Senate debates

Thursday, 5 August 2021


Commonwealth Integrity Commission

3:58 pm

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate—

(a) notes that:

(i) on 13 December 2018 the Prime Minister and the then Attorney-General announced the Government would establish a Commonwealth Integrity Commission,

(ii) 966 days since that announcement the Government is yet to introduce legislation into the Parliament,

(iii) the Government is addicted to rorting taxpayer's money, including through the:

(A) Commuter Car Park Fund,

(B) Community Sports Infrastructure Grants, and

(C) purchase of land in the Leppington Triangle;

(iv) on 26 July 2021 the Leader of the Australian Labor Party announced Labor would establish a powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission; and

(b) calls upon the Government to introduce legislation to establish a powerful, transparent and independent anti-corruption commission as an urgent priority.

Labor have brought this motion to the chamber today for debate because of the concerns we have with the behaviour of this government and the way it uses public money as though it's Liberal Party money. We have seen example after example after example of this, and it seems that after eight years this government no longer even pretends to care about having proper process and integrity in government decisions, particularly when it comes to allocating public funds. I will go through some examples of this.

I think these declining standards, this lack of integrity and this culture of rorting—and there isn't a more appropriate word for it—come right from the top of this government. When you track back and look at some of these funds, which have been very clearly used for political purposes only, and look at some of the decisions that were made, you can see they were made by Mr Morrison, when he was Treasurer, and by Mr Gaetjens, when he was advising him. Then, when they moved into being head of PM&C and being the Prime Minister, when that decision was taken, we saw an explosion in these funds.

We see a pattern with these funds. What happens is a fund is announced. Millions of dollars, sometimes billions of dollars, are placed in these funds. Those funds sit there unallocated until there's some sort of dodgy process put around them, usually in the lead-up to an election. It has been politically successful for them, so why would they want to stop? We see decisions taken on the eve of the election. We saw this with sports rorts, where projects were signed off a week before caretaker, projects were then changed and then there were discussions between offices about who would get how much of the money, where it would go and what was politically beneficial for the government. These decisions were even being made after caretaker, and nobody cared. No-one polices caretaker any more—we've been through that with Mr Gaetjens. Decisions are made and election promises are given. Executive government decisions have been made, so it's all done under government, where money has been provided in the pre-election budget update, and then these funds are used to bankroll a list of election commitments.

There's not even any pretending about it any longer. We had a department in front of us in a committee hearing not long ago. We asked them whether this dodgy allocation of money was going to continue—this was in relation to the Urban Congestion Fund—a multi-billion-dollar fund—or whether there were going to be any changes to the way funds were administered out of this fund. We asked this question because of the damning audit report done on the commuter car park projects. The department's evidence was: 'No, there will be no change. There's still a billion dollars unallocated in the Urban Congestion Fund, and there will be no change to how this is allocated.' So we will see a repeat, no doubt, of what happened in the commuter car park project funds.

We saw in this year's budget that 21 new funds and grants programs will be established to allocate money. Twenty-one—on top of the funds they've already got, which we already know have been dodgy. The community development grants, let's have a look at those. Since the last election, $2 billion in this program, including an additional $55 million in this year's budget, and 68 per cent of projects went to coalition seats. Since the last election, 66 per cent of all funding went to coalition seats.

In the female facilities and water safety program—remember that?—88 per cent of projects went to coalition seats, and 98 per cent of funding went to coalition seats. In the Community Sport Infrastructure grants—sports rorts—where the ANAO found there was evidence of distribution bias in the award of grant funding—there was more than $100 million worth of funding. By round 3, once they'd got the rorting down pat—once they'd worked out exactly how to do it, and to do it to the utmost political benefit—73 per cent of round 3 funding had not been recommended by Sport Australia, and the overwhelming majority of funding was targeted at marginal coalition seats or seats they wanted to win in the election.

The Commuter Car Park Fund—now, that's a very special fund. This fund is the quintessential way to make sure that public money can be used for private benefit, for Liberal Party benefit, and the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and several cabinet ministers were up to their eyeballs in it. It's pretty nifty, the way they did it. They allocated all this money in a fund at the budget, hoping people wouldn't really notice it. On the night the Treasurer said, 'And we are building commuter car parks around Australia,' what he didn't say was, 'We're actually only going to do it if you meet the top-20 marginal seat list that we've also created, and we're only going to invite MPs or duty senators to apply for that funding.' They didn't say that on budget night. I went back and looked at the budget address. It just said, 'We're going to have this congestion-beating Commuter Car Park Fund.' People would rightly believe, if they'd been watching that, that it was for the whole of Australia, but the fine print that the Audit Office found was that that fund was only open to MPs or duty senators from the coalition who met the top-20 marginal seat list. How dodgy is that? It is out there in plain sight. No-one's even pretending.

