National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022

"It's clear that we must restore public trust and integrity to government—to protect our democracy and our social contract and for our economic well-being—and this legislation is critical to this mission. Before the election, we promised to deliver a national anti-corruption commission as a priority, and now is our opportunity to do so before we rise this year."

Address to the House of Representatives, Bills - National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 

Monday 21 November 2022

This has been a long and comprehensive debate, with many strong contributions from across the chamber. For legislation as important as this, anything less than a full and frank debate would've been a missed opportunity. No member of this place can say that they have not had the opportunity to rise and speak on this bill, and if they haven't, there's still time tonight.

Integrity in government was one of the issues that determined the outcome of the 2022 federal election. Across Australia the voters wanted a change. Indeed the very make-up of this chamber is a reflection of this fact. Before the 2022 federal election, voters across Bean frequently told me they wanted to elect a government which would return integrity and trust to parliament. For many it was the most important issue that they wanted to see addressed. In one instance a retired Commonwealth public servant explained that he was keenly watching the work on the integrity commission, noting that he'd always upheld the APS values and code of conduct. However, he was ashamed that there aren't the same clear values for federal politicians. This is another part of the integrity ecosystem that we need to turn our attention to as well. This retired public servant was not alone. The people in my electorate, and indeed across Australia, had no trust in the previous government's willingness to address these matters and restore trust and integrity into government.

The previous government had already broken their promise to establish an effective anticorruption commission. It was 2018 when they stood before the Australian people and promised a robust, resourced, real system that would protect the integrity of Commonwealth and public administration. Of course, this was never met. Instead, they voted dozens of times to block the establishment of a national anticorruption commission with teeth, or prevented one from even being debated, including proposals put forward by the member for Indi. At best they developed a weak exposure draft, which was so bad that the Centre for Public Integrity denounced it as 'a sham designed to cover up corruption' and 'the weakest watchdog in the country'.

Meanwhile, scandal after scandal went unchecked, and public trust in government continued to diminish. There was clear evidence to this effect. A Vote Compass survey found that 85 per cent of Australians believed that corruption was a real problem in this country, and, according to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, Australia had plummeted seven places since 2012, from 11th out of 180 countries to 18th. These were alarming findings. As argued by Transparency International, corruption erodes trust, weakens democracy, hampers economic development and further exacerbates inequality, poverty, social division and the environmental crisis. This argument was supported by other studies. For instance, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Australia Institute released a report in 2018 that found worsening perceptions of corruption in Australia had potentially reduced GDP by over $72 billion or four per cent.

It's clear that we must restore public trust and integrity to government—to protect our democracy and our social contract and for our economic wellbeing—and this legislation is critical to this mission. Before the election, we promised to deliver a national anticorruption commission as a priority, and now is our opportunity to do so before we rise this year. We can deliver on our promise to the Australian people, including the residents in my electorate that have so clearly expressed their frustrations.

Since being elected, we've gone straight to work. Drawing on the best elements of state and territory anticorruption commissions and laws, we've introduced the bill to establish the commission. We have taken a collaborative approach to informing and strengthening this bill. Comprehensive consultation has been undertaken with legal and integrity experts such as the Centre for Public Integrity, Transparency International Australia and the Law Council of Australia. The government has also held a series of roundtables and individual meetings. The Attorney-General's Department consulted with all relevant government departments and key agencies on the draft legislation, including the consequential and transitional provisions bill.

This bill is a reflection of listening and a product of consultation. The government has listened to feedback, and the amendments to the bill reflect this. On 10 November, the Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation handed down its advisory report on this legislation. It made six recommendations to strengthen the legislation, which were unanimously supported by the committee. The six recommendations include, firstly, extending protections to persons assisting a journalist in their work as a journalist from being compelled to identify or provide information that would assist to ascertain an informant's identity; secondly, providing the inspector with a proactive audit function limited to the commissioner's use of witness summons and arrest warrant powers; thirdly, expressly providing that the commission may commence an investigation on its own initiative; fourthly, permitting the disclosure of information that is subject to a non-disclosure notation to a medical practitioner or psychologist; fifthly, removing clause 8(1)(e), 'corruption of any other kind', from the definition of 'corrupt conduct'; and, finally, requiring the commissioner to advise a person of the outcome of a corruption investigation if the commissioner investigates the conduct of the person and has formed the opinion or made a finding that the person has not engaged in corrupt conduct.

