Senate debates

Monday, 9 September 2019


National Integrity Commission Bill 2018 (No. 2); Second Reading

11:17 am

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I also rise to speak on this debate on the National Integrity Commission Bill 2018 (No. 2). Can I say, in the context of inquiries that are underway in New South Wales with regard to the ICAC, that I'm a little surprised to find a Liberal member from Western Australia deriding the same institution that is actually doing work against corruption in New South Wales. I also want to put on the record how important I think it is that this government acknowledge its failure to lead in the establishment of a national integrity commission for the federal context.

I do acknowledge Senator Smith's genuine hard work in this place and the several major contributions he's made to national debate. I also acknowledge his recognition of the work of Kate Doust in Western Australia and of Senator Sterle's presence here and the issue that's very live at the moment in Western Australia with regard to privilege, in which I have some considerable interest. However, he can't have it both ways, and I think that's what's happening here. For those who are in the chamber and perhaps those who are listening, we have a government telling the Australian people that they're there for the quiet Australians, that they will stand up for integrity. In fact, they claim that they've advanced this front. If I can use Senator Smith's words, he said they have a conceptual support for the concept of a national integrity commission. But when you're the government and you're in the beginning of your third term in government, Australians have a right to expect a bit more than conceptual support for a national integrity bill.

What are we talking about with this word 'integrity'? I commend the Greens political party for at least having the term 'integrity' maintained in this bill. I think there's something very powerful in stating in its title what it is that this bill seeks to achieve: to seek integrity and to preserve integrity. The word 'integrity' actually means all of these things: honesty, uprightness, probity, rectitude, honour, honourableness, good character, ethics, morals, righteousness, morality, nobility, high-mindedness, virtue, decency, fairness, scrupulousness, sincerity, truthfulness and trustworthiness. I cannot think of one Australian I know who wouldn't support the establishment of a body that is aligned to those particular revelations of the best of the human spirit and human endeavour.

So why is this government not doing anything about it? Why are we at a point where, in their third term of government, having celebrated six years of being the government of Australia, Labor is here today supporting a bill that's been advanced by the Greens in a form with which we are not entirely comfortable? I would say that, if we were in government, this chamber would already have dealt with the establishment of a national integrity commission.

When you hear the contributions from those opposite saying, 'Oh, we haven't got it right; we can't get it right', that is a failure of government that they put on the record every time they get up and speak against the establishment of a national integrity commission. I know that there is definitely widespread support among Australians for the establishment of a national integrity commission. In fact, according to polling by the Australia Institute, as many as 80 per cent of Australians really support the creation of this integrity body at a federal level. I will concede that all parties who are in this debate here will acknowledge that getting an anti-corruption body firmly established and getting the terms is very difficult to get exactly right. It is a delicate design task. But, when you're the government, that is the task that's before you—to undertake the work, with all the resources of government behind you, to develop a model that is effective and can be implemented.

While the piece of legislation that's before us today may not yet be perfect, it is quite close to what Labor said we would do in government. That is the reason—in the absence of leadership and in the absence of the government acting with integrity with regard to this piece of legislation—that Labor will support the Greens' amendment today. Believe me, there are plenty of things about which we disagree. As I said, this bill isn't perfect, but it's a long way ahead of where this tardy government is in the establishment of a national integrity commission. I will say on the record that I align myself with what Australians believe: that we need action now and we need to get on with the task. It doesn't seem that that's of any import to those who sit opposite.

How do we know that this is of so little value to them? We only have to look at their legislative agenda. For those who don't come to parliament every day, you don't always understand how everything works. But let me tell you that, when you're the government, you control the legislation. You decide what gets listed as the work of the parliament every week. The government make those decisions. This government has chosen, week after week, when those opposite have decided to show up—we did have the part-time parliament, remember?—to not make it a priority to list legislation relating to a national integrity commission. Despite their contributions in this place today, where they are trying to act like they are doing the right thing, it is pretty clear from their legislative agenda—from their failure to have developed legislation before us—that this simply isn't a priority for them, which puts them at odds with 80 per cent of the population.

It's been more than seven months now since those opposite put forward their half-baked version of an integrity commission. This weekend, as I said, marked six years of Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government. During these six years, the government have been plagued by very serious allegations of scandals and misconduct. Perhaps there lies some rationale for why they're so reluctant to get on with the job of advancing a national integrity commission. But, despite that, they still somehow lack the heart to tackle corruption. It simply isn't a priority. If this were a priority for the government, they would have picked up Labor's plan for a national integrity commission and they would have already brought this legislation before the parliament.

Unlike those opposite, Labor didn't have to be pressured or dragged kicking and screaming to the table on this matter of the national integrity commission. Labor, in fact, first announced our plan for a national integrity commission back in January of 2018. We saw the need, and we advanced a plan to make that one of the first pieces of business if we were successful in the last election. We went to the election with a commitment for a national integrity commission with all the powers of a royal commission. Our plan for a national integrity commission had seven detailed design principles, including that the commission would have a broad jurisdiction to investigate corruption, that it would have the power to initiate its own investigations and that it would have the power to hold public hearings if the commissioner determined it was in the public interest to do so.

I want to go to the contribution from Senator Dean Smith with regard to public versus private. He makes valid points about reputational damage. But these bodies—these national integrity commissions of various shapes and sizes around the country—have informed the way in which a federal body might act with regard to reputational risk and be able to manage that. The fourth of Labor's seven design principles is that the commission should be granted the investigative powers of a royal commission, including search and surveillance powers, powers to compel witnesses and subpoena documents, and powers to carry out its own investigations with warrant oversight by the Federal Court. Then, with that information, we suggest the fifth principle would be that, while the presumption will be that hearings will be held in private, the commission would have discretion to hold hearings in public where it determines it is in the public interest to do so. So the claims that were put there by Senator Smith about how we can't do this and it's too hard are not true.

