Senate debates

Thursday, 25 September 2014


National Independent Commission Against Corruption

5:19 pm

Photo of Chris KetterChris Ketter (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution in respect of the proposal by the Greens. As a Queensland senator, albeit relatively new to this place, I believe I am in a position to talk about the history of official corruption. The Labor Party has a proud record in this area of addressing issues of longstanding official corruption in Queensland.

It is right that the Greens raise this issue of the general question of integrity in federal politics. There is a new cause for concern about corruption in Australian politics, notwithstanding the contribution of Senator McGrath. We have seen in recent times revelations from the New South Wales ICAC, which has heard allegations that illegal political donations have been funnelled to the New South Wales Liberal Party via various slush funds. In the last few months, as we are all aware, we have seen the resignations of former New South Wales Liberal Premier Barry O'Farrell and two New South Wales Liberal cabinet ministers.

I refer to an article by Neil Chenoweth of the Australian Financial Review of 7 May where he says:

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.

That scandal does call into question the integrity of politicians and, in particular, politicians of the Liberal persuasion. It calls into question the integrity of our political finance laws.

And while I am talking about political finance laws, I also make the point that the Greens have a somewhat inconsistent position on this particular issue. In Senator Whish-Wilson's contribution, he talked about the issue of corporate donations. We know that the Greens had a dissenting report on the funding of political parties and election campaigns. They said that businesses should be banned from making donations to political parties. The dissenting report said:

It is disappointing that the inquiry rejected the opportunity to place caps on election expenditure, to place a total ban on corporate donations …

Under 'A ban on all donations except from individuals and bequests', it said:

The best way to restore trust in the democratic process is to restrict political donations to only those made by individuals and bequests. This would ban businesses and lobby groups from using donations to push an agenda while allowing individuals on the electoral roll to give a limited amount of money.

That is from the dissenting report.

That may have been the Greens position; however, we know that the Greens did accept a $1.6 million donation from Mr Graeme Wood, the founder of online travel company Wotif. As I understand it, this was the largest ever political donation in Australian history. Mr Wood made a comment to the Herald before the release of the Greens campaign figures. The article said:

… Mr Wood said his donation was motivated by disappointment with Labor and Coalition policies on climate change and the environment.

I accept that the Greens party are well-meaning in bringing this matter before the Senate, but we do need to understand that there are some inconsistencies in their approach. I note that Senator Rhiannon did raise this issue and that led to her apologising to the Greens with regard to a particular article that was published in 2012.

I believe that Labor has a proud record in this area, particularly in my home state of Queensland. I need to go back to the dark days of the late eighties to talk about the situation in Queensland at that point in time. The fact was that Queensland was seen as the laughing stock of Australia in terms of transparency and accountability at a government level. We had people referred to as the 'white shoe brigade' and we had people who seemed to have unfettered access to the decision makers in government. There was a great need at that time for reform. To his credit, the then acting Queensland Premier Bill Gunn, in May 1987, ordered a commission of inquiry after the media reported possible police corruption involving illegal gambling and prostitution. We know Tony Fitzgerald QC was appointed to lead the commission of inquiry into possible illegal activities and associated police misconduct. This, as we know, became known as the Fitzgerald inquiry.

During the inquiry, the terms of reference were extended to 'look into any other matter or thing appertaining to the aforesaid matters', which then enabled the inquiry to investigate matters of political corruption. That inquiry was initially expected to last about six weeks, but ended up taking two years, conducting a comprehensive investigation of long-term, systemic political corruption and the abuse of power in Queensland. There were 238 sitting days and 339 witnesses focusing attention in Queensland and throughout Australia on integrity and accountability in public office. That inquiry went on and it was in 1989 that we saw a change of government in the state of Queensland. Wayne Goss became the Premier of Queensland and it was left to Labor to implement the recommendations of the Fitzgerald inquiry.

Some of the things that were found by the Fitzgerald inquiry included that we had a police commissioner who was cultivated by the premier of the day and promoted to assistant commissioner over 122 equal or more senior officers. He was a police commissioner who was corrupt and who fostered a web of deceit; this was so mired in the police service it became part of its culture. The same police commissioner's trial saw him sentenced to 14 years for taking more than $600,000 in protection money. We saw a system of corruption so widespread it extended from brothel owners and hoteliers right through to the police service. It was so widespread it had its own name; it was perversely called 'the Joke'. We heard about a police officer by the name of Jack Herbert, who was known as the bagman. He was collecting payments from smugglers and other unsavoury characters.

