Tuesday, 29 November 2022
National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022, National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022; In Committee
David Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source
I move Greens amendment (1) on sheet 1714:
(1) Clause 73, page 70 (lines 20 to 24), omit subclause (2), substitute:
(2) The Commissioner may decide to hold a hearing, or part of a hearing, in public if the Commissioner is satisfied that it is in the public interest to do so.
This amendment seeks to remove the restraint on the National Anti-Corruption Commission in terms of holding public hearings. As senators would know, the Labor Party took to the election a very simple proposition—that the National Anti-Corruption Commission should be able to hold public hearings if the NACC thought it was in the public interest to hold public hearings. That should be the test. People voted on that basis in good faith, and that seemed to be the position when we were first having discussions with the government after the election, but then somewhere along the line, between the election and now, something happened that flipped the government to now move to this higher threshold which is contained in 73(2):
The Commissioner may decide to hold a hearing, or part of a hearing, in public if the Commissioner is satisfied that:
(a) exceptional circumstances justify holding the hearing … and
(b) it is in the public interest to do so.
The exceptional circumstances test is, of course, no doubt convenient to the opposition, who would love to see fewer public hearings. We've suddenly seen some kumbaya between the government and the opposition on the whole issue of the NACC, once public hearings were shut down.
We heard from the New South Wales ICAC and the Victorian IBAC that this is a test that should not be put into the NACC Bill. The Victorian IBAC has it. They say don't repeat it, it doesn't work, it ties them up with lawyers and it prevents them doing the job. The New South Wales ICAC says they don't have it and they're very glad they don't have it because public hearings are a key way of fighting corruption. They bring out additional witnesses. They hold the institution itself to account. They hold anti-corruption commissions to account, because they have to justify their conduct and their use of public resources and they're dealing with witnesses in the full, bright glare of public view. That's an integrity measure for integrity commissions.
We heard from the inquiry a number of unsettling instances where state integrity commissions had had private hearings over months, and sometimes years, where the witnesses felt oppressed. They felt like they weren't getting natural justice, it was all happening in secret and they couldn't tell anyone about it. In pretty much all of the cases that I saw that were potentially disturbing about the way state anti-corruption commissions operated came from private hearings where witnesses felt they could not defend themselves in public. They had their careers put at risk. Councillors we know in Queensland have raised their concerns about private hearings of the Queensland anti-corruption commission. They've said that they are unfair.
Having public hearings is not just good for the integrity of the broader Commonwealth government and politicians. It's not just good for informing the public about what the bloody hell goes on in this place. It's also good for holding anti-corruption commissions to account. That's the lesson that the government and the opposition seem to be ignoring. It's almost as though there's a calculation between the government and the opposition in this, that they'd rather one bad story on shutting down public hearings and squashing the NACC's ability to have public hearings. They will take that one bad story because it will protect business as usual in this place from the next 40 or 50 stories that will play out in public hearings as the real way in which federal politics is done is exposed in the NACC in the years to come. One bad story of shutting down the NACC shuts down 40 or 50 future bad stories in full public glare about how business is done in this place. That's the calculation that's been made by the major parties in this place. That's why the crossbench have been pretty much united in saying let's have public hearings and let's expose how business is really done at a Commonwealth level. That's why we moved this amendment. It gets rid of exceptional circumstances, it reinstates Labor's promise in the election and it is critical for the functioning of the NACC.