Senate debates

Tuesday, 30 November 2021


Members of Parliament: Conduct

6:14 pm

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

FIERRAVANTI-WELLS () (): Earlier this year I distributed a publication in which I stated:

With perceptions of corruption in Australia increasing the erosion of public trust in institutions and the advent of an increasing number of political scandals, there are growing calls for a better National Integrity Commission than the one proposed by the government.

I further note:

Being from New South Wales, I'm conscious of the need to heed the lessons from the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption, which was used to settle factional scores and destroy careers. However, the role of such a body needs to uncover corruption and expose it publicly.

Some state bodies have powers which the police and prosecuting authorities do not have, including the power to force people to answer questions which may incriminate them but which are often inadmissible in court. Clearly, this is overreach and not synonymous with the intent of our justice system. I maintained that public hearings with appropriate safeguards are important but stressed that, most importantly, there be no special treatment for politicians and their staff.

I continue to hold the view that public trust will continue to be eroded unless members of parliament are subject to full and proper scrutiny. Much has happened this year which has only reinforced my view that a federal integrity body is overdue. I manage my own APH email account and, judging by the sheer volume of emails and communications received from constituents on this issue, it confirms to me that it is an important matter for Australians.

In November 2020, a report was issued by Griffith University and Transparency International Australia which sets out how Australia should build a stronger, fairer and more accountable system of government. Its lead author was Professor AJ Brown from the Centre for Governance and Public Policy. It was funded through the Australian Research Council and included contributing researchers and authors from across Australia. The introduction reads as follows:

In every country, a strong system of public integrity and accountability is essential to meet the public's expectations of trustworthy, ethical and effective governance.

Once an international leader, Australia's efforts to fight corruption, undue influence and protect the integrity of democracy have been slipping. Nationally – even when individual states or territories are showing the way – Australia is now failing to keep pace.

A new federal integrity commission is a crucial step in creating a better and world leading system.

Professor Brown says:

Despite increased trust in the performance of governments during COVID19, citizen belief that corruption in government is a problem has also risen from 61% in 2018 to 66% in late October 2020 – confirming the imperative for action …

Furthermore, Professor Brown asserts that:

The lack of a federal anti-corruption watchdog is confirmed as the biggest institutional gap in our integrity system.

He also, and most particularly, cautions:

However it is not a silver bullet – we need political consensus on a strong national commission, but also action to strengthen the integrity of politics and government at all levels, including more effective regulation of lobbying, checks on undue influence, and fairer, more honest election campaigns.

We also must value the contribution of whistleblowers and public interest journalism to the integrity of our democracy.

The CEO of lead partner Transparency International Australia, Serena Lillywhite, in welcoming the report, said:

Australians are loudly demanding that our politicians and public servants act with honesty, transparency and integrity.

The assessment strongly endorses the need for a strong, independent Commonwealth integrity agency with scope to review criminal or non-criminal conduct that undermines integrity of public decision-making, and points the way forward for new, best practice investigation and public hearing powers.

Her warnings about our international standing should also be heeded. She said:

While Australia has a strong past record for integrity in public decision-making, democratic innovation and multi-agency frameworks for controlling corruption, Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index confirms we've been slipping.

Her assessment is that:

This comprehensive blueprint for Australia to have a strong anti-corruption and pro-integrity framework shows us the path towards a fairer and healthier democracy.

Coming as I do from New South Wales, I have observed, over the years, the New South Wales ICAC claim political scalps. Political hit jobs saw innocent people tried in the court of public opinion. However, those examples are outweighed by the investigations that led to criminal prosecution and jailed four perpetrators. Where we have seen resignations, I remind the Senate that those resignations resulted from consideration by the persons in question. In reaching their decisions, those persons no doubt assessed their position based not only on public information but also—and I have no doubt—on information within their own purview and legal advice.

In a media release dated 26 November 2021, the Law Council of Australia called for 'moderation in the debate over the proposed federal anti-corruption commission, after comments comparing the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) to a "kangaroo court" in the context of an ongoing inquiry'. The comments of the Law Council are salutary:

We feel strongly there must be robust debate and detailed consideration given to the establishment of a federal anti-corruption commission and we welcome the opportunities the Commonwealth has provided for organisations and individuals, including the Law Council, to provide input and views—

its president said—

Respect for legal institutions underpins the administration of justice in Australia. The structure and powers of any commission are important topics for discussion, but any commentary must be tempered by fairness and balance.

In October 2021, the Centre for Public Integrity issued a discussion paper, a useful analysis of state and territory integrity commissions. It concludes:

…the strongest and most effective integrity commissions in New South Wales and Queensland share the following powers:

            The analysis finds that none of these powers feature in the draft CIC model put up by the Commonwealth, rendering it 'the weakest and least effective integrity agency in the country', potentially.

            In February this year, I spoke about integrity and conduct. Politics is about perception, and, regrettably, the public perception of our politicians is not good. Repeatedly, politicians from local, state and federal ranks have acted without integrity and contributed to the ongoing and deteriorating perception of the body politic.

            In any survey about the most trusted professions in our society, politicians usually rank amongst the lowest, and why wouldn't this be the case, given the continued exposure of questionable activities over the years? Whether it's alleged lies in election campaigns, dodgy preselections, misappropriation of public monies, personal benefits resulting from insider information, monies sequestered in overseas tax havens, abuse of office for personal advantage, dodgy land deals or connections with foreign governments, the list goes on and on.

            Negative public perceptions are compounded when politicians dig their heels in, spin the story and fail to take responsibility for their actions. They rely on the fast-moving media cycle and wait for the next story to take over the front page, and this frustrates the public even more. Modern democracies and the operation of open government must be accountable and transparent, thereby obviating any suspicion of skulduggery.

            In conclusion, those who resist the introduction of an effective federal integrity body raise people's curiosity. One has to ask the question: are they conflicted? Why are they resisting the implementation of such a body? And when we speak of integrity, I'm once again reminded of the words of Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and philosopher: 'If it is not right, do not do it. If it is not true, do not say it.'