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National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill speech

By the time I decided to stand for election in my community of Mackellar, I had spent years watching parliamentary standards slip to disturbingly low levels, with one pork-barrelling rort after another performed in a clinical and systematic way, and repeated government-friendly appointments to institutions that underpin our democracy, such as the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, meaning that their independence is distorted. In nine years, the coalition government made 90 party-friendly appointments to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Australia deserves a whole lot better. We deserve a political system we can trust.

Speaking to the community of Mackellar both before and during the election campaign, I realised that I was certainly not alone in these concerns. During the campaign, people in Mackellar would email my office, approach me on the street and tell me during town hall events that restoring trust and integrity in our federal political system was one of the biggest issues they wanted their MP to tackle. In the Mackellar matters report by the Voices of Mackellar group, restoring integrity to our political system was ranked the second most important issue to the people in my electorate, narrowly behind climate action. I came to realise that restoring integrity in our political system was actually the first step to achieving meaningful reform in other areas and that the scandals, the rorts and the unethical behaviour were obstacles to progress and to good long-term political decision-making.

The evidence also shows that corruption is rising in Australia. Since 2012, Australia's position on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index has dropped significantly. In 2012, we were ranked seventh in the world for the strength of our public sector to withstand corruption. A decade later, we are ranked 18th in the world, largely due to the failure of the previous government to implement a national integrity commission.

The Labor government's introduction of the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 to establish a national anticorruption commission is definitely great progress and is welcomed by ordinary Australians across the country. This progress has been hard won through years of advocacy by many, including many from the crossbench. Cathy McGowan MP, the former member for Indi, advocated and campaigned tirelessly to restore integrity in politics. In 2018, she introduced the detailed National Integrity Commission Bill. It was not legislated, but it certainly saw the coalition government promise to legislate on integrity in the next parliament. Helen Haines MP, the current member for Indi, then took up the baton. I congratulate her for her incredible persistence and for the hard work she has done to bring this to fruition. As we know, the coalition government failed to deliver on its promise of a national integrity commission in the 46th Parliament. This was despite Helen Haines's introduction of the Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill 2020, which provided a gold-standard model for an integrity commission. Helen and so many other community Independents around the country, including me, campaigned hard in this year's federal election, and have done so since, to ensure a national integrity commission would be achieved in this parliament.

So what does the government's National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 promise? How will it restore integrity and trust in our political system and protect our democracy? As we've heard, the bill creates the National Anti-Corruption Commission, to be led by a commissioner and up to three deputy commissioners. It will be overseen by a joint standing committee of the parliament and by an inspector, who will be empowered to require the commission to provide information about its work. The commission established by this bill will investigate and report on serious or systemic corruption in the Commonwealth public sector, refer evidence of criminal conduct for prosecution, and introduce education and preventative activity regarding corruption. These are all sensible objectives and long overdue. But are they enough?

During my election campaign, I promised the people of Mackellar a federal anticorruption commission—as we keep hearing—with teeth, one with considerable powers of investigation and with the independence and funding necessary to carry out its duties free from government input. This bill goes a long way towards that end and, on behalf of the Australian people, I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Attorney-General and the government for the consultative approach they have adopted in bringing this bill to parliament and for adopting all six recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation in addition to the three recommendations of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. I also commend the inclusion of the inspector role and the parliamentary committee, which will provide strong oversight of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. I remain of the view, however, that the bill could be amended in several key ways to ensure it meets the Australian community's high expectations.

Firstly, it is critical that the joint parliamentary committee which is tasked with the oversight of this commission is robustly independent. To achieve this, it would be optimal if members of the government held fewer than half of the positions on the committee. In addition, I consider that having a non-government chair of the committee would bolster its independence.

Secondly, I would like to see the bill contain stronger protections for whistleblowers. We heard just yesterday in this chamber the member for Clark detail whistleblower allegations in relation to coal exports, which reminded us just how important it is for whistleblowers to feel confident to come forward and that they will be protected from prosecution and personal harms. We have seen several other instances recently where the existing whistleblower protection laws have failed to protect whistleblowers. In July of this year, the Attorney-General ordered that the case against Bernard Collaery for unlawful disclosure of information be dropped. Our current legislation has failed to protect whistleblowers in that example and several others. Protection for people who seek to blow the whistle on conduct which has otherwise been suppressed is a critical part of ensuring integrity in our political and governmental systems.

Thirdly, a national integrity commission could have an increased role to play in actively promoting integrity in politics and government. Deterring and investigating conduct is one side of the coin, but prevention is better than cure. This includes inquiring and reporting on types of corruption, developing anticorruption plans, advising on agency interventions and educating office holders across the government. By expanding the functions of the National Anti-Corruption Commission in this regard, we can get to the root of corruption and stop it before it gains a hold.

Lastly, public hearings are amongst the most powerful deterrents against corruption. Public hearings bolster public trust in our institutions, educate the community on the critical role that an anticorruption commission plays and ensure procedural fairness for defendants. As the New South Wales ICAC commissioner said, in comments on 20 October this year:

We've had investigations which have commenced in public and as a result of that information, other people have come forward and … have raised significant issues of corruption.

It also, I think, shows transparency and accountability for the agency and justifies the case that ultimately is made for change.

The bar for hearings to be held publicly should not be as high as it currently is proposed in this bill. It should not take exceptional circumstances for the public to be entitled to witness the operation of the commission's investigations. I consider that the commission should have the power to hold public hearings where it is in the public interest to do so. That test requires the commission to give due consideration to whether the conduct in question is sufficiently serious to warrant a public spotlight on it. Former judges and lawyers have sharply criticised the inclusion of the exceptional circumstances requirement. Anthony Whealy KC found that, in legal terms, 'exceptional circumstances' has no real meaning and it will act as a brake on the public interest test.

To finally be debating this bill in the House is actually momentous. Its passage will enhance democracy, and I wholeheartedly thank the government for addressing this critical issue so early in their first term, as promised. This bill is strong. It will be a potent tool to combat corruption, but further amendments will assist in achieving this high ambition. A non-government majority on the committee, robust whistleblower protections and public hearings will ensure that the National Anti-Corruption Commission is as effective as possible.

I thank the government, all transparency organisations, my fellow crossbench colleagues and former members of parliament who have worked tirelessly towards this historic moment in our nation's political history. I commend this bill to the House.