Senate debates

Thursday, 25 September 2014


National Independent Commission Against Corruption

4:18 pm

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | Hansard source

In addressing this motion, I have been listening to Senator Canavan's comments and I do concur that there are risks in addressing this issue—and I will come to covering some aspects of those during my contribution. In my contribution today I intend to look at some of the more recent history since this matter was last addressed and indicate that Labor is open to considering a federal ICAC. That said, we think that addressing it here today in this way is a tad premature and that there are potentially problems with the Greens' preferred position—if I read the motion correctly—in terms of what is alluded to in it.

Firstly, let me reflect on one point. As we address this issue, I think it is important to go to the bones of the matter. In our system of government, particularly here in Australia, there are checks and balances between the executive, the parliament and the courts, and those checks and balances are indeed critical. They exist to guard against one overwhelming the other. But when one is found to be influenced by outside interests it can be labelled as corruption and, in a parliamentary democracy of Australia's calibre, it is an important issue to address.

Labor feels that there is new cause for concern about corruption in Australian politics and that that concern goes to the New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party. Coincidentally, our Treasurer and Prime Minister call the New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party home. Another individual also calls the New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party home, and that person is former Assistant Treasurer Senator Sinodinos—who, since I first addressed some issues in the Senate back in March last year, has had cause to answer many questions that are relevant to this discussion.

I say 'former', as Senator Sinodinos accepted standing aside while the ICAC inquiry investigation occurred. But that was 10 months ago and his frontbench position remains vacant. I think that is a statement about our parliamentary democracy in itself. I have listened to debates in this chamber about Assistant Treasurer matters and FoFA matters, where concerns have been raised about how competently government is addressing issues in this critical portfolio and, indeed, the support that is needed for the Treasurer—and this position still remains vacant. From my most recent reading of press reports on this matter, it seems as though it is likely to remain vacant until after January next year, which in itself is quite an incredible situation. The Australian federal government continues to operate one short for more than 12 months whilst ICAC investigators very serious issues.

Senator Sinodinos has appeared at the New South Wales ICAC on two occasions and has heard allegations of illegal political donations being funnelled through various slush funds to the New South Wales Liberal Party. Senator Sinodinos said he was not aware of more than $70,000 in donations to the Liberal Party while he chaired Australian Water Holdings and was Liberal Party Treasurer at the same time. Ten million dollars to $20 million was the figure put to Senator Sinodinos that he stood to make from the dealings between Australian Water Holdings and Sydney Water. I think 'dealings' is a very generous way of describing what occurred with respect to Sydney Water. The treatment that occurred to what is an Australian public utility was incredible and very difficult to justify. I look forward to the New South Wales ICAC report on how that public utility—I am tempted to use a word which I will not—was dealt with.

Senator Sinodinos also said that he was not aware Australian Water Holdings paid $183,000 to the alleged slush fund Eight by Five while he chaired Australian Water Holdings. Senator Sinodinos, we know from press reports assessing this point, gave in total 68 'don't recall', 'don't recollect' and 'do not remember' answers—an extraordinary achievement, even for the good senator. Senator Sinodinos made an extraordinary comment in an opinion piece in The Australian on 18 October 2012 which I will repeat now. It said:

Labor's defence of Peter Slipper did not pass the pub test. The true test of leadership is to uphold a standard even if it is at a cost to your own side. Anything else is rank hypocrisy.

Such strong opinions back in October 2012.

Given the recent history of Senator Sinodinos, I would have thought he would feel that what has happened subsequently is a bit hypocritical. We heard about a Liberal staffer confessing to ICAC that enormous sums of money, including from property developers banned from making political donations under New South Wales law, were laundered through the organisations Eight by Five and the Free Enterprise Foundation before being passed on to the New South Wales Liberal Party. As Neil Chenoweth wrote in the Financial Review on 7 May:

Any investigation of NSW state finances inevitably involves some scrutiny of federal fund-raising. It’s done by the same people, the same structures, there are constant crossovers.

We have in just the past few months seen resignations from former New South Wales Liberal Premier Barry O'Farrell, two New South Wales Liberal cabinet ministers and several others. But New South Wales Liberal police minister, Mike Gallagher, the man tasked with fighting corruption and crime, was forced to resign due to revelations made to ICAC.

As I said previously, January is when ICAC reports. It will be interesting to see at that stage how the government deals with Senator Sinodinos's position. But it has caused me to reflect on the time when I first addressed, as a matter of public interest, the statement that Senator Sinodinos made in relation to his statement of private interests. I remember on that occasion attempting, before any of these issues had been addressed and canvassed at ICAC, to ask further questions about the statement that Senator Sinodinos had made and the information that was lacking in that statement. Time and time again, Senator Brandis interrupted, called empty points of order and became quite agitated to the extent that it was impossible for me to proceed with asking some of the very valid questions at that point in time. I would remind senators of that contribution. It was on 13 March last year. In reflecting on this issue, I would encourage you to go back, look at that and think: 'Today, our Attorney is the person who took these issues in the way that he did on that occasion.' To me, it was quite incredible, but I encourage senators to reach their own conclusions on reviewing his behaviour on that occasion. I commend Senator Fierravanti-Wells, who is in the chamber on this occasion, as she has not conducted herself in anywhere near a similar fashion.

