from both major parties routinely go on to work for the industries they were supposed to be regulating: sitting on boards, taking up generous consultancies or lobbying their former colleagues in government. It is worth considering a list of past ministers and major party MPs who have gone on to work for big corporations or their associated lobby groups. At the state level, the ex-premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh, is now the CEO of the Australian Banking Association. Ian Macfarlane went from industry minister to the board of Woodside and CEO of the Queensland Resources Council. His ALP counterpart, Martin Ferguson, took the role of the chairman of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association advisory council. Just this week, Joel Fitzgibbon is in the news because he's joined the board of Brickworks, a company which invests in coalmines and has profited from the New Hope coal corporation, just the type of fossil fuel development Fitzgibbon pushed for in his time in parliament. Nicola Roxon, a former health minister, later worked for the private health insurance fund Bupa. Ben Wyatt, a former treasurer in WA under a Labor government, joined the boards of Rio Tinto and Woodside immediately after retiring from politics. Brendan Nelson, a former defence minister, is now president of Boeing Australia, a top-five defence contractor.
These are not just isolated instances. The Grattan Institute has found that since the nineties more than a quarter of major party federal MPs who served in executive government move across to peak bodies, lobbying firms or directly into big business after their retirement from politics. That is a massive problem, because, in particular, too often surely one of the most general motivations for these corporations or peak lobby groups in hiring ex-ministers or ex-government and ex-opposition MPs is because of their connections into those governments or political parties. I think the general public would assume that is a generally bad and terrible precedent and standard to set, and it is something we should be doing a lot better on. The Greens previously proposed that we should ban ex-politicians, and in particular ministers, from going on to work for lobbyist organisations or for big corporations that they were previously in charge of regulating.
Nor does this bill do anything to address corporate donations and cash-for-access meetings. Cash-for-access meetings via fundraising forums don't count as donations. Often, they are listed as other receipts. The ALP's federal Labor Business Forum costs up to $110,000 a year, giving donors the chance to mingle with ministers at dinners and drinks and be briefed on policy. Members of both parties' fundraising arms in 2019-20 included Wesfarmers, Woodside Energy, banks, resource companies and big pharma companies, alongside consulting firms like PwC and Deloitte, who regularly win government contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It is completely inappropriate that we have a fundraising strategy by the major parties that involves giving special access to government and shadow ministers, which the big corporations will often pay either $110,000 or $27,500 for. In the past, we know that corporations like Bupa have paid for that access to government ministers, which is completely inappropriate.
When you think about it in simple terms, the effect is that when you have $27,500 or $110,000 you get access to government ministers and opposition shadow ministers that you otherwise would not get. We are meant to live in a democracy. It seems deeply inappropriate that someone who does not have $27,500 to spare or $110,000 for the federal Labor Business Forum is not able to get the sort of access those big corporations can. I think most people generally agree that big corporations already wield far too much power and influence over politics. Bob Brown, when advocating for a national anticorruption commission way back in 2009, wrote:
The current political culture in Australia decrees that if you hand a minister $10,000 in a paper bag marked ''for you'' in return for a talk about your business plans, it is a bribe. But if you hand the $10,000 to a party official to sit next to the minister at dinner and discuss your business plans, that is OK.
In recent years, the fossil fuel industry has donated millions of dollars to both major parties, including $670,000 to the coalition and $470,000 to Labor in 2020-21. According to the Australian Democracy Network's report on state capture, this roughly even spread of donations to both sides of politics is a major red flag, suggesting that the fossil fuel industry are comfortable that, no matter which party is in power, their interests will be taken care of. At a very minimum, we need to end cash-for-access meetings, ban all corporate donations, crack down on lobbying and end the revolving door between politicians and their staff and industry jobs.
While the National Anti-Corruption Commission is a crucial and important step in tackling what are often systemic problems of corruption and malpractice, in both federal and state politics, the other big problem at the moment, which this bill still does not address, is the often perfectly legal—under our current laws—ways that big corporations influence the political process, to a degree that ordinary people do not have access to. That is a major problem.
The National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2020 has been a long time coming, and I'm absolutely delighted that we're at this point now. A national anticorruption commission is something that has been called for long and loudly from my community. I thought it might be worth reflecting back on how this started and why we have got where we have today.
For us, it goes back to a commitment in 2018. That commitment was because the community was disaffected. It didn't have confidence in the integrity of, quite frankly, some of the people who sit in this place and some of the people who work around this place. More importantly, it didn't have confidence that decisions were being made in the best interests of Australians. So we were very pleased in January 2018 to make that decision.
I think we all know that there was a commitment on both sides, but today demonstrates that only one side of this parliament, those of us who are now in government, actually had enough commitment to follow through on the promises that we made.
One thing that I think was key in how this process has happened is that we didn't say, 'Here's a bill; take it or leave it'. What we said to people was, 'Here it is; we are happy to work through and discuss things.' It is really notable that we've agreed with all six recommendations of the report of the Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation. We have prepared government amendments to this bill that will be put to this place, and they include a few key things. One is that they'll extend protections to people who are assisting a journalist in their work as a journalist from being compelled to identify an informant or provide information that would assist to ascertain an informant's identity. This matters to me, having been a journalist in the early part of my career. We need to ensure that protections like that are available.
Another amendment expressly provides that the commission will be able to begin an investigation on their own initiative. I think that will give people confidence that there's a real separation in terms of how it works. Being an independent organisation is key to not just its effectiveness but the trust that people have in it. After all, this is what this is about: we are restoring trust in a system in which multiple decisions get made all the time that affect people's lives, that improve their community. It will mean the system is accountable for how those decisions are made.
One of the other amendments that will be put will require that the commissioner to advise a person of the outcome of a corruption investigation if the commissioner has investigated the conduct of that person and has formed the opinion, or made a finding, that the person has not engaged in corrupt conduct. We'll be very pleased to put those amendments to the bill. As I say, I think that reflects a genuine willingness on this side of the House to see a piece of legislation that has wide support across the parliament, because this is something that we want to see sustained. We are the last jurisdiction to have an anticorruption commission; the states are way ahead of us. That has allowed us to look at what has worked most effectively in the states, to look at some of the concerns there might be about the operation and to come to a very-well-thought-through piece of legislation. I want to commend the Attorney-General for the work he has done. He has long held a commitment around this, and I know he will be very pleased to see this debate progressing as this sitting week goes on.
I should also note that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights looked at this legislation, and the government has agreed in part to the first six recommendations that that committee made and notes the final recommendation. There was a third scrutiny of this legislation, from the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills. Again, the government agrees with six of the eight recommendations—that's been updated in the explanatory memorandum—and notes the two other recommendations.
Let's look at where we are. We have a bill that is amended because of our commitment to legislate a powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission. We said we'd do it by the end of the year; I know there were people who thought it couldn't be done, but this shows our willingness to work hard, consult in a detailed way and progress things—not sit on them but make them happen. The Albanese government has been committed to integrity, honesty and accountability from day 1. This is a cornerstone piece of legislation for us. This is a cornerstone to restoring public trust and strengthening the standards of integrity in the federal government sphere.
The bill gives full effect to the design principles taken to the federal election. We knew in the lead-up to the federal election what it needed to have, and we've stayed true to that. It also draws on the best elements of the state and territory anticorruption commissions and laws.
I just want to reflect back on the lead-up to the election and the sorts of things people said to me about how significant and important having this piece of legislation and creating the National Anti-Corruption Commission was. Jade, from Kurrajong Heights, said to me—and this picks up themes that were totally consistent: 'I am writing to let you know how important the establishment of an anticorruption commission is, and that it is past due. The decline in the faith of our democratically elected leaders has diminished, in my opinion, over the last few years. I am disgusted by some areas of the press who support the actions of so many in the federal government. From my perspective, it's important for our parliament to be open and transparent.' That reflects the view that people felt there was not sufficient transparency. Jan, from South Windsor, says: 'I am absolutely in favour of a federal ICAC which has teeth and is retrospective.' Then we have Neroli, from Katoomba, who says: 'Everyone I know supports a strong federal integrity commission, and not the watered-down version proposed by the previous government.'
Hearing people say they are actually having conversations about it—in my many years as a journalist and then working in business before coming into politics, I have never heard an integrity commission be discussed as much as it has been in the last couple of years, and that is partly because of the performance of the previous government. That was picked up by Bruce, from Lawson, who said to me: 'The appalling performance of the previous government reinforced to the broad community how an integrity commission is vital to a healthy, functional democracy.' He saw that it was critical that, given we have one government, we take the opportunity to make a lasting improvement on the good government of our country for many years to come, and that's exactly what this bill will do.
Let's just go through some of the details of it. It provides the commission with broad jurisdiction to investigate serious or systemic corruption or corrupt conduct across the Commonwealth public sector. It has the power to investigate ministers; parliamentarians and their staff; statutory office holders; employees of all government entities; contractors; and contracted service providers. It will have the discretion to commence inquiries on its own initiative or in response to referrals from anyone—from anyone. It will be able to investigate both criminal and non-criminal corrupt conduct, and conduct occurring before or after its establishment. So there are those key principles that we committed to.
Defining 'corrupt conduct' is central to the commission's jurisdiction, and it is consistent with the key elements of existing definitions at the state and territory level and in the Commonwealth's Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act 2006. The definition encompasses conduct by a public official that involves an abuse of office, a breach of public trust or misuse of information. It also includes conduct by any person that adversely affects the honest or impartial exercise of a Commonwealth public official's functions. As I said, we've accepted the joint standing committee's recommendations that 'corruption of any other kind' will be removed from the bill, and we're very confident that the amended definition of 'corrupt conduct' will enable the commission to effectively investigate any form of serious or systemic corrupt conduct that's referred to it. Other conduct that could adversely affect public administration, such as external fraud, will continue to be dealt with by existing integrity commissions, so this will add rather than take away.
The commissioner will have a full suite of powers similar to those of a royal commission. The commissioner will be able to use these powers to undertake an investigation if they are of the opinion that it could involve serious or systemic corrupt conduct. Hearings are a key part of it. The commissioner will be able to hold public hearings if satisfied that this is in the public interest and that exceptional circumstances justify doing so. The default position is that hearings will be held in private. Reporting at the end of the investigation will provide transparency and also support the commission's prevention and education function, because that is another key part of this. To be able to educate in order to prevent corruption is really key. It's one thing to catch it afterwards, but to really do something constructive for the sake of our democracy is to be able to educate and prevent.
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. So this legislation respects those existing jurisdictions. The commissioner will be required to provide procedural fairness by ensuring that those who are subject to a critical finding, opinion or recommendation in a report are afforded an opportunity to respond. And, as I've said, the commissioner would be required to notify a person of the outcome of a corruption investigation if they've investigated and have formed the opinion or made the finding that the person has not engaged in corrupt conduct. That is really important for people to be able to draw a line under that sort of investigation.
I want to talk a little bit, in the time that I have, about the prevention and education functions. The commission has a mandate to undertake corruption prevention and education functions. This includes undertaking public inquiries to examine corruption risks and vulnerabilities and the measures that are there to prevent corruption. So the commission will really be able to look at what is in place and see if that is effective enough. The commission will provide guidance and information to support the public sector so that they clearly understand the concept of corrupt conduct and are able to identify and address vulnerabilities. This work will be informed by the insights the commissioner draws from the investigations that the commission undertakes and the intelligence that it is gathering.
I'm going to finish by speaking about the independence of this organisation, which is fundamental to it being a credible organisation within the broader community. The independence of the commission is going to be secured in a number of ways. It will be able to conduct investigations on its own initiative or in response to referrals. 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, and the appointees will have security of tenure comparable to a federal judge. We're very confident that these measures and fundamental elements are going to change this country for the better. I look forward to it having wide support in this parliament.
I rise in support of the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022. It's been a long road—countless motions, bills and press conferences—so I am so grateful that we are finally able to debate a national anticorruption commission bill in this place and that we are likely only weeks away from legislation passing and hopefully becoming law.
I was in this place when the former government said that they would introduce an integrity commission. It didn't happen, and the Australian people grew frustrated and tired of waiting. What a missed opportunity that was. I'm delighted to see that, during this parliament, the Australian community's trust may be restored. This is an important time for this to happen, and we know that we can do better in representing our electorates and the national interest, not self-interest or the interest of those who donate the most. As I've said before, we need to be able to make our decisions in the light and demonstrate to our communities that those decisions are supported by sound governance.
I'd like to acknowledge the former member for Indi, Cathy McGowan. Cathy blazed a trail, as she did on many fronts, and she introduced the National Integrity Commission Bill 2018 into this place. It's something that she worked on for months to create, and I remember sitting right here, maybe a couple of rows back, and Cathy saying, 'This is about us being our best selves'. Since that time, the 45th Parliament, I think it's fair to say that we, as a House of Representatives crossbench, have persisted and kept the pressure on two governments now. I would like to acknowledge the tremendous work that's been done, with respect to this bill, by the joint committee. They've worked hard to review this bill and to make suggestions to government for improvements.
I do remember, though, signing the transparency charter in the 45th Parliament in April 2019. It was signed by the member for Clark and many good senators that are no longer here, including Tim Storer, Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff. It was about signing on to ideals and making a pledge around transparency values, and seeing the words of that charter's mission now in this piece of legislation is incredibly important, I think. In many instances, parliaments and governments legislate top-down, telling people what should be done and making high-level policy decisions which impinge on and ultimately, we hope, improve people's lives. But it has been a groundswell of support from the people which has led the movement for a national integrity commission, and this has consistently been a key priority in my electorate. I thank every person who has called, written to me or talked to my team and said, 'Don't forget this, Rebekha. We need to make sure this happens.'
I congratulate the government on working quickly to develop this bill after many years of discussion in the community and in this place. I look forward to the new commission being established and to what it can achieve in helping ensure that we are all our best selves in this 47th Parliament and parliaments to come. Many organisations have contributed to the consultation on the bill that's before us today, and I'd like to thank the teams at Transparency International Australia and the Centre of Public Integrity, among others, for their engagement with me and my team.
While it would, in my opinion, benefit from some further amendments—which I will speak further to—including amendments I'm putting forward myself, I rise to support this bill. The commission will be able to investigate serious and systemic corrupt conduct by a public official, including if it occurred before the commencement of this act. The commission will have a broader perspective and educative role in relation to corruption, and it will be overseen by the parliamentary joint committee and an inspector, who will be tasked with investigating any serious and systemic corruption issues and complaints relating to the commission itself. The commission, in my view, has the basics to enable it to function well for the most part, with strong investigative powers, including its own motion, and measures in the bill to help ensure that the commission is resourced properly to fulfil its purpose, functions and tasks. And that's key. It must be resourced.