Then they had this process called 'canvassing', where, in order to access this $660 million, you got an invitation. First, you had to be on the top-20 marginal seat list, and then you were asked, 'Would you like a car park?' or, in the Treasurer's instance: 'Would you like four car parks? Okay, you can have four, because we're allocating this.' There was no merit base to any of the decisions. This is what the Audit Office found. There was no merit assessment and no competitive assessment. No recommendations came from the department. This is the real kicker: 81 per cent of the projects were approved by the Prime Minister himself. How sweet a deal is this? As Prime Minister and Treasurer, you get to put all this money into a fund. You don't allocate it. You tell Australia that this is a fund presumably for everybody, and then, on the eve of an election, the day before caretaker, you sign off on, I think, 27 car parks which the department didn't know about, for which nobody had been able to apply and for which there was no merit base to the decision-making. How did the Treasurer know that the four car parks in his electorate were actually going to meet the objectives of the program? Well, that's easy: because there weren't really any objectives to the program. That's another way you design a fund to make sure you can use it for your own political purposes.

This has to stop, and there is no sign it's going to stop, because they're not shamed. You lot aren't shamed by the ANAO. You don't care anymore. Instead of actually dealing with this and the recommendations from it and changing your behaviour, you go out and attack the auditor. That's the way to do it: throw a bit of mud and hope it sticks. The only way to deal with this is to have a national anticorruption commission, and where are we? We're almost a thousand days from the day when the Prime Minister said he would introduce an anticorruption body for the federal parliament. Every other jurisdiction has one, but, 1,000 days later, we do not. We know this guy has been slow. He has been slow on the vaccine rollout and slow on quarantine. But he actually has a really valid reason to be slow on putting in place some sort of integrity body in this parliament, because you know what? They might actually have a look at this and get to the bottom of it. The auditor can only look at the department side of running a program, but an anticorruption body might be a different story. So is it any surprise that we are not seeing any movement on it? Only a Labor government will actually introduce a national anticorruption body and reintroduce standards for integrity and honesty in government.

The situation as it exists now is: if you're not on this top-20 list or some other list that staffers in ministerial officers have created, bad luck. How about we govern for 151 seats, instead of the top 20 seats that you're actually after? There's an idea. How about we do that when we have funds established for sporting programs, for women's change rooms and for building better region?

I notice the Prime Minister has banged an extra $250 million into that favourite little slush fund this budget, hoping that nobody sees it in the $100 billion budget spend. Who's going to notice an extra quarter of a billion dollars going into the Building Better Regions Fund? Who's going to notice? It will just sit there, nice and pretty, waiting until the election.

Then what do we do? We've got the system down pat, don't we? We go and canvass our coalition party room colleagues and say: 'Look, guys, we've got an extra billion here. You're in a bit of trouble in your seat, and you're in a bit of trouble, too. We want to pick that seat off. What do you need? What will it cost to get that seat? Who cares if it doesn't have any merit or competitive process or any recommendations. You know what we can do? We can sign it off before we go into caretaker and try to bind another government. Then our election promises will cost nothing because we're just ripping money out of these funds that the rest of Australia thought were for everybody but are actually only for our political campaign.' That's what you guys are doing. These funds have been corrupted by the process—or the lack of process—that you have put around them, and the lack of honesty.

We got told there are maps which allocate the Urban Congestion Fund across states. These are maps which say, 'In that seat, we'll give you this much,' before any applications are made. Then we've got funds with spreadsheets that tick-tack from the minister's office. It's not just Minister McKenzie's former role. It's the Prime Minister and Minister Tudge. I think Minister Sukkar was involved. The Treasurer was clearly involved because he got four car parks! He was one of the lucky ones. Mr Sukkar got quite a few, from memory. I think Mr Wilson got a lot down there, too. How about the Commuter Car Park Fund, where certain seats in Melbourne got 2½ times more than Sydney, even though Infrastructure Australia acknowledges Sydney has the most congested roads in Australia. Then, the other kicker that makes it special is that, while the data shows the most congested roads that need fixing are in the north-west of Melbourne, the money got allocated to the south-east. How blatant does it have to be? Honestly, you guys are professional at it. You've written the rule book, and—guess what—there are no rules. The only rule is that you want to hold your seat or win a seat. That's the rule. Instead of fundraising privately for the Liberal Party campaign, you've come up with this incredibly crafty way of using public money and then allocating it for all of your election commitments. Then you pretend that you didn't do it and that people voted for it. Well, people didn't vote for it; you'd already signed it off. You'd already allocated the money. It's so dishonest. It's so dodgy. It has to stop.

