Senate debates

Thursday, 25 September 2014


National Independent Commission Against Corruption

4:59 pm

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | Hansard source

I am very proud to be a member of the B team! I am very happy to bat for the B team!

I am very happy to speak here today. I do not think the Australian people are calling out for another bureaucratic institution to be established. I just do not think that the Australian people are going to march down the highways and byways of Australian towns and cities saying, 'Let's set up a federal anticorruption body.' I think that the Australian people are pretty good judges of character and I think they always make the right decisions when it comes to elections, even when they do not vote for my mob and they vote for other people. I think that what the Australian people think about us as federal politicians is that they may not particularly like us. Let's be honest: Australians are very earthy people and they really do not like politicians. They would probably cross the road sometimes to avoid politicians. In fact, especially when it comes around to pay-rise time, Australian people would probably like to give us all a poke in the eye rather than any pay rises!

However, whatever the views of the Australian people are I do not think that they think we are corrupt. I sometimes think the Australian people may think that we could not be trusted to operate a toaster, but they do not think we are corrupt. Sometimes they may think we are incompetent and so forth, and that we should not be trusted with machinery or anything like that. But when it comes to corruption, I do not think Australians think that we are corrupt.

This motion of the Greens, however well meaning it is—and I think it is well meaning—is addressing a problem that does not exist, and it will then, in effect, create a problem by having another level of bureaucracy put upon us as federal politicians. Transparency International, a body that ranks countries in terms of their openness and corruption regards Australia as one of the least-corrupt countries in the world. So if our good friends at Transparency International believe we are not corrupt then I am unsure why we would want to establish a federal anticorruption body.

I might read out for you what Transparency International says about corruption:

Corruption is one of the greatest challenges of the contemporary world. It undermines good government, fundamentally distorts public policy, leads to the misallocation of resources, harms the private sector and private sector development and particularly hurts the poor. Controlling it is only possible with the cooperation of a wide range of stakeholders in the integrity system, including most importantly the state, civil society, and the private sector. There is also a crucial role to be played by international institutions.

That is what Transparency International says about corruption.

But this is the body that says Australia is not corrupt; that we are such an open and transparent country. It is interesting that other open and transparent countries, like the United States of American and like the United Kingdom, do not have federal anticorruption bodies. I do not think that our creating this body and employing extra public servants—as much as some of my best friends are public servants—is going to improve the level of governance in this country or the openness and transparency of governance in this country because we are a pretty open and transparent country as we stand.

The Australian government—and I think this is on both sides, with the opposition and the coalition here—at a federal level have, since Federation, been very open and honest governments. I do not think there has been much corruption. Or, if there has been any corruption it has been on such a minor scale that it is of a parking-ticket level rather than anything that is more of a serious misdemeanour. So I just want to put on the record that this government—the government that I am proud to be a member of—does have a zero tolerance approach to corruption. It is committed to stamping out corruption in all its forms.

I think this is where the Australian people come in again. The Australian people to will talk about a fair go and a fair deal. If the Australian people see something they think is a little bit dodgy then my experience of the Australian people is that they will speak up for the underdog; they will speak up when something is wrong. The Australian people will go to the local police in their state, or to the Australian Federal Police or even go to politicians to raise concerns about other politicians. I think that sometimes having that veneer of sunlight—no, 'veneer' is the wrong word: having that opus of sunlight that shines on what politicians do is better than establishing this institution.

While we should never be complacent about corruption, it is important to consider the issue in a very proportionate and measured way. We do not want to have some Salem witch-hunts, which do happen in some parts of Australia where state bodies have been established. Sometimes people are dragged before these bodies and have their names dragged through the mud. I do not want to talk about anywhere that is happening at the moment, but sometimes these bodies probably actually end up doing more damage to individual reputations than achieving their aim of cleaning out corruption.

At the moment the government here has a multiagency approach that is effective, and it is working. It consists of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity—and this body is responsible for preventing, detecting and investigating serious and systemic corruption issues; the Australian Crime Commission; the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and also the Australian Federal Police.

Last year, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity's jurisdiction was extended to AUSTRAC. It was also extended to CrimTrac and to certain prescribed aspects of the Department of Agriculture. This government is proudly investing a further $1 million in the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity as part of comprehensive measures to stamp out corruption at Australia's borders. We have seen the effective work of this agency with the arrest already of an AFP officer in July following a 15-month joint investigation between the Australian Federal Police professional standards areas and the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity. This officer was charged with corruption related offences. This investigation and arrest show Australia's ongoing commitment to upholding the integrity of those who serve the Australian community.

I should also mention the Commonwealth Ombudsman. As someone who used to work for the Queensland Ombudsman back at the end of the last century, I strongly believe in the role of the Ombudsman in looking at maladministration within government departments and agencies. I believe that the Commonwealth Ombudsman performs an important function in investigating and auditing various agencies and functions. I know that the Queensland Ombudsman along with the Commonwealth Ombudsman, which have been going for decades, have found many areas where they can see reform and they have made suggestions about reform.