That said, for the commission to have real teeth, a number of small measures could improve upon the bill as introduced in this parliament. While Transparency International Australia have welcomed the proposed clarification and simplification of the definition of 'corrupt conduct', compared with most previous Australian precedents in sound corruption prevention, education and integrity-building functions afforded the commission, it has communicated some concerns regarding the bill as drafted. Similarly, the Centre for Public Integrity states that the NACC bill, as it's known, proposes an integrity commission which will be fit for purpose in almost all material respects but nonetheless retains concerns in a number of key respects.
Many of these concerns have been reflected by amendments moved, most of which I intend to support as practical measures to make this bill the best it can be. Firstly, the definition of 'corruption' needs to capture the conduct of third parties, such as lobbyists, companies and the like, and attempts to corrupt public administration. The commission should be able to investigate anyone's improper conduct that has potential to sway public officials, not just the conduct of public officials themselves. Key stakeholders have expressed the view that excluding third parties from the definition of 'corrupt conduct' would be a significant omission and inconsistent with all Australian jurisdictions' anticorruption commissions except those of Western Australia and Tasmania.
A number of changes that are canvassed in the amendments before this place could further enhance the independence of the commission from government. These include requiring the agreement of two non-government members in the majority when making appointments of the commission's key office holders and measures to improve budget transparency and oversight to ensure that the future commission is adequately resourced. Likewise, I support the amendments moved by the member for Warringah to make reporting provisions in this bill more robust and to require the commission to deal with corruption issues that may be referred to by either house of parliament.
Above all, however, the whistleblower protections remain incomplete under this bill and in law generally. Transparency International Australia have called for stronger shield laws to protect the rights of journalists not to identify their sources, as these laws remain too weak. They have called for an increased level of privilege in relation to warrants in matters involving journalism, given the public interest in journalism and the protection of private sources. I've recently called on the Attorney-General to review and improve existing inadequate protections and redress for whistleblowers and their legal counsel. While public undertakings have been given that whistleblower protections and the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 will be considered next year, it's clear that the whistleblower protections in the bill are based on provisions from the Public Interest Disclosure Act that have shown themselves to be quite inadequate in recent years.
I've also circulated amendments in my name to improve requirements for statutory review of the operation of the act within a reasonable time frame. At present the bill provides for parliamentary committee functions including monitoring and reviewing the performance of the commissioner and the inspector and reporting of both houses of parliament and a number of other relevant functions but does not require a review of the act's operation. Nor does it set a time frame for conducting any such review. Instead, the statutory review provision, at clause 278, is broad enough to drive a truck through. Strengthening clause 278 would provide comfort if the parliamentary committee did not undertake a review of the operation of the act within its first five years. Review requirements are pivotal given the import of the commission's work. A statutory review provision with teeth will provide for minimum matters such a review must consider and report on. It would require that the person or persons conducting the review are at least as qualified as the commissioners themselves and that the report of the review is to be provided to the minister within 12 months of the review commencing. It would also require the minister to table the resulting report in both houses within 14 days, which I think is incredibly important, or to provide it to the presiding officer for circulation to all members if the House is not sitting during that period.
Overall, this represents a sound, practical improvement to the bill which will ensure that the operation of this vitally important legislation is properly reviewed before the end of its first five years. I have been calling for a national integrity commission with teeth since I was first elected over six years ago. We now have before us the most exciting opportunity of all to make sure this is done and done properly, and I commend this bill to the House.
I am very proud to speak in support of these very important bills, the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022. One of the issues these bills deal with is integrity, which means confidence in the systems that run our country. We need to have absolute confidence that things are running for the betterment of the nation and not for the betterment of individuals, and that can be read into these bills. Recent years have shown significant erosion of trust between citizens and politicians, government, government agencies. By establishing the National Anti-Corruption Commission we hope to create a body that will make this government and future governments, government agencies, public servants et cetera better. Integrity should be above partisan politics.
The Australian people delivered a clear message at the last election that something was broken or not working quite right. It does not mean that things were not working right but that perception is a very dangerous perception to be out there, and we need to fix it. The perception was that something is broken, and the people want it fixed. I am very proud to be a part of this government that is delivering this bill to its House, which is the result of us listening to Australians.
One of the most common issues raised with me over the past few years was the need for a National Anti-Corruption Commission. People are crying out for a body that ensures the integrity of parliament and government. Such a commission is vital to help people regain that trust in our institutions and the people who work within them. This, after all, is the basis of a healthy democracy. They are the pillars of our democracy. Even though Australia punches above its weight in the different monitors of corruption around the world—we would be one of the countries on the lowest scale—it doesn't mean that we can't do better.
This legislation is the single biggest reform to the Commonwealth integrity framework that we have seen in decades. It also honours the commitment that we made to the Australian people during the last election campaign. Shamefully, the Commonwealth is the last Australian jurisdiction to establish an anticorruption commission, but this delay has allowed us to draw the best elements of the different systems that have been set up in the state and territory models. We believe we have reached the right balance to ensure the integrity of Australia's institutions.
These bills will empower the commission to investigate and report on serious systemic corruption in the Commonwealth and public sector; importantly, will refer evidence of criminal misconduct for prosecution; and will undertake education and prevention activities. On this side of the House we're committed to integrity, honesty and accountability in government. This legislation is a cornerstone of our commitment and our agenda, and it will restore, as I said, public trust and strengthen standards of integrity in our federal government.
The bill provides the commission with broad jurisdiction to investigate serious or systemic corrupt conduct across the Commonwealth public sector. The commission will have the power to investigate ministers, parliamentarians, staff, statutory officeholders, public servants, employees of all government entities and government contractors. It will have discretion to commence inquiries on its own initiative or in response to referrals. It will be able to investigate both criminal and non-criminal corrupt conduct and conduct occurring before or after its establishment.
The definition of corrupt conduct is central to the commission's jurisdiction. It is consistent with key elements of existing definitions at the state and territory level and in the Commonwealth Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act 2006. This definition includes conduct by a public official that involves an abuse of office, breach of public trust, misuse of information or corruption of any kind, and it also includes conduct by any person that adversely affects the honest or impartial exercise of a Commonwealth public official's functions.
The commissioner will have powers similar to a royal commissioner. The commissioner will be able to use these powers to undertake an investigation into corrupt conduct if the commissioner believes it could involve serious or systemic corrupt conduct, and to determine whether an allegation could be serious or systemic corruption the commissioner will be able to undertake preliminary inquiries. In order to do this the commissioner will have powers to compel the production of information.
The commissioner will also be able to hold public hearings in exceptional circumstances and when satisfied that it's in the public interest. The default position is that hearings will be held in private, and this is very important because we need to balance the public interest with other potential negative impacts. After completing an investigation the commissioner will be required to prepare a report setting out their findings and recommendations, and they will be able to make findings of corrupt conduct but not of criminal liability. Criminal liability can be determined only by a court of law.
Reports will be made public if the matters they deal with are already in the public domain. They'll also be made public when it's determined to be in the public interest. Reports will be required to be tabled in each house of the parliament where a public hearing has been held during the investigation, and the commissioner will be able to publish public versions of reports when satisfied, again, that it's in the public interest to do so and if procedural fairness requirements are met. The commissioner will be required to provide procedural fairness by ensuring that those who are the subject of a critical finding, opinion or recommendation in a report are afforded an opportunity to respond.
They'll also have an important mandate to undertake corruption prevention and educational functions, and this includes undertaking public inquiries to examine corruption risks, vulnerabilities and 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 where there may be vulnerabilities to corruption. The commission will also engage in broader public education about its role, corruption risks and avenues to report corrupt conduct.
A cornerstone of this commission will be its absolute independence, 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 different sources. 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 parliamentary joint committee. The commissioner's appointment will be for a single term of five years and deputy commissioner appointments for up to two terms of five years each. The appointees will have security of tenure, of course, comparable to a federal judge.
The legislation enables the parliamentary joint committee to review and make recommendations on the sufficiency of the NACC's budget. The commission will be overseen by a parliamentary joint committee and an inspector. 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.
The design of this commission is balanced, with strong safeguards to ensure that investigations do not cause undue reputational damage. This is very important, as we have seen from the experiences in other jurisdictions. In order to ensure this, hearings will be held in private unless there are exceptional circumstances and the commission is satisfied it is in the public interest to hold a hearing in public. Certain sensitive evidence will be received in private, in addition to a range of decisions the commissioner can make when appropriate.
This legislation will also provide very strong protection for whistleblowers and that's very important. This will include protection against 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. Similarly, the bill ensures that journalists are also appropriately protected. This includes an exemption from answering questions or providing information that would enable the identity of a source to be ascertained.
We have committed substantial funding, as we have heard, of $262 million over four years for the establishment and ongoing operation of the commission. We know that this funding will ensure the commission has the required staff and resources and the necessary capacity to undertake its very important and crucial work.
As I said, in recent years we've seen significant erosion of the confidence that the public has in politicians, in government agencies and in governments. Establishing this independent Anti-Corruption Commission will bring back some of that confidence. As I said earlier, creating this body will make this government and future governments better. Integrity is way above politics and partisan politics, and so it should be. We heard the message at the last election that people wanted an anti-corruption body established, an independent body, that would look into allegations and issues in a way that was above this place, in a way that no-one in this House had any say, in a way that no-one in the Public Service had any say, or any government agency—a totally independent body to investigate matters.
As I said earlier, I'm very proud to be commending this bill to the House because it was an integral part of our commitments when in opposition and also during the election campaign. On the other side of the House we had a government that had promised the voters of Australia that they would deliver a commission and they failed to do so over a period of nine years. I think it's very important, as a first step, in restoring confidence but also in ensuring that we have a body that will be above any interference from anyone, that would investigate serious corruption allegations and issues. I commend this bill to the House.
I rise today on behalf of the federal electorate of North Sydney, and as a proud member of the 47th Parliament who has actively campaigned for this historic piece of legislation, to speak on the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022. For many in North Sydney this opportunity has been too long in coming, with previous governments promising to introduce a federal integrity commission, yet failing to deliver. In this context, I congratulate the Attorney-General and the Albanese government for delivering so promptly and unequivocally on what the Australian people demanded at the recent election. It is easy to jump straight to criticisms or pointing out room for improvement, but I'd like to pause for just a moment to say: well done. This is a historic piece of reform.
It is true to say I was sent to this place by my community to ensure that just this piece of legislation was shepherded through the parliamentary system. The people of North Sydney want a better standard of politics. They want their trust in the federal political process restored, and they have believed for some time now that this would be encouraged, supported and in part realised through the establishment of a national integrity watchdog. North Sydney values politics done differently, even when it might appear to be against our best interests. You see, my seat has been the recipient of targeted funding which could be described as having a distinct whiff of pork about it.
Wedged between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Luna Park, the North Sydney Olympic Pool has been a nationally recognised icon for over 84 years. In April 2019 the then Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg; and North Sydney's local MP announced a $10 million election commitment to contribute to the pool upgrade. On further investigation, it was uncovered that that $10 million was allocated for the Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream, which was created as a measure to remove barriers for women participating in sport in our regions, and to develop and upgrade community pools in remote and regional areas. Don't get me wrong; our pool is iconic, and it had been identified that some work was required. But it's hardly located in a regional or rural community. The ridiculous and discretionary nature of both this pre-election announcement and the final budget allocation was farcical and put to rest any idea that the process driving the then government's decision about where funding should be directed was anything other than some warped idea of 'winner takes all' and friends get all the benefits. In light of this story and many others just like it, it will come as no surprise, then, that the people of North Sydney, and indeed the majority of Australians, have lost faith in our democracy.
Over the years, cases of financial and funding rorts; sexual harassment, bullying and misconduct; and what appears to be blatant corruption have simply eroded people's trust in politicians and our political system. In a report released just yesterday by the Scanlon Foundation, when Australians were asked if they believed that the government in Canberra can be trusted to do the right thing all or most of the time, only 41 per cent agreed. This is down from 44 per cent last year and 56 per cent in the November 2020 period. This downward trajectory needs to be turned around, and it is the responsibility of those of us in this place to arrest the slide. As Democracy 2025 puts it:
Trust is the glue that facilitates collective action for mutual benefit.
If people can't trust that the government is acting with their best interests at heart, policies become less effective, people stop complying with decisions they don't like and, ultimately, democracy breaks down.
Australia Institute polling shows that nine in 10 Australians think there is corruption in federal politics, and the unfortunate truth is that this diminishing faith in our federal political system is not a new issue. For decades, representatives in this place and the other have been campaigning against the unchecked corruption of the major political parties. We have all too often seen breathtaking scandal, exorbitant rorts and extreme misbehaviour involving federal politicians and senior public servants. We know the Commonwealth government oversees billions of dollars in spending, from multibillion dollar defence procurement to funding for local sports facilities and commuter car parks. We've observed cases of ministers intervening in visas for au pairs, handing out grants to organisations that were barely established, and obscuring money in blind trusts. Sadly, these cases have usually been uncovered by the media, and in many instances the behaviour has gone unpunished.
But, whether there is or isn't corruption within our system, perceptions of its existence cost our economy and community not only in dollar terms—with some estimating a reduction in our GDP of four per cent, or $72.3 billion—but also fundamentally through the schism that is created in the very fabric that should sustain a confident society. There is nothing quite like being involved in a conversation with regular people from across your community who are lamenting the way their federal politics appear to have become so disconnected from their ambitions, their desires and their values. Their representatives just do not seem to represent them anymore. For me, that look—one which combines both disappointment and a hope for better—was one of the fundamental reasons that I agreed to run as an Independent candidate when my community asked me to.
Ultimately, rebuilding Australians' trust in politics is critical to our nation's long-term success. We urgently need to improve standards of behaviour and integrity in federal politics so that we have the foundations to achieve the fairer and more prosperous future we all want to see. The establishment and empowerment of this independent National Anti-Corruption Commission will go some way towards improving Australians' trust in democracy.
Throughout the development of the bill, many of us in this place have worked constructively with the government in good faith to ensure that the proposed commission meets community expectations. This has included advocating for statutory oversight mechanisms to protect the independence of the commission, budgetary protection, independence and funding transparency, the ability to launch own-motion investigations, funding for education and prevention to head corruption off at the pass, and an expansive jurisdiction over third parties. These issues have been advocated for for years and include lessons learnt from integrity bodies in states and territories.