We believe that the current scandal calls into question the integrity of federal Liberal politicians and political finance laws. This is why we say that recent history indicates that it is time to revisit some of these issues. Labor is open to considering a federal ICAC. During our time in government, there was not such clear evidence of the nature, extent and sources of corruption at a Commonwealth level which would justify the establishment of a federal ICAC. The opposition has never objected in principle to a federal independent commission against corruption. The concern for Labor was whether there was a clear case for such an organisation to be set up. The Labor government supported improving Commonwealth anticorruption efforts which would make it easier to prevent, detect and respond to corruption. Labor strongly supported existing anticorruption agencies, such as the Australian Crime Commission and the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, and took a national anticorruption plan to the last election. It is now clear that stronger steps may need to be taken and therefore Labor is open to considering a federal ICAC body as one aspect of a federal anticorruption policy. But let's remember: it is one aspect and we need to consider a broader plan and an appropriate plan to our federal circumstances.

A very clear case needs to be made that corruption at a Commonwealth level is of a type and of an extent which justifies a serious change of policy. Even if such a case were made out, we need to think carefully about whether simply adopting the ICAC model, now familiar in various states, is the appropriate way to proceed at a Commonwealth level. As I said before, Labor took a national anticorruption plan to the last election, a plan which the Abbott government has taken no action on. Indeed, from their end, there is no plan.

If there is any serious question of significant corruption in the federal sphere we are, of course, open to the full suite of measures which might be necessary to restore public trust. That is what is clearly required in the Australian political environment. It affects all of us, regardless of party political perspective. I must say, if I reflect on my time in federal parliament, which spans around 18 years, it is the one issue in which I can observe a serious decline in public trust. The public standing of our members of parliament is a very critical element to our parliamentary democracy, and it is something that we need to guard fiercely, to protect and, indeed, to uphold. This is why I have said previously that this debate is now critical because upholding that public standing has become something that is very much at the fore today. A federal anticorruption body deserves consideration as one of the broader measures to uphold the public standing of members of parliament.

As I said at the outset, the Greens' motion is premature. It is appropriate to consider this motion by the Greens in the context of their previous attempts to introduce similar legislation. The current motion by the Australian Greens alludes to the National Integrity Commission Bill, the NIC Bill, that the Australian Greens previously introduced into the parliament. Other attempts by the Greens to move such legislation include the National Integrity Commissioner Bill 2010 introduced by Senator Bob Brown in June that year and reintroduced when parliament reconvened after the August 2010 election. In 2012 Adam Bandt MP introduced the National Integrity Commissioner Bill 2012 into the other place. These bills lapsed without having been debated when the 43rd Parliament was prorogued.

The House Selection Committee concluded that the 2012 bill moved by Adam Bandt MP was an appropriation bill and could not proceed in its current form. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs recommended that the 2012 bill not proceed prior to the establishment of a joint select committee to investigate the feasibility and cost of a national integrity commission to consider, among other things, the threshold issue of whether such a body was needed. Despite all of this history, the implications of a national integrity commission has yet to have the careful consideration it requires. This is why I say it is premature to have the Senate endorse today's motion today.

There are potentially other problems with the Greens' preferred policy, if I take the motion correctly. The National Integrity Commission Bill, to which this motion refers, provides for an integrity commission which has three components: a federal ICAC body based on the New South Wales model; the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement and Integrity, ACLEI, in its present form; and an independent parliamentary adviser to advise MPs on ethics and entitlements and to develop a parliamentary code of conduct. The creation of an independent parliamentary adviser is not necessarily good policy in general. In any case, it is open to question whether such an office should be housed within a watchdog-type body; there may be better ways to perform that role. There are open questions about how a number of federal integrity bodies, such as the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement and Integrity, ought to be integrated with or situated alongside any federal ICAC body.

Labor have a longstanding commitment to a full suite of anticorruption measures at a federal level. When we think of integrity measures we need to think about how we can manage the investigation of questionable practices, and it is in this context that we believe we need to think very seriously about a federal ICAC. So, as I indicated at the outset, recent history has indicated that this is a matter that we should look at afresh. Labor are open to considering a federal ICAC, but we believe it should be considered within a broader suite of anticorruption matters. In doing so we think this motion as it stands is premature and that a better way would be to work further through a joint select committee-type process to reach an agreed understanding of what such a full suite of measures should be.

Despite me indicating that there are some potential problems, I think the intention behind the suggestion that we have an independent parliamentary adviser to advise MPs on ethics and entitlements and to develop a parliamentary code of conduct is a good intention. It is one issue where the standing of federal members of parliament and, indeed, state members as well, has continued to be challenged by story, after story, after story around these types of issues. But whether such an adviser—and I must say that, in the current political environment, I would not envy that role—is the best way to tackle the provision to members and senators of competent advice on such things as entitlements or, more critically I suspect, broader ethical issues is a good question. It has obviously been a significant challenge for the parliamentary process in the current political environment and one which MaPS staff within Finance find a daily challenge. Again, I think we do need a process to look more carefully at all of those issues.

I commend the Greens for moving this motion and raising this issue—as indeed we did in the lead-up to the last election. I have indicated that Labor is open to considering a federal ICAC among a broader suite of anti-corruption measures. I have highlighted that the standing of, in particular, federal members of parliament is a critical issue for parliamentary democracy and, given recent history, one we should look at carefully and address. In doing so, I think we should move on from the discussion today to look at a process where addressing those issues might occur in a fuller or broader fashion to ensure that the issues that we are all concerned about from the discussion I have heard today can be considered more carefully. (Time expired)


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