If we're going to establish an integrity commission and endow it with such significant powers, we have to create a sense of belief and also empowerment for those who are leading that commission to act with integrity themselves; to be mindful of the risk to reputation; to be able to discern with wisdom, dare I say, where there is a risk that a person might inadvertently be caught up in something; and to have that person's hearing undertaken in public, affording them privacy where that is appropriate but allowing the antiseptic power of the public hearing so that the Australian populace will hear about what's going on where that is appropriate. It is not beyond the capacity of an integrity commission to act with that form of careful and wise justice in mind.

We support the legislation today, but we will keep fighting for our own version of a national integrity commission with teeth, which has proper independence, resources and powers. We believe that corruption has no place in Australia, and governments should be doing everything they can to prevent it. Every Australian should feel comfortable that their government is open, transparent and free from corruption and that it is acting with integrity at every level. Eighty per cent of Australians believe an integrity commission is necessary, but that is still not enough for this government to actually do the governing that's required.

When you're a citizen living your life, running a small business in rural New South Wales, for example, or participating in supporting learning in an early childhood centre in the middle of one of our great cities or caring for somebody or working in any of the professions, you don't always understand or observe what your government is doing. But there have been some whole-of-nation attention-gathering scandals and corruption events that have hit the Commonwealth in recent times. I just want to remind you of a couple of them.

People will be familiar with the Australian Wheat Board—there was a kickback scheme and a scandal. There was the security affair about the currency of Australia with the design of new kinds of currency and its involvement with overseas jurisdictions. There was the deeply concerning survey of federal public servants by the Australian Public Service Commission which revealed that five per cent of respondents in our Public Service declared that they saw misconduct in their workplaces. And there were the equally concerning results of another survey which measured community perception of corruption at the federal level. That survey, which was conducted by Griffith University and Transparency International, showed that an incredible 85 per cent of Australian citizens represented in this study, 85 per cent of respondents, believed that at least some federal members of parliament were corrupt, while 18 per cent considered that most or all members were corrupt.

I hate to actually put that on the record in this place, and I do want to put on the record my esteem for colleagues of all stripes across this parliament for the hard work that they do in representing their constituencies, even those who hold views quite different to mine. But if this is the perception that our citizens have of what happens in this place then the task of establishing a national integrity commission is an urgent one that this government is failing to respond to. It will be a threat to the integrity of our democracy if this government allows this perception to continue to fester.

It's not the only thing that the government are failing on. They'll bring in legislation that they think can divide the parliament. Where's the legislation to unite the nation? Where's the leadership that we've been offered and promised? Day after day with their legislative program they fail to respond to the real and pressing challenges of supporting the democracy of this nation. This bill, from the Greens, is another absolute representation of the work that needs to be done by those who are not in government because the government are failing in their duties.

The social contract revolves around expectations that elected representatives will act in the best interests of their voters. There are very serious ramifications and consequences when voters feel like this contract that they have with the parliament and parliamentarians is broken. You'd think that the examples that I have just given that are on the public record and which are well known to those on the government benches in the green chamber and here should have been enough for them to jump-start into action—but, sadly, this has not been the case. Time and time again this lacklustre government has shown it's not serious about integrity or tackling corruption, like last month when it voted down Labor's motion demanding it keep to its promise to establish this National Integrity Commission.

Can I just advise that, on the last Thursday we sat before we went to the sitting break over the spring period, Labor moved in the green chamber that the government get on with this job to establish the National Integrity Commission. The government voted against it. So they say one thing and get amplification in social media and in the traditional media, but the reality is, when it comes to the crunch, these guys are missing in action. They have failed to deliver a legislative program. They have whined and whinged here about how difficult the task is. They have been here for six years—they're in their third term—and still they're putting on the public record, by their responses today, that they're not up to the job. They're not up to the job of legislating for what Australians want.

The question has to be asked: if Scott Morrison and the Liberals are so keen on what's happening in New South Wales, why are they so scared of a national integrity commission at the federal level? I believe in integrity at every level of government: local government, state government and federal government. And, while this government refuses to act, they have carved out an area that lacks the clean impact of scrutiny that would be delivered by a national integrity commission. The Prime Minister has indicated that ensuring integrity in registered organisations like the CFMEU is a priority. Well, yes, integrity is a priority—but what about at the national parliament level? Given the scandals which continue to rock this shambolic government, it's becoming a little clearer to me—and perhaps to you, Acting Deputy President Brockman—why they've decided not to make it a priority. Every time they ignore or cover up scandalous conduct by their own ministers, they actively obstruct progress on this matter.

For a long time after Labor announced our intention to establish a national integrity commission, we were on our own. We were the only voice calling for it. This change in rhetoric—'Oh, we're thinking about it but it's too hard'—is now a small step in the right direction, but it is dragging this government kicking and screaming. Once again, just like they were with the banking royal commission, they are failing to respond to the reality that's before the eyes of every Australian, who can see quite clearly what needs to happen. It's well past time for the Liberal and Nationals members in this government to listen to the 80 per cent of Australians who agree that we need a national integrity commission. It's time for them to get on with the job. I remind this third-term government of the commitment they took to the federal election this year. It's time to deliver on that commitment.


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