The only way it will stop is through a national anticorruption body, because it seems that there is no-one the Prime Minister will change his behaviour for. Why would he when it's worked so well for him? We're calling it out and we will continue to call it out. He won't answer questions when he's asked—'What did you know? What did you do?'—but we all know that he is leading this. He's right at the top, and he rewards this behaviour. It stinks, and it should stop.

4:13 pm

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Gallagher sure has a hide. She really should go back and look at history and the distribution of car park expenditure over time, rather than picking out one period, but I'll save those remarks.

I would like to make it clear, to the opposition and to all Australians listening at home, that this government will deliver an integrity commission. It's not only something that we promised to do; more importantly, it's the right thing to do. Not only that, we believe that having a robust Commonwealth integrity commission will help us ensure that our democratic functions, which we rely on so heavily, can continue to run unimpeded by crime and corruption. This government is doing the work as we speak so that legislation can be introduced before the end of the year. I can repeat that for you if you like, Senator: before the end of the year. This is, however, extremely important legislation, and it is important we get it right. Before the legislation is introduced, we must first consider the feedback that has been received from the extensive consultation process that has been undertaken. This nationwide consultation process on the legislation to establish the commission has recently been completed, with 333 written submissions received and 46 consultations, meetings and roundtables occurring during the consultation period.

We all know that it's been a long time since Labor were in government, and they may have forgotten what that's like. Let me remind them that sometimes you can't just click your fingers and make complex legislation appear out of thin air. In order to get the right outcome, you actually have to do the work in anticipation of the legislation. That is exactly that we're doing—unlike the Victorian government, which I heard reports of this morning. Their auditor-general had condemned them for going ahead and building railway lines without actually doing any planning. That's not how the Morrison government does its job.

Once the government has considered the feedback from the consultation, the legislation will be introduced. The passage of the bill will be subject to normal parliamentary processes. It will be debated here, and the commission will commence operations approximately six months after the passage of the legislation. Because this is such important legislation, we must get it right. It might do the opposition well to remember that, in the lead-up to the last election, they committed to 'continue to consult with experts on the design details'. As I've just outlined, that's exactly what the government is doing. The fact that they're now making noise about a process which they endorsed shows a lack of substance in their position on this motion. It shows they are simply making noise for the sake of making noise and trying to remain relevant.

The scale of reform occurring is immense, and getting the process right is important. We want Australians to have full confidence that the commission is doing what it's supposed to do. We've seen failed instruments like this before in other jurisdictions. Australians must be able to trust their institutions and be assured that they are getting it right. I'd like to remind the opposition that what this body sets out to do is extremely serious and the ramifications of not getting it right would be immense. This is an agency that will not only be essential to ensuring the integrity of our public sector, our government and our elected officials; it will also be essential to ensuring that the Australian public has trust in its institutions, in government and in the rule of law.

As I said, Labor may have forgotten what it's like to govern, but it is essential to the functioning of Australia's government that we are methodical, consultative and thorough in our approach to developing this legislation. Australians expect us to get this right, and that's what we're doing. It's simply far too important to get wrong; that is not a risk that we are willing to take. As I said, we've seen instances in other jurisdictions where, because they did not get the legislation right, the lives and reputations of innocent people have been dragged through the mud and destroyed. That is not something we will let happen.

The point of the Commonwealth Integrity Commission is to investigate and, if crime or corruption is found to be present, act accordingly—referring prosecutions to the courts. This is why the government does not believe that public hearings are an appropriate mechanism for investigating agencies within the public sector division. As important as it is to detect and deter corruption, we must always design systems to prevent injustice and unfairness to the people being investigated and accused by the authority of the state. The Commonwealth Integrity Commission is not there to be used as some form of daytime entertainment that people can tune into to get their daily dose of drama. This is not reality TV. Nor is it there to be used as a political tool to drag others' names through the dirt or destroy their reputations. By conducting private hearings, we will avoid these potentially harmful acts from occurring. Private hearings will strike an appropriate balance between investigating criminal corruption and limiting the potential for reputational damage without any conviction. This will also ensure that the reporting of public hearings does not prevent anyone from receiving a fair trial if they are accused of criminal conduct.

