Senate debates

Thursday, 25 September 2014


National Independent Commission Against Corruption

5:39 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I have to say I am quite proud to stand up here today and speak to this important integrity measure. Listening to the debate that has occurred throughout this important motion, I have been encouraged that the debate has been conducted respectfully and that we have heard a range of views expressed. I have to say I would like to welcome the Labor Party's interest in this issue and its openness on any future discussion around the establishment of a federal anticorruption body. It is just so important. I have only been here a very short time, but what has become obvious to me is that politicians are faced with enormous pressures. When you are debating legislation and regulations which have serious financial impacts, when you are involved in those sorts of debates, the pressure that comes to bear from lobbyists, from vested interests and from individuals and organisations with very deep pockets who may have a financial stake in the outcome of that legislation or regulation, is enormous.

I have seen that occur through a number of debates. I have seen that occur, for example, over the mining tax in the previous parliament. I was personally involved in a debate on poker machine reform where we saw enormous pressure come to bear on politicians of all persuasions. I am not for a moment suggesting that there was anything corrupt about any of those activities, but the very nature of those debates does bring enormous pressure to bear on politicians from those people with a financial stake in the decision. We need to recognise that. We need to recognise that sometimes in those circumstances people make bad decisions. We have seen very recently in New South Wales—and, obviously, there has been much discussion about the situation in New South Wales—what can happen when we establish some level of oversight with a body that has the powers to investigate and, if necessary, refer people on to prosecutions. It is a very relevant example as to why we are having this debate right now.

I would just like to refer to the contribution earlier from Senator McGrath, who said he felt that people did not want another level of bureaucracy and that, generally, there was a high level of trust in politics and politicians. I do not live in that world, I have to say. I live in a world where it seems to me that politicians and politics, in general, are held in very low regard. I think the public attitude towards politicians is at a very low ebb at the moment, and I think the recent investigations and subsequent findings in the New South Wales probe have contributed to that. But one thing that has come out of that is that the Australia community is at least aware that, where people have transgressed there is a penalty associated with it. The case in New South Wales just presents a very compelling argument for why we need a federal body with similar powers.

It is true that most of the instances that have been picked up are around planning and zoning issues—approvals for particular developments, and so on. They are state and local government issues. But it is also true that what we have also seen are examples where there have been—or at least it appears there have been—sophisticated mechanisms established to get around those state planning laws, and they have involved federal members of parliament. Again, highlighting just how important it is to ensure that we have oversight, it exists not just at the state level but at the federal level. Ultimately, that corruption is corrosive. It seeps into all levels of administration and governance. The existence of corruption breeds more corruption. It breeds a level of mistrust and it undermines the work that we are all doing here.

Every state in the country has an anticorruption watchdog or some such body in operation and they all have the capacity to investigate misconduct, whether it be politicians, government officers or indeed members of the judiciary. Simply saying that we support an anticorruption body at a federal level is not enough. We know from the examples in different states where we see a body working effectively such as in New South Wales, where it really is exposing behaviours that are not acceptable. In my home state of Victoria, we have an anticorruption body that is essentially toothless and there is now a very live debate in the lead-up to a state election that is discussing what sorts of reforms need to occur to our own state anticorruption watchdog.

It is encouraging to hear the position of the Labor Party. I note that back in 2011 we had a Joint Committee on the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity and that actually proposed a significant review of the Commonwealth's integrity framework, and it did recommend the creation of an anticorruption body. So it is a surprise now that here we are three years later revisiting that issue. I also note that former Prime Minister Gillard promised a National Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner, but again we have not seen much progress on that front.

There is an argument, and I understand that argument, that we have a number of existing checks and balances and that they alone should be sufficient. But the existence of a national anticorruption watchdog does not mean that we should not continue to strengthen those existing checks and balances—the Australian Crime Commission, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and the Australian Federal Police. They are important but they are not as robust as having a stand-alone, independent watchdog. They just cannot achieve what an ICAC can.

Of course there is always the option for a royal commission and we have heard from a number of speakers about the impact of royal commissions in Queensland and in Western Australia. What we have to remember is that a royal commission only occurs when there is a referral by a government. So it is self-evident that where a government is determined to ensure that we do not have transparency into the operations of politicians, the public service and the judiciary, it is their decision and their decision alone to make. While there is the option for a royal commission with the powers that exist there, and they have been effective in the past, they are only effective when they are implemented by the government of the day. They exist only at the discretion of the government.

It is not just about detecting corrupt activities and it is not just about the investigative powers and the subsequent referrals; it is also about the very existence of such a body working as a deterrent. Earlier this month, Dr Gabrielle Appleby, Deputy Director of the Public Law and Policy Research Unit at the University of Adelaide, wrote:

The very act of establishing a dedicated anti-corruption body is a meaningful public acknowledgement by government that the corruption, either systemic or opportunistic, is a problem that must be taken seriously. By fostering greater awareness and education, the introduction of a new body also provides an important moment around which cultural change within government can occur. A dedicated anti-corruption body provides a means of discovering corruption across all facets of government and parliamentary administration. It provides systemic oversight, education and coordination for the existing mechanisms.

So a body such as a federal ICAC can actually work to strengthen the existing integrity measures that we have in place at the moment.

I think there is some irony that we are in the middle of a national debate where we are talking about the issue of individual protections and security, where we are talking about ensuring public safety, and we are here right now debating the question really of protection and security for the Australian community. There is security in knowing that the decisions we make in this place—and it is easy to lose sight of this—affect the lives of ordinary people. There is a huge responsibility on each and every one of us, and people deserve to have the protection of knowing that those decisions have been made free from influences that may mean that individuals stand to gain financially from a particular outcome. That is an important form of protection. That is an important form of security. Individual members of the community absolutely deserve it. We, here, are making the laws of the land and there can be no greater security than knowing that the laws we make in this place are made for reasons of public interest rather than self-interest.

It is also ironic that sometimes one of the arguments used in the national security debate is: if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. It is an argument that applies on this specific issue. Each and every one of us need to know that if we have done nothing wrong, if we have not behaved in a corrupt manner then we should not reject this change and we should embrace it. I say to the government, if you have done nothing wrong then you have nothing to fear from this and you should embrace it.

Ultimately, we are at an important moment in this debate. I believe that there is public momentum from within the community for change. Many of us in this place, and I think this is true of all sides, acknowledge that what has happened recently in New South Wales has had an impact on all of us—that it has damaged the reputation and standing of politicians no matter where they sit and no matter what jurisdiction they are involved in. Where corruption exists it is a cancer on our democracy and it must be stamped out. I do not pretend that this solution alone will fix it, but it makes an important contribution to dealing with what is one of the most precious things that we have as Australian citizens, and that is the strength of our national democracy.


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