One specific example of how the crossbench, supported by advocates and experts, has helped shape the final product we are now debating is the simple inclusion of the word 'integrity'. At the outset, the government seemed determined that the scope of this commission would be limited to corruption. Talk of an integrity commission was dismissed, but we chipped away at the idea and argued that it was vital that, for this reform to have maximum impact, the government not only play a role in preventing corruption but also promote a cultural shift which focuses on empowering those who are expected to uphold the highest degree of integrity to do just that. In the words of the minister then, 'This legislation now delivers the single biggest integrity reform this parliament has seen in decades.'
Importantly, this reform must be able to deliver this ambition regardless of who is in power at the time. Longevity and sustainability will ultimately be the key measures of success for this nation-changing reform. We must, as members of this 47th Parliament, ensure that we do the work now to enable this commission to be set up in a way that can withstand the political game playing that comes when party politics meets power. There are four key aspects of the bill that I believe warrant further discussion.
Firstly, I've heard from experts who advocate that transparent, public hearings are needed to help build public confidence in the National Anti-Corruption Commission. Under the proposed legislation, by default, the Anti-Corruption Commission hearings will be held in private unless the commissioner decides there are exceptional circumstances justifying a public hearing and that it is in the best interests to do so. I would argue that openness, not secrecy, should be the norm, and having more public hearings would strengthen the National Anti-Corruption Commission. Why? Because all of the evidence shows us that public hearings are more effective in exposing corruption because they bring forward more information and witnesses. Importantly, they would also improve the public's trust in government, as people would see the system working.
Under this legislation, the commissioner does have the power to hold public hearings in exceptional circumstances and if satisfied it is in the public interest to do so. The bill provides guidance to the commission in making these decisions, and I am satisfied that, with the strong independence of the commission that has been written into the bill, the commission will exercise these powers soundly and in the public interest.
That having being said, the political reality is that reform can require compromise. In my view, securing cross-party backing for the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission may mean that that compromise might need to take place in this House. I do not think, then, that on this point we should let perfect be the enemy of good, and, as such, I am prepared to accept the government's arguments as to why they are currently presenting the option of public hearings in this way. I also undertake to keep an open mind, however, and pay close attention to the statutory review process should it become evident in the early years of operation for the commission that the bar for exceptional standards is creating a yoke around the commissioner's neck rather than empowering them to make what they believe are the best decisions for the public good.
Secondly, we need a National Anti-Corruption Commission that will continue to deliver on its objectives no matter who is in power. To that end, it will be important to find ways to commit future governments to adequate funding for the National Anti-Corruption Commission as far as it is possible to do so.
I would propose, then, that the commission's budget should be allocated on a minimum of a five-year cycle, with the ability to obtain supplementary funding if needed. The independence of the National Anti-Corruption Commission will be bolstered by requiring a multipartisan, balanced parliamentary joint committee to review its budget on an annual basis, and a dedicated secretariat resource will be essential to ensuring that the committee has the information it needs to perform its role. I expect that this capacity is something that should be built into the legislation.
Thirdly, whistleblowers must be protected as we introduce the new anticorruption laws. While in the longer term I'm reassured by the Attorney-General's commitment to review Australia's whistleblower protections, I believe that the provisions to protect whistleblowers from victimisation, harassment and other adverse actions are essential within this piece of legislation.
Lastly, I believe there's an opportunity to do something unprecedented in this place through the establishment of a truly independent commission by appointing majority non-government members to the parliamentary joint committee overseeing the National Anti-Corruption Commission. Why? Because, for this agency and an agency such as this to be beyond reproach, it must stand for and itself be accountable to that which is larger than any government of the day, and that is the entire parliament. There will always be powerful interests seeking to persuade the government of the day to downgrade the effectiveness of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, and we need to ensure that as elected representatives we have the mechanism to watch the watchdog.
During this debate I've been a fierce advocate for the establishment of a multipartisan, balanced parliamentary joint committee to perform the role of oversight of a National Anti-Corruption Commission, and I commend the government for the inclusion of just such an independent committee in the bill. However, in the bill's current form the committee's independence has been compromised. The requirement that the chair be a member of the government and for the chair to hold the casting vote over commission appointments is a serious limitation.
I would therefore like to see the bill amended in two ways. The first of these is an amendment to ensure that the chair of the committee is a non-government member of parliament. The second is an amendment to ensure that the approval of appointments to the commission are subject to a supermajority. I note in the joint select committee's advisory report that the evidence provided by a range of expert witnesses supported just such a proposal. I also note that coalition committee members indicated that a supermajority vote in these circumstances would be desirable, as bipartisan confidence in the positions of commissioner and inspector is essential.
As I said earlier, there will always be powerful interests seeking to persuade the government of the day to downgrade the effectiveness of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, both in the immediate future and over the longer term. If this government can bring itself to truly place faith in the institution it is helping to create then the departure from tradition is warranted and would be seen as a historic and courageous stance taken by a government that is prepared to lead rather than to control. While the establishment and empowerment of a strong, independent national anticorruption regime will go some way towards rebuilding community confidence in our federal system, we must recognise that this reform alone will not bring us to the fullness of the democracy we can be. Indeed, it is arguably only the first step, and it should in no way be seen as a replacement for the fundamental cultural reform that I believe the people of Australia wish to see proceed at this national level.
On behalf of the people of North Sydney, I commend the National Anti-Corruption Commission bills to the House. I sincerely hope that this legacy piece of reform will outlive my time in this House as well as your own. Thank you.
When we vote on the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022, Australia will finally have a powerful National Anti-Corruption Commission. But the only reason for that is that Australians elected a Labor government. Let's be very clear. If the Liberals had their way there would not be a real National Anti-Corruption Commission. They spent years ducking and weaving, trying every trick in the book to make sure Australia would not have a proper NACC. They even came up with a con trick last term, which we had to endure day after day, of waving around a great big piece of draft legislation, pretending they wanted to act.
But that version would have been worse than useless. It would have been a protection racket for government and members of parliament, because the commission could have initiated investigations into MPs only with the permission of the government. It was truly ridiculous. The dead giveaway that they didn't mean it was that they refused to actually introduce that draft bill into the parliament, because they knew the parliament would have amended it to make it tougher. Former Prime Minister Morrison should, in my view, apologise for his dithering, delay and sneaky behaviour, pretending he was going to act but refusing to ever do so. For nearly a decade, while the Liberals were in office, to our great national shame delaying the introduction of an anticorruption commission, Australia fell from seventh place in 2012 to 18th place in 2021 on Transparency International's global corruption perception index. The main reason for this slide was the Liberals' shameful failure to act.
The government is honouring its election problem with this bill, which is on track to pass by the end of the year as promised. The Leader of the Opposition sniffed the political breeze and changed tack, recognising this legislation was going to pass the parliament one way or another; indeed, some of his own members would have crossed the floor to vote with Labor. So he did the politically convenient thing and decided to back the legislation. This is cynical but admittedly very welcome because I believe it is important for our country that this reform pass the parliament unanimously with the support of all members. Thanks to the good work of the committee chair, Senator Linda White, and the deputy chair, Dr Helen Haines, we are on track to do that—with the exception, of course, of One Nation, who oppose an anticorruption commission of any sort; let that sink in! I commend the committee for a unanimous report recommending that the bill pass with only minor changes. It's only natural there are different views, as we've heard, on matters of detail in the bill; the amendments allow for those debates. In the scheme of things, these are minor matters; the core of the bill and the government's model has been agreed.
When this bill passes, as it will, the National Anti-Corruption Commission can then be established by law. A truly independent commissioner will be appointed, requiring the endorsement of a joint parliamentary committee. The commissioner will have the full suite of powers akin to those of a standing royal commission. As a society, we should be very clear on what that phrase means; I just want to make this point because it contextualises the remarks I am going to make. These are very extreme powers which mean all the ordinary protections built into the legal system, hard-won in our democratic society over hundreds of years, do not apply. The right to silence will be gone. People can be legally forced to answer questions that may incriminate them or others, unlike in ordinary courts. Legal professional privilege is overridden. People's right to communicate in private with their lawyer is abrogated. Ordinary rules of evidence and basic procedural fairness are overridden. We should not legislate the withdrawal of these powers lightly. This is indeed a significant moment because the commissioner can use those coercive powers to investigate serious or systemic corruption. It's worth remembering that the Commonwealth is the last jurisdiction—a little embarrassing—to implement an anticorruption commission in this country. The small upside to that is we've had the opportunity to learn from the state and territory commissions.
The definition of 'corrupt conduct' is consistent with key elements of existing definitions at the state and territory level. It encompasses conduct by a public official that involves abuse of office, breach of public trust or misuse of information. I just want to make an observation about the scope which not all will agree with, particularly the more sanctimonious amongst us: misconduct is not and should not be labelled or pursued as corruption. We need to think and reflect on that. A breach of a code of conduct such as forgetting to declare a bottle of wine someone gave you, or a conflict of interest, or speaking rudely to someone, or even bullying, is not corruption; it is misconduct. Such breaches are unacceptable and should not go unremarked or unpunished, but they should not be pursued using the resources and powers of a standing royal commission, suspending all ordinary rights and procedures, or mislabelled as corruption. To do so would dilute the focus of the NACC on pursuing serious and systemic corruption, be a misallocation of resources and is simply wrong. Misconduct is misconduct. Breaches of codes of conduct are not always corruption. We should reserve the label of corruption in our society for genuinely serious or systemic activities, not weaponise or diminish it through too broad an application. To be labelled as corrupt can genuinely end a career, and, tragically, has caused people to take their own life or attempt to, even when unproven. In workplaces across the country ordinary breaches of codes of conduct may not be sacking offences and are not labelled as corruption, and the NACC should adopt a commonsense proportionate approach with respect to the public sector.
With regard to the many questions about where the NACC will focus and whether the former government will be found to be corrupt: specific allegations and instances are a matter for the commissioner, not for parliament or politicians, to dictate. The Attorney-General has wisely refused to engage in specifics, and so should other MPs. Time will tell, though, if we look at other jurisdictions, but as a general rule I would suggest: follow the money.
Contrary to popular belief in some quarters—social media, for sure—I do not believe that most corruption will be found in the parliament or amongst MPs. We're amongst the most scrutinised people in Australia. Outside of executive government, MPs are not actually public decision-makers in any event. It's far more likely that where we see corruption revealed will be in areas such as procurement, where people stand to make money from government decisions. In the Commonwealth sphere that would likely include defence procurement and sustainment and big service delivery areas, such as the NDIS.
I will make a brief comment on one matter of scope and approach that still troubles me regarding the activities of some state and territory ICACs, which I hope we will not see replicated at a Commonwealth level as the commission goes about its work. The concern is based on private discussions I have had over many years with academics and experts involved in designing state and territory ICACs. It relates, if you like, to the tension right at the heart of our Westminster system of government, whereby cabinets are rightly expected to act in the public interest, but, in doing so, are a place where political debates and considerations are addressed and resolved. This is not illegitimate. Balancing public policy considerations in a genuine search for the public interest alongside political realities and considerations, including the electoral implications of decisions and judgements about community confidence and the ability to maintain public support for causes of action, is not and should not be labelled as corruption.
Taking account of the political impact of decisions, community reaction, is part of the job of the government. We need to ensure that corruption commissions have a sufficient understanding of how decisions are made and how governments work and that they're not only staffed by lawyers. With the greatest of respect to lawyers and judges, many of them have never had to make significant or complex public policy decisions or, frankly, managed anything much aside from their secretary. I trust the commissioner will staff the commission with a good mix of skills, including people with experience in public administration and public service.
Similarly, engaging with and within your political party, or indeed your community movement if you're an Independent—the people who support and volunteer and contribute to your efforts—is not corruption. Political parties are legitimate and important institutions in our democracy, regulated by legislation. They're community organisations which bring people together with similar values, not always the same. They choose people to stand for public office—I was looking at you, Member for Bass, but trying not to—and hold them accountable in important ways. They're a vehicle for policy development, debate and campaigning. While Independents are very fashionable at present and politics is not a team game, government has to be. I'll always speak up in defence of the important role that real parties and their tens of thousands of members play in democracies. Just to be clear, I said 'real' not to have a go at the Independents at all, just to have a go at sham parties like Palmer and One Nation and a plethora of weird, wacky Victorian parties we've seen spring up in the upper house.
But communities who elect us expect us to deliver results, and part of that, for the significant majority of representatives, means you have to engage in your political party to get support for policy positions or things that your community wants. We're all ultimately just one vote here; we've got to work with other people. So I think it's completely absurd that the Victorian IBAC expressed shock, horror that an MP's staff member may be asked to attend a local branch meeting, as that is a private interest—which is in no way to defend the extreme or egregious behaviour of Adem Somyurek and his cronies. But it is a ridiculous proposition that it is okay for MPs or their staff to attend numerous local community organisations but not a local party meeting to listen and provide a report and debate policy positions. Such activity is legitimate, and it serves an important part of a healthy democracy.
Similarly, it should be entirely legitimate that MPs develop policy and advocate to advance issues within their party. That's what my community expects me to do here, as I am the community's representative in the parliament and the party, not the party's representative in the community. I would expect the Independents feel the same way. Such activity should not and must not be labelled as corruption, and I trust the national commission will do a more sophisticated job than some of the state and territory commissions in dealing with these issues. The federal parliament is not intending to do away with the role of parties or the proper roles of cabinet government to reconcile the public interest with political considerations.
The issue of whether hearings should be public or private has been the subject of significant debate and controversy in formulating this bill, as is appropriate. A balance needs to be struck between transparency and public accountability on the one hand and the rights of individuals on the other to a fair hearing, to natural justice and to not have their reputations unfairly destroyed—remembering, as I said, that all of the ordinary protections that apply in a public court of law do not apply in these kinds of commissions, because all your rights are suspended. I firmly believe this bill gets the balance right. I'm not resiling from saying that—not to be popular on social media. The commissioner will have discretion to decide when hearings should be held in public. We're not talking about politicians here; overwhelmingly, we'll be talking about good, decent people who are not guilty of corruption but who have to answer questions as the commission does its work. Every citizen, no matter their role, is entitled to fairness and a presumption of innocence. That is an old-fashioned concept in the trial by media these days. The powers of the NACC mean that ordinary protections afforded in courts do not apply, as legal rights are suspended. The unfortunate reality now is that, in the media and social media age, simply being hauled before a corruption commission can destroy any person's reputation and career or even cost them their life, if innocent. Hence the presumption that hearings are conducted in private, unless the commission determines otherwise, is reasonable.