This is not some made up, fanciful scenario. In my previous business, I helped a number of clients through accusations made in the New South Wales ICAC. The accusations were either disproven or shown to be of minor importance, but my clients' businesses, livelihoods and reputations were destroyed. We don't want that in the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. We saw this happen in the New South Wales Supreme Court in 2019, when the New South Wales Supreme Court had to delay the trial of two former state parliamentarians, in part because of the adverse pre-trial publicity they received in response to the public hearings by the New South Wales ICAC. The New South Wales Supreme Court found that it may have prejudiced the availability of a fair trial for the accused.

Our government's model ensures that it's the courts that make the findings of criminally corrupt conduct and it's the courts that determine a person's guilt or innocence, not political commentators, not the media, not social media. The court will be the ones to decide the guilt of a person. Natural justice is such a fundamental concept to our society and our legal system that the presumption of innocence must be upheld. It is not something that we are willing to throw away simply because those opposite stamp their feet, throw their toys across the room and give us these motions to come in and debate.

Our commitment to establishing a Commonwealth integrity commission is firm. In the 2019-20 budget, the government committed $106.7 million of new money to the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. This was in addition to the $40.7 million in funding for the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, ACLEI, which will transfer to the commission. That is a total of $147.4 million. This investment, already committed by the government, is in stark contrast to Labor, which has something called seven design principles—whatever they are. Labor thinks it will cost only $58.7 million. That's nearly $90 million less than what the government has budgeted for.

While those opposite stand there making their weak commitments that they will never have to fulfil, this government is investing the money and the time to get this done, and get it done right. Not only have we committed the $147.4 million in funding; the government has already implemented phase 1 of the Commonwealth Integrity Commission by expanding the jurisdiction of ACLEI to cover four additional agencies: the Australian Taxation Office, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. While those opposite sit there and move motions like this, the record shows that we are getting things done and that we are committed to getting them done right.

In the interim, the government has allocated $54.4 million to support this expanded jurisdiction under the first phase. This means that ACLEI's staffing levels will increase from 64 to 110 in the 2021-22 financial year to support its expanded work. What this government has is a robust, multifaceted approach to combatting corruption. We want to ensure that, when and where corruption occurs, it is dealt with appropriately. The Commonwealth Integrity Commission will further enhance our existing integrity arrangements. The Commonwealth Integrity Commission will be the lead body in Australia's successful multiagency anticorruption framework. It will enhance accountability across the public sector.

Under this framework multiple agencies have responsibility for preventing, detecting and responding to corruption. These already include: the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, which has specialist skills to arrest corruption risks that face law enforcement agencies; and the Australian Federal Police, which works with partner agencies across the Commonwealth to leverage expertise, capabilities and information holdings to respond to serious and complex corruption offences, including fraud and foreign bribery. The Commonwealth Ombudsman considers and investigates complaints where people believe they've been treated unfairly by an Australian government department, and the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority audits, advises on and reports on the work expenses of parliamentarians and their staff. Not only that, but Australia's democratic system of representative government, professional and independent judiciary, free media and active civil society all play an important role in protecting and preventing corruption by enabling and encouraging scrutiny of the public and private sectors.

There are also a few important points to remember regarding the government's model for the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. Firstly, it will have the same powers as a royal commission to investigate criminal corruption in the public sector. Like the opposition's national anticorruption commission, the Commonwealth Integrity Commission's jurisdiction will extend to a wide range of persons and entities. The Commonwealth Integrity Commission will be able to investigate private individuals and companies where this is relevant to one of its investigations. It will also be able to exercise its own motion powers in relation to law enforcement corruption issues. It will be able to look into conduct that occurred prior to its establishment, if the offence existed at the time the conduct occurred. Therefore, for the life of me, I do not see why this is something that the other side would not support. If those opposite truly cared about combatting corruption and wanted to see an anticorruption body, they would get behind the government's model 100 per cent. But, as I said earlier, it seems as though all they truly want to do is make noise for the sake of making noise in an attempt to remain relevant.

