Thursday, 15 May 2014
National Integrity Commission Bill 2013; Second Reading
No-one ever argues that governments should have less integrity, that elected officials should not be accountable or that public servants should behave unethically. Broad statements of the value of integrity, transparency, accountability and ethics gain general agreement from all sides of politics and from all participants in public debate. Integrity and trust are critical not only to good government; they are critical to the public's faith in government.
However, it is now obvious that words and good intentions are not enough. Evidence to the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption has been devastating for public confidence and trust in government, whether Labor or Liberal, and it has been devastating in terms of that confidence in the political process more generally.
I have said before and I will say it again: I was utterly disgusted by the behaviour of some former New South Wales Labor ministers. I have never minced by words about the actions of Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald. I said in a speech about political integrity at the University of Melbourne law school in December 2012 that it was time then for the Labor Party to publicly acknowledge that there were some within its ranks who had neither political principles to defend or moral convictions to uphold. Of course I was referring to Obeid and Macdonald whose behaviour has been exposed at the New South Wales ICAC as obscenely corrupt. They disgraced themselves; but so much worse: they disgraced the Australian Labor Party.
For the record, I also acknowledge that that corruption and misdeeds of Mr Michael Williamson, a former long serving vice president of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party and shamefully former National President of the Labor Party, and Mr Craig Thomson, a former Labor member of the House of Representatives. But I am equally disgusted by the recent evidence at ICAC of systematic corruption within the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party. Two New South Wales ICAC inquiries, Operation Credo and Operation Spicer, have already had extraordinary repercussions.
The New South Wales Premier, Mr Barry O'Farrell has resigned. Mr Michael Gallacher, the New South Wales police minister has resigned. Mr Chris Hartcher resigned as Minister for Resources and Energy, Special Minister of State and Minister for the Central Coast, and was suspended from the Liberal Party. Liberal MLC Marie Ficarra lost her position as Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier and withdrew from the Liberal Party. Mr Chris Spence—the member for the Entrance—has been stood down from the Liberal Party. The same is true of Mr Darren Webber MP—the member for Wyong; and Mr Tim Owen MP—the member for Newcastle—has announced he will not contest the next state election as he has indicated it is likely he received prohibited donations in the last election.
In this chamber, the Assistant Treasurer, Senator Sinodinos, announced in March that he would stand aside from his ministerial responsibilities while ICAC investigates the dealings of a company he was involved with before entering parliament.
We have also seen numerous ministerial staffers and Liberal Party officials, including very senior Liberal Party officials, also either resign their positions or stand aside, pending the outcome of the ICAC inquiries. These revelations have raised serious concerns about corruption on both sides of Australian politics and they raise the question of how effectively we deal with those allegations.
There remain many questions to be answered, some of which I suspect are beyond the jurisdiction of the New South Wales ICAC, about how laws in relation to political donations may have been circumvented; how illegal donations have been hidden from New South Wales authorities; and how slush funds or sham organisations may have been used at the federal level for the laundering of donations, some of which may have been returned to New South Wales.
I also remain perplexed and intrigued as I have been for many years about the role of the Free Enterprise Foundation, so I intend to ask at Senate estimates in a fortnight's time what role, if any, the Australian Electoral Commission has had in investigating these and related matters at the federal level. I would be very concerned—and I hope this is a concern that would be shared around the chamber—if there is a legislative or communications fault line between state and federal electoral authorities, and if such a disconnect has resulted in any unethical or illegal behaviour perhaps going unchecked.
I have, as I think you would know, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, argued long and hard about the need for reform of our electoral funding laws at the federal level. Unfortunately, I was not persuasive enough, particularly when I was the Special Minister of State, to convince this Senate in 2008 and 2009 that reform was desperately needed. My attempts to make our system more transparent, freer from corruption and improper influence failed. They were blocked by the then coalition in opposition with the assistance of then Senator Fielding.
The reforms I proposed as the Special Minister of State included significant measures to reduce the donations disclosure threshold to $1,000 and remove indexation, and that level is currently $12,400; prohibit foreign and anonymous donations; limit the potential for 'donation splitting' across branches, divisions, different units of parties; require faster and more regular disclosure of donations; and introduce new offences and significantly increase penalties for offences for the breach of electoral law.
These reforms would have enhanced the transparency and accountability of political donations, and I would like to think they would have had at least some dampening effect on the behaviour that is being exposed at the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption. It is quite clear that much more needs to be done in this area. I really do hope that the recent events in New South Wales will motivate all Australian political parties to work together for far-reaching and long overdue reform of our electoral donations, funding and expenditure laws. This will be a real challenge for our current political leaders.
I commend the New South Wales ICAC. I think its work is critically important. I for one do look forward to its findings and recommendations in relation to its current inquiries. But, with the almost daily revelations of political corruption coming from the New South Wales ICAC, and with the suggestion of federal links, it is timely that the Commonwealth parliament considers this National Integrity Commission Bill 2013 that we have before us today. The parliament needs to ensure the events in New South Wales cannot be repeated in Canberra or anywhere else in Australia. In my view, the sort of issues being raised at the New South Wales ICAC do not miraculously stop at state or territory borders, and it is reasonable that this parliament consider how we can strengthen the Commonwealth government's integrity and its resistance to corruption.
In my view this bill that we are debating today has merit. I am supportive of its intent. I acknowledge, of course, that at this stage this bill has not been considered by the federal parliamentary Labor Party, so there is no Labor caucus decision about whether it will be supported, amended or opposed. I also acknowledge that perhaps some of the sentiments that I have expressed in this contribution might not be shared by all my colleagues; but, my personal view is that this bill is heading in the right direction.
I also believe, and I do know this perspective is shared by shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus that it would be appropriate for a substantive parliamentary committee examination to be undertaken of the provisions of this bill, including, of course, the proposal for a federal independent commission against corruption based on the New South Wales model and the proposal to establish an independent parliamentary advisor, something of which I have spoken about in this chamber for the best part of two decades. Any such committee consideration, though—and I want to be clear about this—must ensure that a new federal anticorruption commission must fully respect the rights of citizens. In particular, we must ensure that those who appear before such a commission only as witnesses do not have their reputations damaged or sullied because of such an appearance.
I am pleased we are now debating the issue of integrity in our political system. I have said before that human nature is variable and fallible—that individuals do from time to time succumb to temptation or fall into error. We are not miraculously immune from wrongdoing, malfeasance and corruption just because we serve in Australia's federal parliament and not at the state or territory level. There is no doubt in my mind that we must do all we can as federal parliamentarians to ensure the integrity of the political process, the parliament, the government and all our institutions at the federal level.
No-one is ever opposed to integrity. No-one ever argues that our political system needs less integrity. But support for integrity in the abstract all too often fractures in the face of specific measures. We need strong, substantive measures to enhance the integrity of our political system in Australia. I conclude my speech by reminding the Senate, as I have previously, of the words of Alan K Simpson, Republican Senator for Wyoming, who said in a slightly different context:
If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don't have integrity, nothing else matters.