I wish to record my personal grief and sadness at the passing of former Casey mayor Amanda Stapledon, a woman I knew well. Amanda was a Liberal and a thoroughly decent, caring Christian woman. We worked terrifically well together, and she was a damn fine human being. She was in local government for the right reasons and always focused on the community in every conversation we had. She fell in with the wrong crowd, and, in my view, did some naive things. Tragically, she reached the point where she concluded she could not see a way through and the rational thing to do was to take her own life. I dearly wish this was otherwise. I understand from reports this was driven by her love and her care for her disabled child and a belief that this was the best way to provide for her child, rather than spend what little money she had on legal bills.
Amanda's story has seared in my mind the need to afford procedural fairness to people accused of corruption or simply engaged in the commission's work and who may not even be accused, and reserve public hearings for times when the commission has established its case and there's a genuinely needed deterrence effect in public hearings. Ultimately, this bill ensures that all corruption must be reported in public, as is necessary and of course appropriate.
It has been amusing and instructive to watch the hyperbole and hypocrisy of much of the media on this question, as they earnestly proclaim that everything must always be conducted in public, and that to not do so is to cover up corruption. This is nonsense. Without betraying specific confidences, in the multiple conversations I've had over months with journalists on this question—they didn't say it was off the record, so I'm allowed to say this without attribution—they privately all admitted that the government's position is entirely correct and that there is no way anyone could get fair coverage in their newspapers or television shows if all hearings were conducted in public. That's what they say in private. We've seen in recent weeks in the Victorian election how incomplete inquiries can be weaponised effectively.
In closing, I note that this bill, in my view, is necessary but not sufficient. It's not the answer to all of the integrity questions that pervade the public sector or public life. I do believe we can look to other jurisdictions for additional safeguards—for example, the British Committee on Standards in Public Life. It's been going since the moat scandal, and it's actually proven to be a good institution which considers broader issues of integrity. There are lessons we can consider from the efforts in the UK to improve the ministerial code of conduct—breaches of which should not usually be termed as corruption.
This bill is a critical step forward to improving integrity in the Australian public sector and public life, and I commend the bill to the House.
To give credit where it is due, I commend the government for progressing the National Anti-Corruption Commission. This is a good decision, and it's very pleasing to see the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 now tabled and being debated and hopefully passed by both houses of parliament in this sitting fortnight. Of course, it's long overdue, and there are countless examples of alleged corruption in recent years, which have very much turbocharged the public's call for some sort of federal anticorruption agency. I should add that they're not all historic cases. Some are very real and some are very current.
I was shocked just yesterday to see within the Australian Financial Review some very good investigative work by the journalist Liam Walsh, who has discovered that documentary evidence of what I spoke about on Monday, regarding widespread fraud within the Australian coal industry, was held in the office of the resources minister during the previous government. The allegations of corruption are not historic; they're real and they're live. In fact, when the Anti-Corruption Commission is set up, I think that's one of the first things I might refer to it—to find out why documentary evidence of widespread fraud was in the possession of a minister in the previous government and that minister did nothing about it. Mind you, even if there isn't evidence of corruption, even if we think all is well, there is still a need for some sort of federal anticorruption agency because only by the very existence of the agency—the knowledge that there is a cop on the beat—can we have confidence that there's not corruption that we're not aware of simmering under the surface.
I echo the concerns of many of my colleagues about some aspects of the bill before us. Of course, probably the most talked about deficiency in the bill comes to the issue of the threshold for public hearings. I am firmly of the view that the threshold is much too high, and the words 'exceptional circumstances' really should be removed from the bill. It should be left to the head of the NACC to decide when it's appropriate or not appropriate. As noted by eminent jurist Stephen Charles AO KC, the 'exceptional circumstances' threshold for public hearings will hamper the proper airing of corruption, as potential new witnesses cannot come forward with additional information if they are unaware an investigation or hearing is occurring. For example, the additional and compelling evidence about Gladys Berejiklian would not have been discovered if the matter had been heard in private. The absence of a solid definition of 'exceptional circumstances' will also likely subject the commission to lengthy court challenges, thereby delaying hearings and investigations.
The government has contended that the 'exceptional circumstances' threshold is included to prevent damage to a person's reputation. However, considering the commissioner may already consider such factors in determining whether something meets the public interest threshold, under section 73(3), the additional 'exceptional circumstances' threshold for public hearings is unnecessary. Moreover, it hinders public confidence that the Anti-Corruption Commission is a transparent and accountable body. It is worth noting that polling by the Australia Institute shows, clearly, that the overwhelming majority of Australians support the NACC being able to conduct public hearings in broader circumstances. I speak for a lot of people when I go to that issue. I know it's a concern shared by many of my colleagues, especially those on the crossbench.
The other deficiency is getting less attention, but it is important nonetheless—that is, the lack of whistleblower protections. The bill essentially replicates protections from the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013, but we know, and the government has already acknowledged, that the PID Act 2013 is seriously deficient and urgently in need of reform. Why we would cut and paste out of a deficient act into this bill surprises me. Here's hoping that, as we race to improve Australia's whistleblower protection legislation, what will be the NACC Act by that stage is promptly and thoroughly amended itself.
Now, of course, an anticorruption body is very important in itself, but it is only one of a group of essential building blocks for cleaning up governance, public administration and politics in this country. Unless we create all of the building blocks and put them together, we won't have an effective solution. This bill before us is fabulous, despite its deficiencies, and it's great to see that it will be realised, but the government has to move very quickly to the other building blocks, which are: whistleblower protection; media freedom laws; and political donation reform—all of which the government has said it will act on in this parliament. But, as always, the devil will be in the detail about how effectively they do that.
When it comes to whistleblower reforms, I would bring the parliament's attention to a report released just this morning—I note that the member for Bass was there at the launch with me. It is a report by Griffith University, the Human Rights Law Centre and Transparency International Australia, Protecting Australia's whistleblowers: the federal roadmap. Now, this is indeed a roadmap—a blueprint, if you like—of what needs to be done to not only provide effective protection for whistleblowers but also allow them to ventilate their concerns, effectively, both in the public sector and the private sector. This is the blueprint. I wish the Attorney-General could have been there at the launch this morning, but at least I know he's got a copy of this for when he goes through the process of reviewing the Public Interest Disclosure Act and the relevant sections of the Corporations Act—and now the relevant section of what will be the NACC Act soon. Look at this. It's no good saying the Moss review of 2016 provides the blueprint, because some of that now is out of date already. It's six years old. That is the blueprint.
I also have referred to media freedom laws. If we're going to get rid of corruption in this country, among other things we need whistleblowers to identify corruption and to speak up, but then we need the media to give voice and publicity to those concerns raised by the whistleblowers. That will do a number of things. It will inform the public, especially when there aren't public hearings going on, and it will also provide some protection to the whistleblowers themselves. If I can rather indulgently reflect, nearly 20 years after the start of the Iraq War, on my own whistleblowing experience, it was probably only the extensive media coverage that I got instantly which gave me comfort personally and also protected me from the wrath of a very angry government. They very quickly would have come to the conclusion that they could hardly jail me, because I would have become a political prisoner in the circumstances. So that is the importance of media freedom laws.
Of course, donation reform is the other essential building block. I moved a private member's bill earlier this year that sought to really clean up political donations, and I was disappointed that it didn't receive the support of either the previous government or the previous opposition, the current government. Well, I had to put my trust in the Attorney-General when he told me in recent months that they will move on this. The sorts of things that are required when it comes to political donation reform obviously include a much lower disclosure threshold. The figure being used often is maybe about $1,000. For any donation over $1,000—either a single donation or when the sum of small donations reaches $1,000—that should be disclosed, and that should be done virtually instantly—perhaps up on the AEC website or by some other electronic means so that it can be disclosed almost straightaway.
We also need a cap on donations. Not only should we lower the threshold for when donations are disclosed but we should limit the amount of money that any one donor, be it an individual or some sort of entity, can donate to any candidate or any political party, because, as my old friend Nick Xenophon used to say, if someone donates you $1,000, they support you; if they donate you $100,000, they've bought you. I think that's a truth. No-one hands over huge donations without expecting a return on that investment, and they often get a good return on that investment. So let's bring down to a sensible level the total amount of money that any donor can donate to any politician, candidate or party during any election cycle—and that's another point. Donations should be measured over the election cycle, not one at a time.
Also, we could broaden the definition of a donation. At the moment, you can have these extra entities—let's say something like Clubs NSW—that might run a political campaign that favours one political party or the other. Well, I would say that anything that materially benefits a candidate, a politician or a party should be treated as a political donation and recorded as a donation, both by what I am now calling the donor and by the candidate, politician or party that is materially benefiting from that expenditure.
In talking about expenditure, why don't we, when we're looking up political donations, also limit the amount of money that any of us can spend when we're campaigning? It was just downright immoral for Clive Palmer to spend $100 million to buy one Senate seat. I don't think you'll find anyone in Australia, apart from one senator and one Clive Palmer, who would think that that was an ethical way to spend that sort of money.
We could also have prohibited donors. Obviously tobacco and liquor, but what about the gambling industry or the fossil fuel industry or the sorts of big donors that are going around at the moment getting a good return on their investment—a very, very good return on their investment? In fact, that might help to explain why the former resources minister sat on the evidence of fraud in the coal industry and didn't act on it. It would certainly be a very interesting question for some investigative body to put to the former resources minister. So they're the building blocks.
An anticorruption body—great! I commend the government. Much improved whistleblower protections? I understand the government will move on that—great! Another building block. Media freedom laws so that the whole community can learn of what's going on. And political donation reform.
To that end of improving the whistleblower component of our integrity measures, I move:
That the following words be added after CPI:
(1) notes that the bill essentially replicates protections from the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 which, given the known deficiencies of the Act, is grossly inadequate; and
(2) calls on the Government to:
(a) review whistleblower protections in the bill to ensure that protections for whistleblowers are strong, comprehensive and fit for purpose;
(b) urgently reform the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 and the Corporations Act 2001; and
(c) establish an empowered and well-resourced Whistleblower Protection Commissioner to facilitate the effective implementation and enforcement of whistleblower protections".
I'm absolutely delighted that the member for Bass will be seconding that amendment in due course.
In closing, I'm very proud to stand here today and I'm happy to say, through you, Speaker, to the Attorney-General: good on the government for finally getting cracking on a federal integrity agency. It still has those deficiencies in 'exceptional circumstances'. I still hold out hope that the government might drop just two words from the bill. And while I acknowledge the shortfalls in the whistleblower provisions in the NACC Bill, I do take this opportunity, through you, to say to the Attorney-General: as soon as we clean up our whistleblower laws we need to amend the NACC Act at the same time to ensure that those improvements are transferred across all federal legislation. There's much talk about the PID Act but there's very little talk about the Corporations Act. And while the amendments to the Corporations Act are well-intentioned, it does seem they are deficient. They can be improved as well.
I call on members to support my amendment. It's something I think we would all agree with in principle, and it doesn't in any way prevent the bill from progressing. So I do call on members to support my amendment, and I look forward to supporting the amended, or at least the unamended, NACC Bill in due course.
The original question was that the bills be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Kooyong moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The honourable member for Clark has now moved an amendment to that amendment adding words. The question now is the amendment moved by the honourable member for Clark to the amendment moved by the honourable member for Kooyong be disagreed to.
Honesty, accountability, integrity, trust: these are at the heart of what we are doing here right now. The establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission will change federal politics for the better. It will improve our democracy for the better. At a time where we have a global contest between democratic systems and authoritarianism, we need to do all within our power to ensure that our great democracy is trusted; that our politicians, our public servants are accountable; and that there is faith in the processes that overwhelmingly are conducted in good faith with people of integrity, with people who are honest.
But in order to ensure there is support we need to also ensure and recognise that there have been failings in the past and that the system of holding people to account has gaps in it. That's what this legislation does. A National Anti-Corruption Commission will investigate serious or systemic corrupt conduct across the entire Commonwealth public sector. This was one of our key election promises, and it resonated deeply with the Australian public. They want to know that their hard-earned tax dollars are spent transparently and in the interests of the nation. All of this can be further supported with a National Anti-Corruption Commission. It's one that we will deliver.
One of the elements that has undermined faith in our democratic system is politicians making promises that are clear and unequivocal and that they then fail to act on. The former government promised in 2018 that they would have a national anticorruption body. Not only did they not deliver it through the parliament; they did not even introduce legislation. That in itself raises questions about why that was the case. I suspect I know why. There were elements within the former government that avoided having a process that held high public office holders to account. We know now what we didn't know before the election: even down to who held what portfolio was not done in a transparent way by the former government. The Treasurer of Australia didn't know that he shared the portfolio and wasn't responsible for it. It's that sort of hidden process that undermines faith in our system.
We need to have a National Anti-Corruption Commission that builds on the strengths and safeguards of state anticorruption commissions that are already successfully operating in Australia, one that has no tolerance for corruption no matter who is responsible, no matter which party they may be a member of, or for that matter if they are not a member of any party, no matter where they come from.
The Commonwealth is the last jurisdiction to establish an anticorruption commission. This has allowed us to select the best design features from the state and territory commissions. Where our predecessors held out a promise but never mustered the energy to take the next step, the government I am proud to lead has come through and come through in a timely manner. Ahead of the May election, Labor went to the Australian people and told them that one of our biggest priorities would be to have an independent and effective National Anti-Corruption Commission. Australians voted for that change. We are delivering that change. We are getting on with the job. That is why this is important legislation, to take one important step towards strengthening our democracy by stamping out corruption that distorts and degrades the fabric of our community; by destroying the ecosystem in which cynical political self-interest or financial interest can flourish; by creating the conditions in which trust in government does not merely survive but thrives. We can do that by ensuring there are consequences for inappropriate behaviour which amounts to serious or systemic corruption.
The whole parliament can own the National Anti-Corruption Commission, because it has to belong to the whole country, and I pay tribute to the Attorney-General for the leadership that he has shown in this matter. I assure the parliament he has been relentless in driving this change forward in a timely manner, but I pay tribute to others who have been a part of this process as well. In particular I want to single out the member for Indi, who was a consistently strong voice on this throughout the last term of the previous government, a time when we needed all the strong voices we could get, and I pay tribute to all those who participated in the joint cross-party parliamentary committee, which came out with unanimous recommendations. That's a good thing. I have spoken about changing the way that politics is conducted in this country. This is an example of walking the walk, not just talking the talk. This government has a majority in the House of Representatives. But we sat down and collaborated across the parliament with anyone who wanted to engage with us on these issues, and that is very important as well.