4:27 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] This motion talks about the 966 days since the government announced that it would introduce legislation for the establishment of the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. The motion also says that the Labor Party announced on 26 July that it would establish a powerful, transparent and independent national anticorruption commission. But the Senate has actually already done its bit. Almost two years ago the Greens' bill for a strong, independent and properly resourced corruption commission with teeth passed this chamber. In fact, it's been 696 days since the Senate did that. The bill has been languishing in the House of Representatives on the long list, because the government doesn't want a strong anticorruption watchdog. It certainly doesn't want the version that the Senate has passed, because it has teeth and would work to clean up corruption. It's perhaps unsurprising that the government doesn't want to touch it with a barge pole, considering the litany of scandals that continue to plague it and many of its ministers. Instead, we see that the government announce almost three years ago that it's going to do its own bill—it's coming. Two years ago, it described the bill as imminent, and I think it's now been about six months since the second round of consultations was concluded. It's sham consultation, because the experts keep making suggestions to the government about how to fix the government's weak proposal, and the government keeps ignoring these suggestions because it doesn't want a strong corruption watchdog. It wants a fig leaf, so the bad behaviour can continue—and everybody knows this.

The Greens have been pushing for a federal corruption body for more than 10 years now. Our first motion to kick off this conversation was in 2009, and we've not let it drop for the succeeding 10-plus years. It's great that commitments have now been made by both of the big parties, but words are cheap. And, as I say, it's been 696 days since the Senate passed my bill, and the government's doing absolutely nothing to progress a strong version; it keeps on kicking its own weak version into the long grass. In that time, public confidence in the integrity of this place, in our democracy, has continued to decline. In fact, Australia has dropped out the top 10 in Transparency International's global anticorruption rankings, which are also known as the corruption perceptions index. People want better, they deserve better, and they can smell a rat.

In the absence of a federal corruption watchdog—and I might point out that the Commonwealth is the only government among all our state and territory governments that doesn't have a corruption watchdog; every state and territory has one or is in the process of setting one up—Australians have to rely on a patchwork of measures to find out about the dodgy dealings of this government. We've had the ANAO, the Audit Office. There have been Senate inquiries. There have been orders for the production of documents. There have been some FOI challenges. There have been the state and territory corruption watchdogs. There has been investigative journalism. Those measures have revealed an absolute dog's breakfast of scandals, a litany of scandals, in addition to the ones that are listed in the motion and that Senator Gallagher discussed in her contribution. The list is as long as your arm.

There have been overpayments to offshore companies for water licences with no water. There have been millions of dollars handed to an inexperienced business, registered to a shack on Kangaroo Island, to run offshore processing facilities—multimillion dollar contracts for those gulags that keep getting renewed despite myriad complaints, breaches of local laws and a failure to meet KPIs. There has been pork-barrelling of the Safer Communities Fund by Minister Dutton and others. There have been millions of dollars of public money handed out to gas companies headed up by Liberal Party donors. In particular, the most recent one, which we just examined in an inquiry at the start of last week, is $21 million of public money going to the company Empire Energy to open up fracking in the Beetaloo basin, against the wishes of the traditional owners, and make a dangerous experiment with our groundwater and our climate through hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. Of course that company has very close connections with the Liberal Party, and it's headed up by one of its largest donors. Perhaps it's not one of its largest donors—they have so many—but one of its significant donors. The list of scandals continues. There are so many involving Minister Angus Taylor that I would run out of time if I were to list them all.

The fact remains that there is a real dearth of transparency and integrity applying to this government, and it is at an all-time low. The Australian public are having their confidence in the institutions of our democracy damaged as a result. Centre for Public Integrity analysis released just last week found that, of the grants programs that the ANAO has audited since 2019—sports rorts, sports rorts 2, the car parks, or a bit of 'pork and ride'; the list goes on—which have dished out $10 billion in public money, every single one has been found to be flawed, with problems that have ranged from minor improvement to serious maladministration. This has gone beyond an occasional slip-up. This is now a pattern of dodgy behaviour that is shaking the confidence of the Australian public in our institutions of democracy.

Now, I don't think much of this government, as I'm sure everybody knows, but I do think that the parliament and our democracy should be held in high regard, and, as such, the people that are involved in running it on a day-to-day basis should be acting with more integrity and more transparency and to the utmost standard—the public interest. And yet we see, time and time again, ministers that would have gotten kicked out of the ministry 10 or 20 years ago are Teflon now. That minister stays in their role and often gets a promotion or, at worst, gets moved to a different ministry. So the standards of this government are lower, I think, than they have ever been before in the history of our parliament, and that saddens me greatly because the people deserve better.