The Australian Federal Police also play a fundamental role, a very important role, in investigating serious corruption issues. On 31 July this year, the Australian government added to the strength of this structure by formally establishing the Fraud and Anti-Corruption Centre located in the Australian Federal Police headquarters. This Fraud and Anti-Corruption Centre delivers whole-of-government fraud investigation training in partnership with Australian Federal Police learning and development. This Fraud and Anti-Corruption Centre brings together the Australian Taxation Office, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the Australian Crime Commission, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, not to mention the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. It brings them altogether to assess, to prioritise and to respond to serious fraud and corruption measures. This centre is going to maintain a coordinated specialist cell that will collect, analyse and disseminate data from Commonwealth partners. It is going to engage with existing local intelligence initiatives and work with financial intelligence agencies to assess, prioritise and respond to serious fraud and corruption matters.

These measures show that the federal government is taking the issue of perceived corruption very seriously. But it is better to have these types of bodies established, which are within the system at the moment, rather than setting up an additional body, which I imagine would have anywhere between 50 and 100 staff. It would be one of those bodies that grows and grows and grows. I should mention that in addition the Commonwealth has recently announced Task Force Pharos which will target corruption in the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. The thing we should say is that so many people who work for the federal government, whether they are on the front line when you come through Brisbane or Sydney airport or elsewhere, are very hardworking people who maintain the front line against those who would do harm to Australia. It is a very, very small minority of people who may be up to no good. Often there is no need for the establishment of a further body to investigate allegations. Instead, it is for those good people who are working in these services to dob in a mate. That is a better way for these things to be found out and taken to the appropriate authorities. It is up to all of us to make sure that we keep our eyes and our ears open so that if we think that someone is up to no good we go to our supervisor—we go to our boss. If you are concerned about that, there is whistleblower protection, or you can make anonymous complaints. I think setting up a further bureaucratic body is not the way to go.

The government has also delivered on a key election commitment to establish the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, which was announced by the Prime Minister in February and is now underway. The terms of reference for the commission were not restrictive so it is a truly national inquiry. I think we are proud of Australia's position and reputation because we are seen as a very open, free and transparent country. I have done a lot of work in emerging democracies over the years and in those countries people wish they had the reputation of Australia. They wish that their civic institutions were built up and established to have the strength of honesty, openness and transparency that Australia's institutions have. One of the senators for the Australian Greens talked about institutional corruption and made references to donations and banks and things like that. But I think that the existing bodies we have in place and the Australian Electoral Commission making sure that donations can be seen and the way that this place operates with thousands of people in the gallery at the moment listening to me prattle on about corruption, show that this is an open and transparent place. I do think that the Australian Greens are sincere in their views. I do not wish to attack them. I do not think they are saying that we are on the same level as some of the African countries or that we take some of the positions taken in the former Soviet Union in terms of the outrageous corruption there. But they are misguided in that they are approaching a solution to a problem that does not exist. The best way—what we should do—is look at how we can strengthen what we have, rather than throw the whole system out based on a presumption that a national anticorruption commission will be more effective.

The Australian people should be the ultimate arbiters of whether we are a corrupt body—a corrupt government—or not. The Australian people always make sensible decisions in terms of elections even when they make decisions that break my heart, as at a couple of elections recently when they voted the other side into power. The Australian people will be the ones who make the decision about whether we are corrupt and, if they think we are, they can throw one party out and put another party in. The system that has been established in Australia since Federation, when the six colonies came together and formed Australia and this Commonwealth government, is a system that has served this country well.

Just as the Liberal Party is a broad church in that it has a liberal stream and a conservative stream, I am also a very broad church in some of my views—almost a cathedral, in a way—and the conservative side of me does not want to see changes made to our institutional structures unless there is a clear, persistent and strong argument that change should be made. It is up to the Greens, who I do believe are sincere in their views, to put on the table evidence of where there is systemic corruption at a national level. We have had a lot of reading out of press clippings; we have had a lot of inferences to what has happened at a state level and to a particular inquiry taking place at the moment. We have heard very little about what is happening at a federal level. There are always stories about things that may happen in the shadows. My good friend Senator McDonald made reference in a Facebook posting today to a senator from another party and some allegations there; but it is at such a low level and it is about such a small number of people that these allegations float around. I do not think there is a call for this, or marches in the street with people saying: 'The federal government—Labor, the Liberals, the Nationals, the Greens, Palmer, all those people—are all corrupt. Let us have a federal anticorruption commission set up and that will keep them honest.' I do not think that is the answer.

What will always keep us honest are the existing institutions we have, which work very well. We could probably always improve the operation of some of them if that needed to be the case; but ultimately it is up to the Australian people to decide, in the absence of evidence from the Australian Greens. I call upon the Australian Greens: if you have evidence of systemic corruption—that we all have Cayman bank accounts or things like that, or that we are all pilfering money—please put it on the table. Please bring us the evidence of where there is corruption, because I do not think there is any corruption at a federal level. We are a very free and open country and we should be proud of the openness and freedom we have in this country. Establishing another level of bureaucracy will not improve matters. It may actually end up hindering matters in terms of how the current institutions are working at the moment. This proposed anticorruption commission will start meddling with the current institutions which are working so well in terms of delivering their own anticorruption strategies.


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