Together we are working to create the best possible Anti-Corruption Commission that we can, a powerful anticorruption body with teeth and, most importantly, a fearless and completely independent body. I've been asked a range of times, 'Would your National Anti-Corruption Commission investigate A, B or C?' The question misses the point. An independent body decides what they'll investigate. That's the whole point. That is what we have ensured here can occur. An anticorruption body is needed that no government either can direct or can weaponise. The commission will be able to conduct investigations on its own initiative or in response to referrals or allegations from any source.
Another key part of the commission's independence has to be ensuring that the decision as to whether a hearing is held in public is a decision that rests entirely in the hands of the commissioner. That's the point, and that is the way in which best practice should operate, contrary to some of the comments that I've heard about the New South Wales ICAC, the Independent Commission Against Corruption. According to the ICAC's own report, just 3.5 per cent of its hearings were public in the 2020-21 financial year—3.5 per cent. Yet if you looked at some of the commentary made, you would think that every hearing of the ICAC is held in public. It is not, and it wasn't established for that purpose. The figure for the previous year, 2019-20, is a similar number.
Of course, there are important roles for public hearings in the National Anti-Corruption Commission, and that's why it has been one of our key design principles for almost four years. There are a number of factors outlined in the bill the commission may consider before deciding on this: the seriousness or systemic nature of the corrupt conduct; any unfair prejudice to a person's reputation, privacy, safety or wellbeing that would likely be caused if the hearing were held in public; and the benefits of exposing corrupt conduct to the public and making the public aware of corrupt conduct. They're pretty serious considerations that the commissioner will make, because there are also very concrete reasons for holding hearings in private, including to avoid prejudicing an ongoing investigation or related criminal proceedings, to protect the privacy of witnesses or to ensure national security information is protected from disclosure. This threshold that we've established here strikes the right balance to ensure that the benefits of holding public hearings are balanced against potential negative impacts.
The joint select committee that was established to inquire into the bill did an outstanding job. Made up of government, opposition and crossbench members from this place and the Senate, it delivered a unanimous report. The bill was developed in consultation with a range of stakeholders, including caucus colleagues and people from across the parliament but also eminent persons in academia and the judiciary, to ensure that the commission is robust and effective. This is parliament operating at its best, in my view.
In the recent budget, the government provided $262 million over four years for the establishment and ongoing operation of the commission. We will establish the NACC because public money should always be invested in the public interest. We will establish it because the health of our democracy depends on the integrity of our institutions and the transparency and the fairness of our laws, and because the trust that is generated by that accountability and transparency helps to build national cohesion, bringing the country together, overcoming divides, finding common ground. They're the key elements for building a stronger and more prosperous Australia. They're the principles that drive the government that I'm proud to lead.
This isn't about politics. We are hoping that this legislation is voted for by all 151 members of the House of Representatives and all 76 senators. That would send a very good message to the Australian people about this. I pay tribute to the people who have been prepared to vote for this for a long period of time. But I welcome people changing their position as a result of the mandate that we received in May.
Australian democracy is an extraordinary achievement. I have had the great privilege of meeting leaders at the G20, at APEC and at the East Asia Summit over the past short period. The truth is that many of those leaders that we engage with aren't the leaders of representative democracies. We engage on the basis of respect and putting our national interest. But our democracy can be fragile and can be undermined. That's why we need to make sure that our democratic systems, our public services, are as strong as they possibly can be. That is why this National Anti-Corruption Commission legislation is so important. It will have direct results over a long period of time in making people think again about some of the rorting of public funds that we have seen in recent times. It will have an impact on whether there is an abuse of power by people in the bureaucracy or by elected officials over a period of time. It will make a difference as well, I think, in the commitment that we have made. We are trying to make a difference by delivering on our promises. That's a part of our democratic system that we should not take for granted.
I conclude by congratulating the Attorney on the outstanding job that he is doing, and I call upon all members of this House to vote for this legislation.
To build on what the Prime Minister just said: Australia is one of the world's oldest continuing democracies. It's a great achievement and it's a great inheritance. And so today I rise to support the establishment of a National Anti-Corruption Commission. But, in doing so, I also rise to lament the need to have one. Many in this place have spoken about the loss of trust, the breach of confidence and the moral corruption of leaders and the compromised decisions they make. They make the case for why we need a regulator, an enforcer, a higher body to which parliamentarians and those who deal with them owe their fears. They desire greater transparency. The argument is that, without fear of exposure and penalty, and without the fear of punishment and the compliance that comes before it, we have no hope of integrity or virtue in our Public Service.
It is often said that compliance is what you do when you are being watched but culture drives what you do when no-one is watching. While I support the establishment of a commission, for the transparency it will bring, my observation is that its extraordinary powers will tend to promote compliance on pain of exposure and enforcement, rather than fostering a revival of integrity and virtue in our public institutions. It will still be possible to pursue corrupt ends or undertake corrupt means, even as the overwatch of the commission is activated. Much of the time, misdeeds will be examined long after they have occurred, long since the effect and impact of wrongdoing has done its work and long after the benefits of exploitation have been wrought.
What I lament is the state of politics and the state of public service in Australia today, that we might need an anticorruption commission. What I lament is the necessity we feel to legislate for a commission with extraordinary powers, with unelected officials overseeing our elected officials, our Public Service and the Australian Defence Force. I lament that the key message at the heart of this debate is that those in public service can no longer be trusted.
Many in this place have been rightly focused on the design and details of the commission. That is important work, and I acknowledge the focus and diligence of all those involved. However, what does it say about Australia, about our nation and our people today, that we cannot be trusted to do what is right, let alone to not do what is wrong? What does it say about this generation of leaders, that what we need amounts to an integrity police escort wherever we go? What does it say about the times, that we elect people to represent us in this place and those people cannot be trusted?
It's fair to say we have seen breaches of public trust across society: the Australian cricket team, with the ball-tampering scandal in 2018; the alleged misdeeds of Australian Special Forces identified in the Brereton report; the countless royal commissions into aged care and veteran suicide, among others, including the financial sector; and the recent collapse of FTX cryptocurrency. Today, reports indicate that 30,000 Australians will have lost money through that collapse. The public has the right to feel let down by public institutions and those who lead them.
The commission might help put a floor under acceptable conduct and draw a line where it needs to be drawn, to show us where we should not go, but what role does it serve in promoting self-control, self-command, self-government and genuine public service? What does the commission do to encourage and inspire us not only to answer the higher calling of serving the nation but to fulfil its promise? The commission may well reinforce compliance, but what does it do to renew a culture of genuine service and private integrity that serves the best interests of the public? It is the state of politics and the state of public service today, and the failures of trust and confidence, that have triggered this debate and which I lament. How does this commission promote the traditional values of courage, prudence, justice and temperance, those classical values that have come down through history to the present?
Freedom cannot grow—it cannot even survive—in every atmosphere or clime. In the wearying journey of human history, free societies have been astonishingly rare. The ecology of liberty is more fragile than the biosphere of Earth. Freedom needs clean and healthful habits, sound families, common decencies, and the unafraid respect of one human for another. Freedom needs entire rainforests of little acts of virtue, tangled loyalties, fierce loves, undying commitments. Freedom needs particular institutions and these, in turn, need peoples of particular habits of the heart.
Consider this. There are two types of liberty: one precritical, emotive, whimsical, proper to children; the other critical, sober, deliberate, responsible, proper to adults. Alexis de Tocqueville called attention to this alternative early in Democracy in America, and at Cambridge Lord Acton put it this way: Liberty is not the freedom to do what you wish; it is the freedom to do what you ought. Human beings are the only creatures on earth that do not blindly obey the laws of their nature, by instinct, but are free to choose to obey them with a loving will. Only humans enjoy the liberty to do-or not to do-what we ought to do.
It is this second kind of liberty—critical, adult liberty—that lies at the living core of the free society. It is the liberty of self-command, a mastery over one's own passions, bigotry, ignorance, and self-deceit. It is the liberty of self-government in one's own personal life. … If they cannot practice self-government over their private passions, how will they practice it over the institutions of the Republic?
That was a question put by James Madison.
The institution I would rather speak for now is the institution of critical adult liberty, the self-commanded ordered liberty that Novak speaks of. More than an external commission—an integrity police escort—what would we prefer is a mastery of one's own passions—bigotry, ignorance self deceit. We need among us more self-governance of our own personal and public lives. If we cannot practise self-government over our private passions then how can we practise it over the institutions of the Commonwealth? As Novak observes, for us in our nation and in our time, there cannot be a free, open and diverse society among citizens who habitually lie, who malinger, who cheat and who do not meet their responsibilities, who cannot be counted on, who shirk difficulties and who flout the law, among other things.
I agree with Novak: freedom requires the exercise of conscience, the practise of virtues long practised in Australia's best traditions. We want self-governing individuals to restrain immoral government. That is why we are in this House, that is why we choose to be elected representatives and it is a massive responsibility. It is given to us every three years, it is not to be taken for granted, and high standards are expected of those who serve in the government; that is why we have a ministerial code of conduct. Again, the best way to uphold these traditions is self-governance, self-command and self-control. That is why I support this commission. I want to make that very clear. I support this commission and the work that has gone into it through the joint committee but I also lament the need for the commission, the state of politics and the Public Service that requires it today.
As for the legislation and the framework before this House, I continue to question why members of the Australian Defence Force and other Public Service agencies are subject to the commission whereas trade union officials, who wield large political power, particularly with this government, are exempt. So I call on this parliament to support amendments to close this obvious and ominous loophole in the framework.
Surely this government's commitment to integrity and anticorruption should adopt a lead-by-example approach, and the unions should be at the forefront of answering the call. The unions and their leaders should have no problem joining the government at the vanguard of this reform, as they play an outsized role in driving and influencing this government. There is no integrity if it is only good for some but not good for all.
I return to my call for self-governance and ordered liberty. I support the institution of this commission. While I have always supported and aspired to the highest levels of integrity and public service in this place, I believe the commission should be fair, consistent and apply to the right constituencies, including trade union leadership. However, I believe the best hope we have for curing ourselves of corruption in the heart of government and in the heart of the nation is to defeat its impulses in the hearts of each one of us.
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained"
It is a great quote. Again, I wanted to read it today to remind us of what we are called to in this place: high standards of public service, integrity and virtue. It is this private integrity and ordered self-governance that offer the best alternative to pursuing compliance over culture and resigning ourselves to a framework that at best can expose and enforce against wrongdoing but not prevent failures in integrity and the degradation of the Public Service. I thank the House.
Ahead of the election in May this year the Australian Labor Party pledged to return integrity, honesty and accountability to the national government, and we keep our promises. The National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 delivers on our commitment. We do so via legislating a powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission. This Albanese government takes its commitment seriously. We are serious about restoring trust and integrity to Australian government. This nation desperately needs it.
Way back in 2018 the Morrison government promised to establish a Commonwealth integrity commission. They made a promise. But like everything else about that government, it was another in a long line of empty announcements that lead to nothing and led to nowhere. This legislation before the chamber delivers the single biggest integrity reform this parliament has seen in decades. It honours our commitment to Australians in both form and substance. The design principles we announced before the election are the design principles of the bill before the House. The design principles were developed with some of Australia's leading integrity advocates and endorsed by the Australian people at the election in May.
Crucially, the commission will operate independently of government and have broad jurisdiction to investigate serious or systemic corrupt conduct across the Commonwealth public sector. It will have the power to investigate ministers, parliamentarians and their staff, statutory officeholders, employees of all government entities and contractors. It will have discretion to commence inquiries on its own initiative or in response to referrals from anyone, including members of the public and whistleblowers, with referrals able to be anonymous. It will be able to investigate both criminal and non-criminal corrupt conduct and conduct occurring before or after its establishment. It will have the power to hold public hearings. It will also have the investigative powers to enter Commonwealth premises and request information from Commonwealth entities without a warrant, notices to produce, search warrants, surveillance and telecommunications interceptions powers. This will enable the commission to do its job effectively and root out corruption at the federal level.
Of course, prevention and education are important to us to stopping corruption before it happens. I was pleased to see the commission will also have a mandate to prevent corruption and educate Australians about such corruption. A parliamentary joint committee will oversee the commission and will be empowered to require the commission to provide information about its performance.
The remit of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, or the NACC, is to restore trust and transparency in our democratic institutions and aims to eliminate corruption in the federal public sphere. As I said earlier, the commission will be able to investigate serious or systemic corrupt conduct affecting any part of the federal public sector. The definition of corrupt conduct is central to the commission's jurisdiction, consistent with key elements of existing definitions at the state and territory level and in the Commonwealth Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act 2006. It encompasses conduct by a public official that involves an abuse of office, breach of public trust, misuse of information or corruption of any other kind. It also includes conduct by any person that could adversely affect the honest or impartial exercise of a Commonwealth public official's functions.
Other conduct that could adversely affect public administration, such as external fraud, as is only appropriate, will continue to be dealt with by existing integrity agencies. This will ensure that the commission is focused on its core purpose, which is tackling and stamping out serious and systemic corruption.
There are well-established and effective arrangements for dealing with fraud and other crimes that affect Commonwealth interests. For example, in the last three years the AFP's dedicated fraud commander has undertaken over 250 investigations into serious or complex frauds. And the Commonwealth director of prosecutions has prosecuted over 1,400 fraud matters referred by the AFP and 30 other agencies in the same period, irrespective of who is the government.
The commission will be the lead Commonwealth agency for the investigation of serious or systemic corruption and will work in partnership with other agencies that form a part of the Commonwealth's broader integrity framework, including the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Public Service Commission. The commission will have the power to refer corruption issues to other Commonwealth, state and territory agencies for their consideration—for example, where an issue involves broader criminality or official misconduct which falls within the jurisdiction of another independent investigative agency.
The independence of the commission 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 compelled to report any corruption issue in their agency to the commission if they suspect it could be serious or systemic. The appointment of the commissioner and deputy commissioners will be subject to approval by the parliamentary joint committee. The appointees will have limited terms and security of tenure during that term comparable to a federal judge. The commission will be overseen by a parliamentary joint and an inspector. These are good, sensible checks and balances, the hallmarks of good, strong liberal democracies.