What we've got is a patchwork of integrity measures to try to hold this dodgy government to account, and too many things slip through the cracks. The ANAO, which have been just fabulous, considering they run on the smell of an oily rag, have been critical in bringing dodgy behaviour to light. But very few consequences have flowed from the behaviour and misbehaviour that they've identified. Government ministers are Teflon-coated. They bluff their way from scandal to scandal. Mainly their hides are saved because the next scandal comes along to distract from the last scandal.

We won't fully understand the scale of the corruption, fraud, dishonesty and exploitation without a strong federal corruption watchdog. A few weeks ago, a group of high-profile former judges, including Mary Gaudron, Margaret White, Paul Stein, Tony Fitzgerald and Margaret McMurdo, called on the government to make good its promise to introduce a corruption watchdog bill. That promise was made almost three years ago, and a draft bill still hasn't seen the light of day. They said:

A National Integrity Commission is urgently needed to fill the gaps in our integrity system and restore trust in our democracy.

I agree with that, but imagine what we'd actually find if we had a rigorous, independent and well-resourced integrity commission with strong investigative powers. Imagine what a difference it would make if consequences actually flowed for corrupt behaviour and the findings of such. Imagine how busy a federal corruption watchdog is going to be when we finally get one. It's what Australians want and it's what they deserve.

A recent Australia Talks survey found that 89 per cent of respondents thought that most politicians in Australia will lie if they feel the truth will hurt them politically, 72 per cent of respondents strongly disagreed with the statement that politicians are usually held accountable for their actions and 88 per cent of respondents want a federal corruption watchdog.

Since the government originally said it was going to legislate this commission within 12 months of taking office, it's missed numerous deadlines. It ignored the criticisms of its original draft framework and, when an exposure draft for its proposed Commonwealth integrity commission was finally released, nothing had changed. It completely ignored all of the input from the experts in that first round of consultations. All of the same experts made all of the same criticisms of that exposure draft, because it's weak and ineffective. That's exactly what the experts described it as. The Centre for Public Integrity analysed those submissions. There were over 200 of them made by various organisations and all but two opposed the Commonwealth bill in the version that it was drafted. So 198 submitters, experts in the field, opposed the weak version of a corruption watchdog that this government is trying to fool the public with. It's nowhere to be seen and its draft principles are so weak. The experts keep saying that in repeated conversations, and the critiques and commentary keep being ignored by this government. That's because this government doesn't want a corruption watchdog and, if it's going to be dragged into having one, it's going to make it as weak, toothless and piecemeal as it possibly can. But the experts are calling the government out on that and the Australian public realise that's what's going on. They don't want a Clayton's corruption watchdog; they want a real watchdog, with teeth, that's going to start to clean up the absolute dodginess and scandal plagued incidents that this government keeps dishing up for its delectation.

Those 200 submissions that I mentioned made several points. They criticised the narrow definition of 'corrupt conduct' and the high bar to commence investigations, because making the bar so high means that most of this dodgy behaviour wouldn't be captured by the government's version of a so-called corruption watchdog, which is no doubt exactly why it was designed that way. The submitters also criticised the limited ability of the commission to act of its own volition and to act on public tip-offs. Instead, the government's version of the commission would have to wait to be asked to investigate dodgy conduct by the very same government that it would then investigate. So you can see the rub there: no government is going to dob itself in. That's exactly why the Morrison government has designed their version of the corruption watchdog to be so weak.

The experts criticised the lack of protection for whistleblowers in the government's version. They criticised the different standards for law enforcement agencies and the public sector. In fact, the police union representative has also strongly criticised this. Why have two tiers of standards? Why not hold everyone to the same high standards, including politicians? That's what Australians want. But this government is not going down that path, because it wants to protect its own.

The experts also criticised the fact that there was no power to hold public hearings or to report publicly about public sector corruption. Again, they don't want this to have any sort of reforming impact. If they keep it all secret, like this government likes doing with so many things, maybe the dodgy conduct can continue. That kind of defeats the purpose of having a corruption watchdog, as so many of the successful state anticorruption bodies have shown. An effective integrity commission would restore confidence in the political process. But the government's ineffective, weak version would not; and, worse, it would remove pressure from the government to do a decent job, and it would give the impression that action would be taken when it would really just be business as usual, behind closed doors, like the Australian public have come to expect from this dodgy government.

We need a strong, independent and well-resourced corruption watchdog. We need one that can investigate the wide range of dodgy conduct that we've seen from this government. We need it to have broad investigative powers and we need it to have public hearings so that dodgy conduct can be brought to light and a deterrent effect can occur. I'm pleased to say that the Greens National Integrity Commission Bill does all those things. It was passed by this Senate 696 days ago—coming up on two years now. If the government would just bring it on for debate, by the end of the month we could have the strong, independent national corruption watchdog that this motion calls for. Let's get on with it.

