Senate debates

Thursday, 9 February 2017


National Integrity Commission Bill 2013; Second Reading

10:14 am

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

I do not intend to continue the slanging match that has been an unfortunate element of the discussion so far here this morning. But, as Senator Ludlam pointed out, we have dealt with the National Integrity Commission Bill 2013 in several different iterations over some time. I went back to the 2010 Bob Brown version of the bill. I am not sure if there was one earlier than that that I have missed, Senator Ludlam. We have had several discussions around this bill, but, in its last iteration, I did not have the opportunity to contribute. As I understand it, we will be moving on to the next matter fairly soon, but I do appreciate the opportunity to deal with some of the substance around how we might deal with issues around integrity and corruption.

Let me say it from the outset: I want to make it clear that Labor stand for integrity and transparency in government, and we have zero tolerance for corruption. But, as we all know, corruption does occur. We cannot pretend that it does not occur at a federal level. Further to Senator Macdonald's comments a moment ago, I seem to recall a recent indication from Transparency International that Australia had actually slipped in their index, and, if that is the case, that is obviously a concern.

I also want to make it clear at the outset that Labor's position in relation to this Greens party bill is that unfortunately it is stale, out of date and, in some respects, obsolete. Had Senator Ludlam—and, I should say, I welcome back Senator Ludlam, and it is great to see him back here in good health—been with us in the last little while, perhaps he might have addressed some of the issues where matters have moved on. I will outline some of those.

As I said, Labor has always fostered and will continue to foster a culture of integrity within Commonwealth public institutions. That is why Labor supports the Australian National Audit Office, the Australian Public Service Commission, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and other law enforcement and accountability measures which together help to create a culture of integrity in the public sector. Looking at what has moved on with respect to this bill, one further element that Senator Macdonald touched on is, of course, that Labor in 2012 strengthened ACLEI, and that is part of our broader integrity framework.

There have been periodic calls for some form of a federal anticorruption commission over recent years, including in this private senator's bill. While Labor have zero tolerance for corruption, we believe that the best way to proceed is with the re-establishment of the Senate Select Committee on the establishment of a National Integrity Commission to continue its important inquiry and produce a final report. I recommend to the Senate the interim report, which was tabled back in May of last year, which is a good indicator of the further work that the committee that was established yesterday will conduct.

Labor does not rule out that in the future a dedicated federal anticorruption body may be required. However, our final position on the value and merits of establishing a national integrity commission should not be considered until the completion of this inquiry. That is a considered and sensible approach to take, unlike simply, as Senator Macdonald was suggesting, taking the populist path of rehashing an old proposal that is not even up to date in terms of the current frameworks in place, moving formal motions yesterday and giving this bill yet another consideration today. Some of it is, as I have said, out of date, and it is simply a rehash of many past discussions rather than a means of moving matters forward.

Let us take a closer look at what the Greens are proposing and why the bill is stale and obsolete. It is clear the Greens are behind the game and need to catch up on some significant recent developments, including that just yesterday, as I said, the Senate determined to re-establish the Senate Select Committee on the establishment of a National Integrity Commission. In part, this was a response to recent community frustration and controversy around the entitlement matters that other senators have referred to, culminating in the resignation of disgraced former health minister Sussan Ley.

Another recent and significant development is the government's plan to establish an independent parliamentary expenses authority to advise on and regulate parliamentary expenses. In his address to the National Press Club last Tuesday, Labor leader Bill Shorten made it clear that the opposition agreed in principle with the proposal in an attempt to begin to restore public confidence in the political process. Perhaps, rather than just moving forward this proposed threefold body, if we are to address this matter again, we should improve its currency and address the way in which it is proposed to move forward in relation to the parliamentary entitlements element of this current bill.

As I said, at the moment it represents the same bill that Bob Brown first introduced in 2010 and Christine Milne regurgitated in 2013, and now there is this current version. As I said, I do not think I will address the slanging match issues around political donations, but it is an interesting question about how a body such as this may, and whether the model proposed will, address some of the debate and indeed posturing around political donations.