The parliamentary joint committee will be multipartisan. As you well know, Deputy Speaker Goodenough, committees in this parliament do incredible work. They work in a bipartisan or tripartisan or multipartisan way to make sure that the business of democracy is protected irrespective of what goes on in the executive part of the building. The parliamentary joint committee will be multipartisan. It will have 12 members: three government, two opposition and one crossbencher from each of the chambers. I could make comment on the need for senators, but I'll leave that alone in the spirit of getting everyone to support this legislation. The committee will be responsible for approving the appointments of the commissioner, the deputy commissioners and the inspector. The committee will be able to review and report to both houses of Parliament on the sufficiency of the commission's budget, because we have seen governments starve integrity bodies in the past. The committee will also be able to review 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.
The commission will have a full suite of powers similar to those of a royal commission, so in essence there will be a permanent standing royal commission into corruption at the Commonwealth level. That is a sentence I love to read. It will be able to use its powers to undertake an investigation into a corruption issue if it is of the opinion it could involve serious or systemic corrupt conduct. Significantly, the commission will be able to undertake preliminary inquiries, using powers to compel the production of information, which will enable the commission to determine whether an allegation could be serious or systemic.
The commission will be able to hold public hearings if it is satisfied it is in the public interest to do so, with the default position that hearings will be held in private, as is the case around the world and in other states and territories in Australia. The legislation will provide guidance to the commission on factors that may be relevant to determining the public interest in holding a public hearing—factors such as the unfair prejudice to a person's reputation, privacy, safety or wellbeing if the hearing were to be held in public. These factors also include the benefit of making the public aware of corruption.
At the end of an investigation the commission will be required to produce a report containing findings and recommendations. Criminal guilt will remain as a matter for a court to determine, which is an integral part of our justice system. In the case when hearings are held publicly a report will be tabled in parliament, while the other reports will be published by the commissioner when they believe it is in the public interest.
Prevention and education will be a core component of the commission, as the most efficient and best way to deal with corruption is to stop it happening in the first place. This legislation will give the commission a function to provide education and information about corrupt conduct and information on how such conduct can be prevented. It will provide guidance and information to support the public sector to identify and address vulnerabilities to corruption and to understand the concept of corrupt conduct. 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 and about corruption risks and avenues to report corrupt conduct. There's lots of sunlight out there.
It's also important that there are safeguards written into the legislation to prevent undue reputational damage and to provide protections for whistleblowers and journalists. I know the press gallery is empty at the moment, but I cannot stress enough how important a strong media is in making sure that democracy functions adequately. I think we might be the only parliament house in the world that has the media inside the parliament house. I always see that as a great symbol of how important the fourth estate is.
The commissioner will have the express ability to make public statements at any time to avoid damage to a person's reputation. The commissioner will also be able to clarify the capacity in which a witness is appearing at a public hearing. Reports on investigations will include statements that a person has not engaged in corrupt conduct or is not the subject of any findings, where that is appropriate, to avoid damage to the person's reputation. So, rather than an investigation being used to throw mud at somebody, there will be this mechanism. The commission must afford procedural fairness to individuals or agencies who are the subject of any adverse findings it proposes to include in a report, by providing them a reasonable opportunity to respond.
The legislation provides strong protections for whistleblowers against 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. I was also happy to see that the Attorney-General will be introducing 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. I know the member for Clark made reference to this, but I'm not sure that he was across that in making those comments. But I know he's got a 20-year history of protecting whistleblowers and I commend him for so doing.
Protections in the legislation also include journalists, with an exemption from answering questions or providing information that would enable the identity of a source to be ascertained—with I hope, some of my concerns about the definition of what a journalist is being properly considered. Thanks to MIA for the great work that they do in protecting the integrity and professionalism of journalists.
In keeping with providing protections, political parties and their activities—which are an important part of democracy, after all—will also be recognised, and existing rules for political and parliamentary activities will continue to exist with this legislation. The legislation 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 public officials or the use of public resources cannot constitute corrupt conduct. The commission will be able to investigate a matter that falls within the jurisdiction of the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority or the Australian Electoral Commission only if the IPEA or the AEC refer the matter to the commission. Before referring the matter, these authorities would need to form the view that the information raises a corruption issue that could be serious or systemic. The legislation also expressly preserves parliamentary privilege by providing that it does not affect the powers, privileges or immunities of each house of the parliament.
Of course, an effective National Anti-Corruption Commission requires proper resourcing, and the Albanese government has committed substantial funding of $262 million over four years for the establishment and ongoing operation of the commission. This funding will ensure that the commission has the staff, the capabilities and the capacity to triage referrals and allegations it receives, conduct timely investigations and undertake corruption prevention and education activities. Importantly for the future of the commission, the legislation provides for the parliamentary joint committee to regularly review and report on the sufficiency of the commission's budget.
To wrap up, this bill is the Albanese government fulfilling its election commitment to establish a powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission. It's a significant step in restoring trust and integrity back into government, something that the Australian people wanted and voted for at the last election—and we see that corner of the parliament representing that fact as much as this side of the chamber. I remember speaking in the parliament back in June 2020 lamenting the fact that at that point the Morrison government still hadn't delivered on its promise to put forward draft legislation by 2019, which, as we know, they never did. What they did bring in was a weak, ineffective and opaque piece of legislation, after they'd spent the best of a decade trashing the trust and integrity of parliament. Thankfully the Australian people saw through them and voted for and will receive, thanks to the Albanese government, a National Anti-Corruption Commission that will restore trust and integrity back into politics.
I note—and I can't really speak to this, because I'm on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has looked at some government amendments—that there would be a lot of things I'd like to say about offering protection for people with disabilities and the like. But I'll leave that for when we've tabled our human rights committee report. It's a milestone occasion in Australian politics, and I wholeheartedly commend this bill to the House.
ANIEL () (): This is the legislation that will define this parliament and this government. Get it right, and the electorate will applaud; get it wrong, and the major parties and indeed this parliament will pay the price. In recent years Australia has plummeted in world rankings for integrity. In 2012 Australia received a score of 85 out of 100 in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. By 2021 that had collapsed to 73. This has economic costs. Credible research estimates the decline in Australia's rating cut economic growth by six-tenths of one per cent, with 60,000 fewer jobs and the annual loss of government revenue at no less than $10 billion. The coalition paid the price at the last election for breaking a solemn promise at the 2019 election to establish a national anticorruption commission. Its record of pork-barrelling, from sports rorts to commuter car parks, along with a decade of denial and delay on climate change, cost it government.
This is landmark legislation that will usher in once-in-a-generation reform. I note that we wouldn't be debating this legislation without the efforts of Independents who came before me to this place. The former member for Indi Cathy McGowan, the member for Clark, the member for Warringah and especially the current member for Indi put issue of integrity on the agenda and ensured it was one of the main priorities during the last election campaign. In standing up this commission the parliament will reflect the will of the people, a population that has lost trust in leadership. The public wants transparent oversight of decision-making, especially when it involves the use of public money. What could be more galling, after all, than dodgy use of public funds at a time when the average Australian family is struggling to fill up the car, pay the rent or mortgage and cover the power bill?
There is a view among our constituents that there is one rule for us and one rule for them. This disconnect between the people and those of us who represent them is dangerous. We have seen what happens elsewhere when voters lose trust in their institutions and their representatives. Democracy itself is put at risk, falling prey to cheap and angry populism which rips at the fabric of society. Repairing this trust should be in my view our paramount priority. The National Anti-Corruption Commission is at the core of an integrity system that will begin that process. It is the beginning, not the end, of a process to develop that integrity system that will ensure voters regain trust in government and our institutions.
In doing that I say to this government that this legislation, the form of it, the force of it and the execution of it will be your legacy. Do not blink. Do not pass a weaker version of this legislation than you need to, for the sake of political expediency. If you do, you will undermine the rebuilding of that trust before you even begin. The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, as integrity is defined, is how you, the government, and this parliament should define yourselves in this legislation. After all, it was the absence of action by the previous government to establish such a commission with independence and teeth that helped put six new Independents on this crossbench in this House.
The Attorney-General, I'm aware, does not seek to put in place an integrity commission but does state that this is central to a broader integrity framework. To my mind that framework will be shaky from the beginning if the commission's work is compromised by guidelines that make public hearings the exception. Integrity, and with that the need for a national anticorruption commission, was by far the most profound priority of the people of Goldstein who elected me to this place. Taking away that transparency will leave them short-changed and disappointed.
I strongly believe that the bar of exceptional circumstances should be removed from this bill as a trigger for public hearings. Let's call a spade a spade. We all know why this test was added to the legislation at the eleventh hour. It's because, despite this expanded crossbench, the major parties are in the habit of self-protection. I do respect the Attorney-General's rigorous work on this bill. I understand the government's preference for consensus. But, in seeking that consensus, the integrity of the building itself should not be undermined. After careful consideration and expert advice, I believe that the test of public interest and the various requirements that the commission must consider are enough for us not to need the test of exceptional circumstances, particularly with the additional protections in the bill regarding reputational damage and safety, and the capacity of the commission to make clear publicly when a witnesses either cleared or not the subject of the probe. Reputations are important, and so is the mental health of those being investigated.
While portions of the press and politics would have you believe that integrity commissions flippantly launch cases to bring people down, those are simply not the facts. The New South Wales ICAC, for example, does not assume guilt before innocence. It investigates and makes recommendations, much like a royal commission. It does not convict people. What integrity commissions do in this fast-moving, information overloaded world of ours is stop the clock. They don't quickly lose interest. Their job is forensic investigation to get the facts. Public hearings must not require such a high bar that they thwart the process, as in Victoria, which with an exceptional circumstances provision has held only a handful of public hearings in the last decade, compared to its New South Wales counterpart without that provision.
The Victorian IBAC commissioner, Robert Redlich, has had real-life experience of what it has meant for IBAC to be constrained by that barrier. In a powerful submission and testimony to the joint select committee inquiry, he said that public examination of witnesses is crucial to giving the public confidence in a system of integrity, as well as making investigations more transparent and raising public awareness, and that the imposition of a requirement of exceptional circumstances had placed 'an artificial limit' on IBAC and was unnecessary for the NACC. He stated without reservation:
The NACC must be permitted to hold public examinations without a requirement for exceptional circumstances, so long as there is specific provision that the Commissioner cannot call a witness unless satisfied that there is no unreasonable damage to reputation and that there will be no damage to the witness's welfare.
That being the case in the NACC legislation, Commissioner Redlich concludes:
It is therefore IBAC's position that a requirement that exceptional circumstances must exist for a public hearing to be held is unnecessary given the safeguards that already exist within cl.73(3) of the Bill.
That clause states that the commissioner must, not may, consider a range of factors when deciding whether to hold a public hearing, including the extent of the corrupt conduct, whether it relates to the commission of an offence, any unfair prejudice, any particular vulnerability, and the benefits of public awareness. Public confidence is everything when it comes to the establishment of this commission. That's part of the point that Commissioner Redlich was striving to make.
Respected constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey put it even more powerfully in her submission to the inquiry. If the exceptional circumstances requirement remains, she argues, 'the NACC will be a body with great powers that can investigate matters in secret, hold secret hearings and issue secret reports containing secret findings. This will undermine public trust in the NACC and is inconsistent with the principle of transparency.' I agree.
Arguably, some say, there's a difference between a pork-barrelling in the form of car parks and sports rorts and outright corruption. However, as Stephen Charles from the Centre for Public Integrity says, pork-barrelling is outside the law. What it comes down to is using public money to benefit oneself or one's party politically. This fails the integrity test and should also come under the gamut of the commission. As I have previously written, even many journalists have come desensitised to this. It's so ubiquitous that it attracts little more than a shrug and an eye roll in many quarters. As the former commissioner of the New South Wales ICAC, the Hon. Peter Hall KC, told the joint select committee on this bill:
There is a need to address this question of electioneering promises, where there is currently, it seems—not always but in many cases—a lack of any proper business case or analytical attempt to truly determine what is in the public interest.
Third-party behaviour is another area where corrupt conduct would go uncaptured by the current iteration of this bill. On this, I concur with the language used in section 8(2A) in the New South Wales ICAC Act and most other similar Australian acts:
Corrupt conduct is also any conduct of any person … that impairs, or that could impair, public confidence in public administration—
It involves a list of matters including fraud and collusive tendering. As I have already made clear, public confidence and trust is everything.
Within that context, I've also drawn on my three decades as a journalist and foreign correspondent to propose several amendments to the media and informant provisions in this bill. There is a fine balance to be found between the ability of the commission to find information and to protect its process and the critically important public right to know, which intersects with the media and the protection of journalists' sources. On that basis, I've advocated for a range of changes that protect whistleblowers who provide information to journalists; safeguard journalists and whistleblowers from having to provide information about each other; protect all members of the editorial and administrative chain; protect media organisations from being searched without a warrant; require any warrants granted to be allocated by a judge; and allow media organisations to apply for nondisclosure notifications to be lifted.
I would like to thank the Attorney-General and his office for their consideration and for actively addressing my concerns in the government's amendments to provide stronger protections for reporters and their organisations as they uncover corrupt political activity and to require search warrants to be issued by a judge rather than a member of the AAT. Never again do we want to see reporters like Annika Smethurst, Dan Oakes and Sam Clark at risk of criminal prosecution simply for doing their jobs.
On that basis, I continue to have concern about the prospect of journalists who receive leaked documents being prosecuted, and I'm in continuing discussions with the government about this. This commission must not become a bastion of secrecy that not only restricts public hearings but forbids disclosures in a rigid way, leaving journalists with jail terms hanging over their heads even for reporting the truth. The commission should foster transparency and allow the sunlight in, not operate shrouded in darkness, thereby further fracturing public trust—the exact opposite of what it's intended to do.
I commend the government, and particularly the Attorney-General and his staff, for their work on this once-in-a-generation bill. I will support it, but I say again: this is your legacy. Don't blink.
I'll start as the Prime Minister did a little while ago in this place: honesty, accountability, integrity, trust. I've spoken before in this place about the need for us to rebuild the ethical infrastructure of our nation. Great disservice and great damage was being done to the ethical infrastructure of this nation under those opposite over many years, and our government is rectifying that partially with the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022.
Australia enjoys a strong international reputation as a country with robust institutions, rule of law and integrity, but we've been sliding down the rankings. We see this in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures trust in government by its citizens. That data showed that, between 2012 and 2018, Australia slid to 13th place in the index. A 2018 Australia Institute report calculated that perceptions of growing corruption in Australia shaved four per cent off our GDP due to the hit to business confidence. That had a real cost to us of $72 billion. Then there is the enormous five per cent of GDP that corruption is thought to cost the global economy in plundered wealth. Between 2018 and 2021, Australia dropped five more slots to reach 18th place in the Corruption Perceptions Index. That was obviously a concern to us and to all Australians of good faith.