4:42 pm

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I say at the outset that Senator Waters, from my home state of Queensland, undermines a lot of what she says when she is so gratuitous in her use of terms and overblown in her rhetoric. I will give an example. She tried to draw an analogy between Australia's offshore detention facilities and gulags. If she really wants to understand what a gulag is, she should read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's TheGulag Archipelago. I've got the three volumes of it in my Brisbane office and in my Canberra office. If she really wants to understand what a gulag is, she should read someone who spent 10 years in a gulag and spoke the truth to the world about what was happening in the Soviet Union at that point in time. It really does undermine Senator Waters' substantive points when she draws such weak and despicable analogies.

With respect to Senator Gallagher, I couldn't help but reflect on the fact that she was talking about so many things that are actually in the public domain, that are in our newspapers, that are the subject of debate in this chamber and in the House of Representatives, with respect to policy decisions and processes undertaken by the government. It completely undermines her argument that we need a Commonwealth integrity commission when the existing checks and balances that we have in place, including the National Audit Office, are picking up on a lot of these issues and the opposition are discharging their responsibility in terms of drawing attention to them and shining a bright light on them. Where are these things in the murky underworld that aren't attracting government light? Where are these issues? The fact of the matter is Transparency International, in its latest ranking of countries across the world, ranked Australia 11 out of 180 in its corruption index.

As someone who has lived and worked in countries at the other end of the spectrum, Australia at a federal level and indeed at state levels does not have a material corruption issue. I come into this chamber and look at all of my fellow senators. I don't have any expectation that any of them would ever engage in any corrupt conduct. I believe every single one of them is serving in this place because they want to do their best for this country and they're not doing it out of personal self-interest. That's my firm view. It doesn't help the Australian people's perception of the political class and our political institution for members in this place to run our own institutions down and to tar everyone with a thickly-tarred brush. It really does not assist. Australia is incredibly fortunate that it does not suffer from the scourge of corruption to the extent that many countries around the world do. Corruption is insidious, absolutely insidious. It hurts the weakest in society, it undermines institutions and it frays the social contract.

I want to quote from an article on a New South Wales ICAC case to shine a bright light on the concerns that many of us have of the need for the legislation related to the Commonwealth Integrity Commission to be carefully drafted and carefully calibrated. I'm going to quote from an article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Michaela Whitbourn dated 16 March 2016 and it's entitled: Criminal charges dismissed against former SES Commissioner Murray Kear following ICAC probe. The article in the Sydney Morning Herald said:

Former State Emergency Service Commissioner Murray Kear has accused the state's corruption watchdog of "ruining his life" after he was cleared of criminal charges following a high-profile inquiry.

Mr Kear was charged under whistleblower protection laws with sacking his former deputy … as a "reprisal" after she made misconduct allegations …

But in another blow to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which has come under sustained fire over its handling of the ill-fated inquiry into Crown Prosecutor Margaret Cunneen, SC, Local Court Magistrate Greg Grogin dismissed the charges on Wednesday.

There was "no element of revenge, payback or reprisal" in Mr Kear's dismissal of Ms McCarthy in May 2013, Mr Grogin said.

Mr Kear said outside court that the watchdog had "ruined my life" and "caused immense angst to my family and my friends".

He said the Inspector of the ICAC, former Supreme Court judge David Levine, QC, who has launched a blistering attack on the watchdog over the Cunneen inquiry, had "said some sensible things" about the agency.

"I think the government does have to do something [about ICAC]; it can't continue the way it's gone. I just hope logic prevails at the end of the day and that the Premier does do something with ICAC," Mr Kear said.

I will read this as well from the same article because I think this is important, absolutely important.

Asked if he wanted his job back, Mr Kear said: "I'd really love to contribute in some way to the community; if that's back in emergency services, it's too early [to say]."

That is why there are legitimate concerns. We have to ensure that we get the legislation in relation to Commonwealth Integrity Commission right. People's reputations are at stake. Through the rambling dissertation of Senator Gallagher, I'm not sure what her definition of corruption is. I'm not sure what Senator Gallagher would be referring to a Commonwealth integrity commission. Is she going to be referring political decisions? Is she going to be referring matters of political process? Is she going to be referring matters with respect to whether or not funds have been wisely spent? What is it exactly that those opposite intend to be referred to the Commonwealth integrity commission.