The Fitzgerald inquiry did allow sunshine to pour in, and that was a great disinfectant for the state of Queensland. What was then created in the state of Queensland following the inquiry included the institutions that take their genesis from that inquiry: the Crime and Misconduct Commission, freedom of information laws, the Electoral and Administrative Reform Commission, the Whistleblower Protection Act and the all-party parliamentary committees overseeing those systems.

It is testament to the ability and determination of Wayne Goss that he worked and prevailed against the gerrymander that existed in Queensland at that time and which led to his historic victory. It is testament to the integrity of his government that set about cleaning up the place in an anticorruption drive, the likes of which we are unlikely to see. That led to a far more open and transparent system in Queensland. Of course we know that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. We must always be focused on what is happening.

Unfortunately, we have seen a bit of a return to type in recent years. There was the election of the Campbell Newman government in 2012 with a substantial majority and we then saw the government last year use its massive majority to sack the cross-party committee that oversees the Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee. The original committee had been investigating whether the Acting Chairman of the Crime and Misconduct Commission, Ken Levy, had acted appropriately and whether he gave misleading evidence about his contact with the government before he wrote a newspaper article that was backing the controversial new bikie laws. As I said, the government overnight used its massive majority to sack that cross-party committee. The committee previously had an Independent MP, Liz Cunningham, on it. She was sacked, along with the six other members of the cross-party committee. They were replaced with Liberal National Party members of parliament, who then went on to hold four of the seven sports. Of those four, the member for Capalaba became the chairman at the time.

This goes to illustrate the point that we do need to be ever vigilant in this area. We have seen examples of where governments have essentially taken the law into their own hands in these types of situations. The position I would put tonight in respect of the Greens' proposal is that Labor are open to considering a federal ICAC. In fact, Labor have never objected to a federal ICAC in principle. Our concern is that there has been no clear case for the necessity of such a body. The last Labor government were serious about tackling corruption at the federal level. There was not during our time in government any clear evidence of the nature, extent and sources of corruption at a Commonwealth level. We supported improving Commonwealth anticorruption efforts that would make it easier to prevent, detect and respond to corruption. We strongly supported existing anticorruption agencies—the Australian Crime Commission and the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity. In fact, we took a national anticorruption plan to the last election, a plan which I note the Abbott government has taken no action on.

So Labor are open to considering a federal ICAC. If there is any serious question of significant corruption in the federal sphere, we are open to the full suite of measures that are necessary to restore public trust. A standing anticorruption body at the federal level does deserve some consideration, but we believe there should be full and proper consideration of a range of options.

At this point I would like to refer to the fact that in the Senate we have important checks and balances in this area. I am relatively new to the Senate and I have started participating in a number of Senate committees. I have been very impressed with the level of proficiency of those committees and with both the level of dedication of the senators and members who participate in those committees and the work that is done in the secretariat. People generally are not well aware of one of the principal functions of the Senate—and I am referring to Odgers' Australian Senate Practice, which states:

… perhaps more important than the functions of making laws and debating matters of public interest, is to conduct inquiries into such matters of public interest and into the conduct of government.

So there are very robust systems in place for us to investigate a whole range of issues. As I said, I am very impressed with the robustness of the Senate committee system. In fact, that system does have some teeth. Again Odgers' Australian Senate Practicesays:

If evidence contains allegations of criminal conduct, and those allegations could be investigated, or contains matter relevant to a criminal investigation in progress, the committee may invite the submittor to provide the evidence to the police or other investigating authority. If the evidence contains matter relevant to a criminal trial or a civil action in progress, the submittor may be invited to have the evidence put before the courts.

So the Senate committee process is very robust and is one of the protections that, I think, Australians should be aware of. It forms part of this suite of measures which act to ensure that corruption does not ever gain a foothold. In my time with the committees, we have received information from people who could be referred to as whistleblowers and, of course, those submissions or items of correspondence are appropriately dealt with. I think the people of Australia can have great confidence that there is already in place a mechanism for them to address issues of official corruption, if that is what they want to do.

In summing up, as I indicated before, Labor is open to considering a federal ICAC. It may well be an appropriate measure, but we do believe that there should be proper consideration of all the options. Labor has a longstanding commitment to a full suite of anticorruption measures at the federal level. We must be careful to take a holistic view about that. We must think about the broad suite of integrity measures. We would say there is no one panacea.


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