As a result, it played a role in us now being on this side of the chamber. It has been our commitment, and we are now discharging our responsibility, to bring this legislation into being. As Pope Francis has said, 'The corruption of the powerful ends up being paid for by the poor.' That $72 billion that is embezzled from, or not created in, Australia, costs us all. It is investment for roads, for social housing needed by the many, that is squandered by the greed of the few.
But corruption of course is about more than dollar figures in the GDP; corruption is often compared to a social disease that aggressively spreads, if it is not treated as early as possible. As US President Joe Biden once said:
Corruption is a cancer, a cancer that eats away at a citizen's faith in democracy, diminishes the instinct for innovation and creativity …
The rotting effect of corruption is to sink into the joints of our democracy and corrode from within, because, like it or not, even the unsubstantiated whiff of corruption is as good as proof of corruption in the minds of many citizens, when the accusation trends on Twitter.
When a politician, regardless of party affiliation, subverts Commonwealth guidelines for allocating public money to advance a political or personal interest, that is corruption. When an official bend the rules of a tender process to help a mate bidding for a government contract, that is corruption. When a minister steps down from office and monetises as their wealth of inside information and contacts in a lucrative lobbying gig in the portfolio they formerly held, that is corruption—or at least, it could be.
Establishing a national anticorruption commission with the power to investigate such cases under the supervision of this parliament is the most effective way to tackle corruption at a federal level. We members and senators cannot afford to maintain the status quo—the languishing of ethical standards that we have seen in the last decade. The status quo is one where only 40 per cent of the population is satisfied in our democracy, down from 85 per cent in 2007. That is an appalling loss of faith in our democracy. These are the results of a research project by the new Museum of Australian Democracy, which predicted that, on current trends, fewer than 10 per cent of Australians would see this parliament as being legitimate by 2025. That was the trajectory that we were on under the former federal government.
Just think about what that would mean for a minute, if that were to come to pass. If, as the Museum of Australian Democracy project predicted, 90 per cent of voters one day didn't believe that our democracy was the very best form of government, that wouldn't be good at all. But what the world looks like when democrats become the minority is something history has rightly taught us to fear. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer found that the bubble of trust in government, business, media and NGOs recorded in 2021 has now burst. Politics is seen as a dividing force in our society. This trust deficit is literally tearing our societies apart. Sixty-one per cent of Australians responding to this study reported feeling unable to have civil debates about issues they disagree on. While trust in our political institutions is only one part this larger national pattern, it is a very important part of it. A federal anticorruption body alone may not be able to reverse the tide of perceptions that took decades to set in, but it is a formidable step towards restoring trust in our politics, in our democracy and in our fellow Australians.
Trust is the living spirit of this institution. Without it this place is simply cement and steel—a statue. It is a beautiful building but it's dead without the trust of those who we are called to serve and are elected to serve. Our democracy has no future without the belief of most of our citizens that despite its limitations this is still the highest form of government. That's why the Albanese Labor government takes our promise that we made to the Australian people seriously, and that is to tackle corruption and to restore trust, integrity, honesty and accountability to federal politics. This legislation gives effect to the principles we took to the election and that were endorsed by the Australian people. It delivers on a commitment by the Albanese government to legislate a powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission. It also draws on the best elements of state and territory anticorruption commissions and laws. This bill provides the commission with a broad jurisdiction to investigate serious or systemic corrupt conduct across the Commonwealth public sector.
The commission will have the power to investigate ministers, parliamentarians and their staff, statutory officeholders, employees of all government entities and contractors. It will have discretion to commence inquiries on its own initiative or in response to referrals from anyone. It will be able to investigate both criminal and non-criminal corrupt conduct occurring before or after its establishment.
The commission defines corrupt conduct as an abuse of office, breach of public trust or a misuse of information by officials. To stamp out this behaviour the commissioner will have a full suite of powers similar to those of a royal commission. The commissioner will be able to use these powers to undertake an investigation into a corruption issue. The overarching principle here is that all of the work of the National Anti-Corruption Commissioner will be conducted in the public interest, in the interests of those that we serve.
The commission will be independent. It will be the commissioner who will decide where the public interest lies. The commissioner will decide whether the hearing is going to be public or not. 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.
Importantly though, and I stress again, this commission will be independent. Anyone subject to a critical finding must be given a chance to respond out of procedural fairness. I believe that this commission, with its independence enshrined, will be able to conduct investigations on its own initiative or in response to allegations from any source, overseen by a parliamentary joint committee and an inspector. The parliamentary joint committee will be made of 12 members—three government, two opposition, one from the crossbench from each house and a government chair with a casting vote. The inspector will deal with any corruption issues arising in the commission and complaints about the commission as well. Transparency is essential. The commissioner's investigative function will be balanced with strong safeguards to ensure that corruption investigations do not cause undue reputational damage, and that is incredibly important. This legislation provides strong protections against criminal offences and immunities for whistleblowers. The bill also ensures that there are appropriate protections for journalists and their sources.
The government has committed $262 million over four years for the establishment and operation of the commission. The National Anti-Corruption Commission is a nation-building reform, will assist us in rebuilding the ethical infrastructure of our nation and will hold us all up to the very high standards both that our citizens expect of us working in the federal realm and that our citizens deserve. May this only be the start of the national task of stamping out corruption and restoring faith in our democracy, because we do have the foundations of a great democracy. Our government is after that goal of more trust in our democracy, because that's what our citizens deserve. We will restore faith in our democracy again, and this bill goes to that most important task.
Through my election campaign I committed to supporting the establishment of a national anticorruption commission to play a key role in building trust in politics, and I am proud to be standing here today delivering on my promise by supporting this legislation to establish that commission. All of us in this place come from different parts of this wonderful country. We hold different views. Our values differ, and so do our personality traits. That is the value of a representative democracy. But as politicians and representatives the one trait we should all share is our integrity, and that is why I am supportive of a National Anti-Corruption Commission.
As I said in my first speech, there is no greater honour, privilege or responsibility than representing your community and your family's home in federal parliament. It is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly and a privilege that should always be met with integrity. Our democracy is fragile. Trust in our institutions is vital to its survival. However, we must also never forget that behind all these investigations are people and families and the need for natural justice. Personally I find it concerning that this bill removes the fundamental legal right to privilege against self-incrimination and legal professional privilege. This is why I'm supporting our amendments to ensure that it is done only when absolutely necessary, because of the significant impost on fundamental rights, and these amendments are supported by the Law Council of Australia.
As an example of the power these institutions can hold over everyday lives, I wish to share a real-life example of the impact of the Victorian anticorruption commission. I note that this morning the member for Bruce shared the story of Amanda Stapledon and that her story is seared in his memory. So too is it seared in mine. Amanda Stapledon was a former mayor of the City of Casey, and earlier this year, under investigation from the Victorian anticorruption watchdog, Amanda took her own life. Amanda was a long-term city councillor, serving on council from 2008 until her death earlier this year. When she died, she was described as someone who had dedicated her life to her family and to helping others.
Amanda was one of a group of former Casey councillors investigated by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission. IBAC conducted weeks of public hearings about a group of councillors' alleged corruption through late 2019 and 2020. Amanda, described by her friends as loving, caring, genuine, honest, fun-loving and family first, spent the final two years of her life looking over her shoulder, growing increasingly isolated and racked with anxiety about her fate. On Friday 14 January 2022, IBAC's draft report arrived, shackled by laws preventing her from talking to anyone about this other than a lawyer. The ex-mayor had to handle it alone. She took her life three days later.
We must never forget the impact these investigations have on the lives of public officials and their families. It's not just members of parliament and public servants that will be answerable to this commission; it will apply to the ADF; the AFP; NDIS; aged-care workers; and any contractor, subcontractor, or person exercising a power under a law of the Commonwealth. I am not suggesting that these people or politicians should have special protections or a different standard. But I do believe that they deserve natural justice and the right to be innocent until proven guilty. And we need to strike the right balance. Amanda's example shows how important this balance is and how getting it wrong can have tragic and unnecessary consequences.
The commission will be able to commence inquiries on its own initiative after receiving a referral from anyone, including anonymous members of the public and whistleblowers. It will also have the power to hold public hearings. Over recent weeks the National Anti-Corruption Commission has been subject to review by the Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation. The provisions of the bill have been carefully considered. The coalition has approached this process with good faith and the intention of ensuring the bill gets the balance right between stamping out corruption and protecting the rights of everyday people brought before the commission. The Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills made extensive recommendations to improve the bill, highlighting concerns around loose definitions and the use of coercive powers without adequate safeguards in place. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights noted concerns about the use of gag orders and their long-term application, which can harm the mental health of people brought before the commission, as we devastatingly saw with the passing of Councillor Amanda Stapledon.
These concerns are not just things that we can sweep under the carpet. That's why the coalition are introducing amendments that will ensure the commission applies its powers fairly and reasonably with the right balance. Firstly, we are introducing an amendment that will close the loophole the government inserted for their union mates. The government talks a big game on integrity, but when it comes to unions that goes out the window. They try to deny that there is a union exception, but it is there, plain and clear. I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that the commission does not apply to union officials exercising a power under the law of the Commonwealth. The question is: how is it that John Setka from the CFMMEU wouldn't have to answer to the commission, but ADF and NDIS workers in my electorate would? If Labor is serious about integrity, there should be no loopholes, which is why we're putting forward our amendment.
We're also putting forward other amendments, backed by experts from the Law Council, the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, and the SA Bar Association. We think it's important that it's not just a single commissioner alone that decides to commence a public hearing. The government's bill gives too much power to one single official. We believe it should be shared between the commissioner and the deputy commissioner.
We also think that it should be compulsory, not optional, for the commissioner to consider other factors before deciding whether a public hearing is appropriate, and this is important because no person is above reproach and we need to have those safeguards in place. It is important to remember that these are real lives that we are dealing with, with this legislation. The commissioner should have to consider whether confidential information is involved, whether there would be unfair prejudice to a person's reputation or whether a person giving evidence has any particular vulnerability, such as being under coercion by another person. This amendment was supported by the Queensland Law Society, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australia Institute.
When I think about this bill I think back to Amanda Stapledon and how we can improve the system to be more balanced. I believe one thing we need to do is make sure that these investigations have a time limit. Amanda's investigation went for two years. The unknown is traumatic and steals years from people's lives. Our amendment proposes a 12-month time limit on investigations.
We must also look to limit gag orders that prevent people from disclosing that they have appeared before the commission. In the interests of mental health, people should be able to make a disclosure to an immediate family member, as long as they are not a person of interest, as well as to a medical or mental health professional. Whether people before the commission are innocent or guilty, appearing before the commission will be a traumatic and stressful time for them, so giving them the right to share that with a loved one and a mental health professional is so important, because we all know how important is to be able to talk and share the troubles that you are having.
One of the most fundamental components of our legal system is the ability to appeal, or receive a review, when decisions are made. This commission should be no different. We know from history that no commissioner or judge is infallible. Mistakes, unfortunately, can be made, and we have to have a safeguard to give people the right to appeal that decision. All decisions of the commission should be subject to review under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act, and we are introducing an amendment to allow that to happen. For this body to be successful, it needs to have the trust of the public and it must be balanced, and it must stand up to ongoing operations.
We are supportive of this bill, with these amendments, because corruption is wrong and it should, and must, be stamped out. It was a coalition government that introduced Australia's first ICAC, in 1988. We want this commission to succeed, but we must balance the need to stamp out corruption with the need to protect the lives of those people brought before the commission. Ultimately, while this commission will play a key role in building trust with the community, it rests with all of us in this House to act with integrity and to essentially answer to ourselves on the representatives that we want to be, the culture that we want in this House and how we want to be viewed by the public. A commission will play a role in holding representatives to account, but delivering integrity and trust in this House is through the actions of all of us as elected representatives.
During this year's federal election campaign, I had the great pleasure of doorknocking all across my wonderful electorate of Reid. It's an electorate that takes in a corridor running from the inner-west of Sydney by the harbour in Drummoyne, right along the Parramatta Road through to Burwood, Lidcombe and Sydney Olympic Park. It's an electorate as diverse in its demography as it is in the languages that it speaks. We're a multilingual community with many families speaking Chinese, Lebanese, Korean, Italian, Greek or Hindi. We are a community where more than half of use were born overseas.
As you would expect from this diverse community, there is a diversity of opinion. We all want what is best for our families and our futures, but I think it's fair to say there is a diversity of views about how get there. With this diversity in mind, it was truly extraordinary to see the unanimity with which my community expressed its views on one particular subject, that of integrity. In amongst the thousands of conversations I had with residents, the issue that came up regularly was people's desire to see integrity back in parliament.
At the tail end of the last coalition government, there was a feeling across my community that federal politics, and perhaps politicians themselves, could not be trusted. The Governance Institute of Australia just released its report on the least trusted occupations, and there are no surprises there. Politicians filled up the top spots. State, federal and local politicians took out the first, second and fourth spots; real estate agents took out the third. It is a sentiment expressed in other surveys, too. In 2018, Griffith University's Australian Constitutional Values Survey found a considerable slide in trust in government between 2012 and 2018. An ANU study found only 59 per cent of Australians were satisfied with how democracy was functioning, a 27 per cent drop from a record high in 2007. Over the past decade, according to Transparency International, we have fallen down the rankings of the Corruption Perceptions Index. On a scale out of 100, Australia's score in 2012 was 85. In 2021 that had dropped to 73, a 12 point drop. We experienced the biggest drop amongst all OECD countries, alongside Hungary. These results are deeply dispiriting, because they mean the public no longer trusts government to act in their best interest. A cynicism has set in.
But I know good governments matter; they change lives. I know that because they changed mine. Successive governments of all persuasions made critical decisions that had an impact on my family. This allowed a family fleeing conflict to come to this country and thrive here. It is essential we build trust with the public again, because we are here to serve them.
Trust in politics is the glue that holds our democracy together. It is the foundation on which this place is built. Every time a voter walks into the voting booth on election day, they are putting their faith and their trust in those with the privilege of being elected. The trust in us is given freely by the electorate, but it is conditioned upon us as parliamentarians acting in the best interests of our electorates, not for personal gain. We are trusted by our constituents to act with integrity, and this is the covenant between those who govern and those who are governed. It's simple to say, but extremely hard to rebuild once trust is lost. But rebuild we must. In every state and territory there is an anticorruption commission. They oversee state, territory and local governments. The only jurisdiction without one is the federal government, and we're hoping to change that.