The Senate Select Committee on the establishment of a National Integrity Commission was established on 24 February last year with Labor's support to inquire into whether a national integrity commission should be set up to address institutional, organisational, political, electoral and individual corruption and misconduct, and I was the deputy chair of that inquiry. The committee, as I have mentioned, published an interim report in May 2016, prior to the dissolution of the parliament for the July election. The interim report includes a discussion about the existing national anticorruption framework and the potential benefits and drawbacks of creating a national anticorruption commissioner. It is worth briefly examining some of the committee's findings and its one recommendation, but it is also important to remember that the committee was unable to complete its work and issue a final report.

The Senate select committee had, as I said, one recommendation:

… that the Australian Government support current and sound future research into potential anti-corruption systems appropriate for Australia …

Griffith University and other partners were looking at conducting that work, and I look forward to an update on what has occurred since the former committee looked at these issues. That was a wise recommendation. The committee was unable to complete its work and it is clear that there is a lot more work still to do before serious consideration can be given to whether some form of anticorruption commission should be established at a federal level to complement existing anticorruption and integrity bodies and, if so, how such a body should operate.

The committee's interim report is a good document and raises some of the key issues for further examination. It lists arguments in favour of a national anticorruption framework, the top of the list being the discovery and investigation of corruption. But the report says:

… a NAC may also improve policy co-ordination, provide leadership and education services, reduce potential jurisdictional gaps, increase administrative efficiency, send an unambiguous signal that the issue of corruption is being taken seriously, and provide confidence to the public that corruption is minimised at the highest level of government.

All states now have broad based anticorruption agencies. The Senate select committee looked at the effectiveness of such bodies. The most recent report into the New South Wales ICAC, published in 2013, found that:

More than two-thirds indicated that the ICAC had been successful at exposing corruption and more than half indicated that the ICAC had been successful at reducing corruption.

Then in October 2015, the outgoing Tasmanian Integrity Commissioner spoke to the ABC about the early years there with an integrity commission. She said:

"I think it's been a bit of a surprise to people that the Integrity Commission's been so effective …

"Often when I speak to senior people across the public sector I don't think they expected that the Integrity Commission would be as public and as resolute in pursuing its agenda as it has been.

Let's look at the arguments against a national integrity commission, because we should understand that there are groups—sections of the media and academia, the public sector and many elected officials—who, while not in any way arguing that corruption should be ignored or underplayed, do not believe that a national anticorruption body is the best means to deal with problems of corruption that may exist.

The Senate select committee report found that the arguments put forward by those opposed to a national integrity commission could be put into two broad categories. The first was the argument that a lower risk, and a lower level, of corruption at the federal level reduces the need for an overarching anticorruption body. This is an argument that requires further investigation, in my view. The second argument was that there is already a strong anticorruption framework in place that has proved successful at preventing and revealing corruption in the limited cases where it has occurred. This too, I think, warrants more detailed consideration.

In conclusion, the task of the re-established Senate select committee is to examine whether a new national anticorruption commission would strengthen and improve our current integrity framework and, if so, to examine the pros and cons of the various models for such a body, taking into account the lessons learned from the experiences of existing state anticorruption bodies. If a new body is recommended, there are two broad models on which such a national integrity commission could be based—a statutory agency within the Attorney-General's Department or a standalone national integrity commission with the powers of a standing royal commission.

Another key issue to be examined by the re-established Senate Select Committee would be the extent to which the proceedings of a national integrity commission would be public. Other important matters to be discussed could include questions such as: who would be covered by a national integrity commission? That is a point that Senator Macdonald was, in his way, raising. Another question could be: who would oversee a national integrity commission?

As I have already said, the Senate select committee did not complete its work prior to the last election, which is why Labor strongly supports yesterday's Senate determination to re-establish the committee to build on the work already done. Its primary function will be to carefully consider the pros and cons of the establishment of a national integrity commission and the various models that have been proposed. That is work which has not really been part of the discussion that has occurred while this bill has been addressed. Labor is open to the idea that a dedicated federal anticorruption body may be required but, at this stage, a case for one has not been made and it definitely has not been made through the discussions on this bill.


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