I must say, I'm not instilled with confidence by the actions of the shadow Attorney-General, Mr Mark Dreyfus, in the other place, who's referred nine matters to the Australian Federal Police, none of which have gone anywhere. Those opposite are not instilling confidence in those of us on this side of the chamber with respect to what they hope to achieve through the establishment of a Commonwealth integrity commission. I do hope that when a Commonwealth integrity commission is established those opposite treat it with the respect that the institution will deserve and do not abuse the institution and its processes for base political gains. I dearly hope that is the case, but I must say the rhetoric which I've heard during the course of this debate doesn't instil me with any confidence whatsoever.

The fact of the matter is that the Morrison government has committed to establishing a Commonwealth integrity commission. There were hundreds of submissions received with respect to the legislation relating to the Commonwealth integrity commission and to many of the points which have been canvassed in this debate. It takes time to give those matters sober consideration. In the meantime, ACLEI, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, is dealing very professionally and efficiently with an expanded jurisdiction which includes the ACCC, ASIC, APRA and the ATO. It has been provided with substantial additional funding in order to undertake those processes, and that funding means that it's able to undertake more investigations.

In the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act the touchstone before any investigation is to commence is whether or not there is serious or systemic corruption. So again I say to those opposite: will they reflect on what the purpose of this Commonwealth integrity commission is? Will the referrals they think should be made to the commission fall within the bailiwick of allegations of serious and systemic corruption or will its time be wasted? Will its resources be wasted in the pursuit of a political agenda? All of us in this place need to consider seriously the ramifications of such an entity being used for base political processes. All of us need to consider that very, very carefully.

The issue of public versus private hearings is one on which reasonable people can disagree. ACLEI has the power to undertake public hearings. It hasn't done so once in its whole history, because in putting the test as to whether or not it is in the public interest to hold a public hearing—considering the impact on the reputation of those who are the subject of a complaint and in soberly considering the tests and whether or not it would assist with progressing an investigation or, indeed, hamper one—it has never found the need to conduct a public hearing in 10 years. I deeply respect the integrity of all the officers and the commissioners who have served at ACLEI since its establishment, but we should seriously reflect on the fact that in its entire history it has never seen the need to conduct a single public hearing. It has the power under certain conditions to initiate a public hearing, and that is a matter on which reasonable people can have a debate, but in 10 years of serious investigations—dozens and dozens of investigations, many of which have led to public prosecutions—it has never once seen the need to undertake a public hearing. That should give everyone cause for reflection.

When this issue of public versus private hearings was considered by a select committee, which included senators from this place, there were arguments in favour of both public hearings and private hearings. Ultimately, a consensus view seemed to emerge that perhaps, yes, you could have public hearings but they must be subject to a number of tests and controls to protect against the politicisation of the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. Nothing I've heard during the course of this debate gives me any comfort whatsoever that the Commonwealth Integrity Commission will not be used for base political reasons. In fact, all of the rhetoric I've heard is to the contrary.

I go back to that case of the SES commissioner in New South Wales whose life was destroyed through the ICAC process. He had to take early retirement at the age of 55. He had to spend tens and tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs just to go through a process of public humiliation, and then be vindicated at the end of the day. Is that the sort of process those opposite are seeking to impose upon our public servants and our bureaucracy? Is it really? Can I tell you that, as chair of the Joint Committee on the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, it actually has given me a lot of comfort in terms of the level of issues of corruption in the Australian government. Whilst ACLI only deals with law enforcement officers or members of the ATO, ACCC, APRA and ASIC who deal with law enforcement issues, the number of actual offences committed is quite minimal. And it's been quite a successful process in terms of, where those issues have occurred, shining a bright light on them and holding people to account.

So let's not run down our political institutions; there are plenty of people outside this place who will do that for us. Let's keep it in context. If we're going to have a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, which I believe we should, please do not politicise it. People's reputations and lives are at stake, and we've seen that at a state level. Nothing I've heard in the rhetoric from those opposite gives me any comfort whatsoever.

12:00 am

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the question be put.

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have Senator Dean Smith on a point of order.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If this motion is agreed to, would it deny Senator Roberts and me an opp ortunity to make a contribution?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: That would indeed be the case.

It would be the case?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Yes. You would not have the opportunity to make a contribution today. The question is that the motion moved by Senator Gallagher be now put. I t being after 4.30, my understanding is that we can't call a division. We will move that to a later date.