In my home state of New South Wales, the Independent Commission Against Corruption exposed corrupt behaviour—corrupt activities that have meant that the interests of individuals were placed over the public's and the community's interests, corruption committed by representatives at both levels of government, local and state, by both major political parties, including the party I am part of, the Labor Party. And it saddens me to say that, but I'm grateful to the Sydney Morning Herald's investigative reporter Kate McClymont for exposing this corrupt behaviour. And I'm grateful to the Independent Commission Against Corruption for its thorough investigation, because I don't want to be part of a party that has corrupt representatives. I want their behaviour exposed, investigated and prosecuted. It's time for us to hold federal parliamentarians to that level of scrutiny and accountability so that the public can trust us again. That's why I'm so proud to speak on this bill, because fundamentally this is a bill about rebuilding trust and integrity in our politics.
The key features of the National Anti-Corruption Commission are fairly well known, but it's worth briefly outlining the key points. In fact, one of the only benefits of having taken so long to establish a federal version of an anticorruption commission means we can draw on the best of those state and territory examples. The commission will have the power to investigate ministers, parliamentarians and their staff, statutory office holders, employees of all government entities and contractors. It will be able to investigate both criminal and non-criminal conduct and will have retrospective powers. The commission will have the powers of a royal commission. It will have investigative powers that allow it to seek out information if it is of the opinion that an issue potentially involves serious or systemic corrupt conduct. The commission will operate independently, at arm's length from government. We know that independence from government is a key feature of all the different models across the country and is fundamental to building civic trust in the institution.
The commission will have the authority to conduct investigations on its own initiative or in response to referrals or allegations from any source. Recent amendments have bolstered this independence by clarifying the commissioner's authority. The commission will be overseen by a parliamentary joint committee and by an inspector. That parliamentary joint committee will be multipartisan, with three government ministers, two opposition members and one crossbench member from each chamber. Importantly, appointees to the commission will have limited terms and security of tenure comparable to that of a federal judge. Our government has gone about seeking the input of members of all persuasions across this House. We have done that deliberately, because we want members of this place to get onboard with this important reform.
Now is not the time to play politics. Now is the time to strengthen and improve our politics, because that's what the public wants to see. I want to thank the crossbench for their constructive approach to this bill. Where we have been able to find common ground and consensus we have. We have moved amendments to change the definition of 'corrupt conduct' and strengthened whistleblower protections by amending the Public Interest Disclosure Act. On the points where we have difference of views—namely, the debate over public versus private hearings—I accept that this is a delicate and difficult question. We know that public hearings are an important element in uncovering, exposing and deterring corruption. Once you accept that this legislation is about public trust in our institutions then you have to accept that there needs to be room for the public to view these proceedings.
However, a balance needs to be struck. We have to weigh those public interest rights against the rights of the individuals concerned. Reputational harm and harm to an individual's welfare are important considerations, too. Weighing up these two considerations, I think it's right that the commission will be able to hold public hearings where it is in the public interest and where exceptional circumstances justify them. The model being proposed by the government leaves it for the commission to determine when it should hold hearings in public and whether that threshold has been met. So, while I respect and to some extent share the concerns of those views expressed by the crossbench, I believe we have landed in the right place.
I want to thank the crossbench for their collaborative approach to this bill, and I'm glad that those opposite are starting to come on board to the idea of a National Anti-Corruption Commission. Integrity in our Parliament should not be the domain of one party. For us to regain trust with the public, we need the whole Parliament to get on board. This bill reflects the best of the state and territory models. Importantly, this legislation was an election commitment that we on this side of the House take seriously. I'm incredibly proud that the Albanese Labor government is bringing in this legislation as a matter of priority, and I'm proud of the consultative way we have done it. It has shown some of the best of what this place can offer with extraordinary input from the crossbench and community stakeholders across the country. I hope that it marks an inflection point in this country's view of its politicians.
I want to briefly turn to my electorate, to the people of Reid. I consider it the privilege of my life to be elected to this House. The trust that you've put in me to act with integrity is absolutely core to how I have acted thus far and will continue to act as your member. Your trust weighs on me, just as it should, and I can tell you that it weighs on this government, just as it should. We will repay your trust.
One of Australia's leading auction houses has an auction at the moment in which one of the items is a poster from the 1969 federal election, which reads 'Whoever you vote for, a politician always gets in. Vote informal.' I think that's outrageous. It is wrong. There are more than 103,000 names on the Australian War Memorial just down the way of people who died so that we could have free, democratic and fair elections. For media companies, for activists, for anyone to suggest that you should vote informal is a slight on those Diggers who lost their lives, who made the supreme sacrifice for and on behalf of the democracy of the nation. I would never suggest that anybody vote informal. In fact, I would sooner see them vote Labor than waste their vote. There you go.
That's true. That is a big statement, member for New England, but it is true, because to cast an informal vote is thumbing your nose at those people who lost their lives fighting for this country. You should cast your ballot in favour of someone who is going to represent your electorate, someone who's going to come into this place and fight for the interests of your local communities, your local region. That's what it's all about. I would say that all, or perhaps almost all, of the people who come to this House of Representatives, and the Senate too for that matter, come in with the very best of intentions.
I listened closely to the member for Reid talking about how politics and politicians were at a low ebb at the moment. That is sad and true, but we shouldn't disparage our profession and one another to the point where the community has that feeling. Of course social media plays a big part in that. The sewer that Twitter can be plays a big part in it if it's left unchecked. There's a lot of scrutiny on politicians, not the same scrutiny that's applied on those people who necessarily write about politicians, who broadcast about politicians. I'm not directly having a crack at the fourth estate, the press gallery. There are times when we make mistakes and we lose our jobs. They make mistakes and they might have a Walkley Award taken from them, or there might be some repercussions, but it's not as much as the court of public opinion, that is the pub test. That is of course different to corruption.
We support an anticorruption commission because corruption is wrong, and we know that, and corruption should not be tolerated in any form. But, by the same token, we have to get the parameters of this legislation right such that we don't get innocent people—who may be named or may be shamed, indeed, by association—dragged through some anticorruption hearing, who are as honest as the day is long, who are more pure than the driven snow. That's what worries me about this legislation and about the Anti-Corruption Commission.
I am in favour of an anticorruption commission. I have nothing to hide; I very much want to see an anticorruption commission. Indeed, I was asked a question—one of those 'yes' or 'no' gotcha moments at a pre-election forum. A lawyer from Wagga Wagga asked me the question—just 'yes' or 'no'; he asked it of all the candidates—and I said, 'Yes, I am in favour of an anticorruption commission.' But let's get it right, such that innocent people don't have their names dragged through the mud by their local press, by their local community or by some person who just wants to grind their axe on that person—and that's what worries me.
I well remember my former local state member and the former Premier of New Wales going before the Independent Commission Against Corruption. And we all know about it; it was a well-publicised hearing. There were intimate details expressed to one another via a telephone call, which was being tapped. The ICAC hearing said that hearing should have been held in camera, in secret. And it should have been, but it wasn't, and that is unfortunate. Sensitive details of the relationship between the pair were—the Sydney Morning Herald used the word 'inadvertently'—made public after the Independent Commission Against Corruption uploaded suppressed evidence to its website.
We're all humans; we all have views. Whilst I appreciate the independence of such bodies as ICAC, imagine getting a board or a hearing or a so-called independent group determining such a thing, and somehow, some way, it inadvertently gets broadcast for all of the public to see, for all of the public to hear, for all of the public to read. This is what happens. Well may you smile, member opposite, but this is what happens, and it's grist for the media mill, and that is so, so unfortunate. Of course, they're named, they're damned, they're shamed, and once the mud is thrown there's no cleaning the mud off, particularly in regional communities, where everybody seems to know everybody else's business.
People who break the law should face the law—there's no question. It was this side of politics that introduced Australia's first ICAC back in 1988, and we are currently introducing laws, powers, that we feel should be applied in a fair and reasonable way, and I'm not so certain that this legislation does just that. We hear from the purists who sit over there, the Independents. Fair dinkum—some of these Independents in both state and federal parliaments in Australia, on any given issue, take an each-way bet. Honestly, if it's one way or the other, they agree with both, such that they get so many splinters in their backside they almost need hospitalisation to extricate them. That is the way. And they're always pure and perfect. I'll tell you why they're pure and perfect. It's because they will never, ever sit around a cabinet table or a ministerial meeting and have to make a decision. They'll never have to make a decision to save themselves. The media in their local communities will ask them for a view, and they'll take an each-way bet. It's no wonder they want to have legislation such as this with powers such as this brought to a place such as this; unless they're totally corrupt, they'll never be called to account because they'll never be making a decision to save themselves.
If you are making a decision, as the member for New England and I have in the infrastructure space, when the funding for those pools of money, those limited resources, those limited amounts of money—being former deputy prime ministers and former infrastructure ministers, we know full well that those grant funding programs are oversubscribed six and seven to one. Yes, you take advice from the bureaucrats. You have a full ministerial council which sits over the decision, and you make a decision. And sometimes you actually go to members, be they Labor members—who were then in opposition—or your colleagues, and ask them for a view on a particular project, because it's the local member who knows best—better than the Canberra bureaucrat who doesn't know diddly squat, quite frankly, and doesn't care and won't take responsibility and won't ever have their name on a ballot paper. Yet, somehow, some way, some people in this place think it is bureaucrats who should be making the decisions about funding programs for regional Australia, for any community, for any of our 151 electorates in Australia. I don't think that's the proper way. Yet, if you make a decision, God forbid you make a decision that is for your own electorate—and I appreciate you have to make a declaration saying, 'That's my electorate and that funding is going to my electorate.'
The independents somehow, even though they were very much recipients and beneficiaries of some of the coalition largess when we were giving out regional funding, seem to think that's corrupt. They seem to think a Canberra bureaucrat is better placed to make a decision than a member of parliament who happens to be elected to cabinet. I didn't come to this place to get elected, appointed or voted in as a cabinet minister; I was just very fortunate, very privileged and very honoured, and I know the member for New England felt the same way about his elevation. We chaired those Building Better Regions Fund meetings with a full ministerial council, taking the advice of the bureaucrats but not necessarily following it to the letter of the law because we felt we knew, and that our colleagues knew and that our opponents knew, what was best for our communities rather than a faceless bureaucrat in Canberra who will never have their name on a ballot paper. That is the truth. But is that corrupt? No, it's not. But, somehow, in some way, the independents will tell you that it is, and that really bugs me. It bugs me as well that you then get the media on your case simply because you have a situation whereby some organisation, some local government area, has got a funding grant that was somehow, in some way, because of a decision made by a Canberra bureaucrat, scored a little bit less than some other application of another area—or, indeed, in the same area—just because that council may well have had the resources, capacity and the staff to put together a better application than the more deserving recipient—and that is the absolute truth.
The unions are carved out from this legislation. I cannot see why it's good enough for National Disability Insurance Scheme contractors, aged-care workers and Australian Defence Force members to be questioned, yet union officials somehow seem to be carved out. Why is that? I know we rushed the industrial relations legislation through in time for the Christmas picnics of the unions; I get that. I understand why that was rushed through to the Senate, or virtually gagged—so it would be done in time as payback for the unions. But this is a bit more important than that.
Government members interjecting—
Those opposite yelling out want to be very careful. You've got to be careful what you wish for in this place. Just ask Nick Greiner—a good man, a very, very good man, but somebody who stridently pushed through the ICAC legislation in New South Wales. There have been some good people who have fallen foul of these ICAC processes, and, in fact, they have even had to step aside—let's take the case of former premier Berejiklian—when things weren't proven. But, to get on with the continuity of government and to make sure that people felt confident in Macquarie Street and elsewhere, they had to step aside while processes took place.
Another thing is that, if you take the case I just mentioned of the former Premier and the former member for Wagga Wagga, it just drags on and on and on. I know there was a journalist from the Wagga Wagga paper who recently bemoaned the fact that he'd started there some years ago, when the inquiry first started, and he has now left, years later, and the inquiry's findings, results and outcomes are still yet to be determined. That's too long. It's not good enough.
I do worry about some of the conditions of this particular legislation. It's all well good for the Independents to come in here, as holy as thou, and say, 'This needs to happen.' I don't disagree it needs to happen, but let's be very careful and very mindful that we don't smear and tarnish good people and ruin their reputations not only during their political careers but forevermore—if, later on, they are cleared—because of the inefficiencies and the inadequacies of this particular legislation, which needs to be reviewed and looked at.
Australians lost a lot under the previous coalition government. They lost a decade to climate inaction. They lost $3.4 billion for submarines that were never built. They lost the Australian car industry. And ministers lost count of how many secret portfolios former prime minister Morrison had. All of this added up to an erosion and a loss of trust in government.
Even as this federation was built, Australians have been proud of our strong democratic values. To this day, it is that value of democracy which we ask the newest Australians to sign up to and pledge their commitment to. Therefore, all Australians deserve to have confidence that their democracy is working for them. That is why we've introduced the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022, to create that powerful, transparent and truly independent National Anti-Corruption Commission, with the powers necessary and the funding necessary to investigate corrupt conduct, to investigate the past and the present, to prevent for the future—independently and without political interference—and to restore integrity and trust in government.
I have to address the comments from the former Acting Prime Minister, who was just speaking at the dispatch box, and who said that Canberra bureaucrats 'don't care'. I have to disagree. We know that the people who work in our public sector do care—and, again, this bill is about backing them to do their job without fear or favour so that they can continue to do what they do every single day, which is to develop and implement policy which improves the lives of all Australians.
We know that an integrity commission was a key issue at the 2022 election. The results in this chamber show that. But that wasn't the first election. It feels like years ago—because it was—that a Commonwealth integrity commission was first announced. In 2018, the then Attorney-General promised that a coalition government, which was subsequently re-elected, would introduce and deliver an integrity commission, a promise from that 2019 election that was never delivered. It was a bit like their 'back in black' surplus mugs—all announcement and no delivery.
In the final seconds I have, I do want to thank some of those who have campaigned for this change and for this bill to be introduced on the floor of this parliament. I pay tribute to the member for Indi, who has done so much to be a voice for integrity in this place. I thank all the members of the committee who interrogated this bill and held hearings. I thank many who have advocated in their electorates and, as a result, have been elected to this place. I want to note that it was 10 years ago this month that former member for Fremantle Melissa Parke first raised this idea in a parliamentary committee report. It was not an idea embraced by the government at that time, but the idea's time has well and truly come. With that, I will conclude my remarks for now.