These are sound recommendations, and the government has agreed to these amendments. Further to this, the government has agreed to most of the recommendations from the reviews of the legislation conducted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills respectively.

This approach of engagement, consultation, review and listening means that this bill was the strongest and most comprehensive integrity package before this place. It also means that it has the best chance of receiving the support of a majority of this parliament, something essential to restoring trust across this parliament.

Most importantly, the bill's principles, taken to the election, have been endorsed by the Australian people. For instance, we promised that our National Anti-Corruption Commission would cover a broad jurisdiction, with the capacity to investigate serious or systemic conduct across the Commonwealth public sector. This bill captures ministers, parliamentarians and their staff, statutory office holders, employees of all government entities and government contractors, and any person who attempts or conspires to improperly influence a Commonwealth public official.

The commission will operate independently of government, with a full suite of powers similar to those of a royal commission. It will have discretion to commence inquiries into serious or systemic corruption on its own initiative or in response to referrals. This includes from whistleblowers, who'll have strong protections, and there are exemptions for journalists to protect the identity of sources. It will have the discretion to undertake investigations of both criminal and non-criminal conduct and refer matters to another agency, or to take no action. It will be able to refer findings that could constitute criminal conduct to the Australian Federal Police or the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

Importantly, the bill grants retrospective powers. It will have the power to investigate allegations of serious or systemic corruption that occurred before or after its establishment. After what we have seen over recent years, and the diminishing public trust in government as a consequence, this is extremely important.

To restore public trust in government, it is also important for the commission to have the power to hold public hearings. This bill supports this power, granting public hearings in exceptional circumstances and where it's in the public interest to do so. The question of pubic hearings and this bill has been a source of some discussion and commentary recently. It's important that the structure of the public hearing function is done in a way that balances reputational and wellbeing safeguard considerations. It is worth looking into this matter a little further and in detail.

The commissioner's investigation function will be balanced with strong safeguards to ensure that corruption investigations do not cause undue damage to a person's reputation or wellbeing. These include requiring hearings to be held privately, unless the commissioner is satisfied that it is in the public interest and exceptional circumstances justify holding a hearing in public; requiring the commissioner to clarify the capacity in which a witness is appearing at a public hearing; requiring certain sensitive evidence to be received in private; provision for nondisclosure directions about a notice or summons, or to protect sensitive information; permitting disclosure of information that is subject to a nondisclosure notation to a medical practitioner or psychologist; an express ability for the commissioner to make public statements at any time to avoid damage to a person's reputation; and provision for the inclusion of statements in the investigation reports, where it is appropriate and practicable, to avoid damage to a person's reputation.

If the commissioner forms the opinion that a person has not engaged in corrupt conduct, a statement to that effect would be issued. Furthermore, if a person gives evidence at a hearing and is not the subject of any findings or opinions in relation to the corruption investigation, a similar statement to that effect would be issued. While I acknowledge that there may be different views on the question of hearings, the considerations of wellbeing and reputation are sound ones to guide us in considering these matters. In the pursuit of the guilty, we must not allow the innocent to be caught up as collateral casualties.

This bill ensures stringent oversight of the commission, establishing a parliamentary joint committee and an independent inspector of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The committee's oversight role will include reviewing the commission's performance and its annual reports. The inspector will deal with any corruption issues arising from the commission and complaints about the commission. The commission will also operate with procedural fairness, and its findings will be subject to judicial review. Collectively, these principles will establish a National Anti-Corruption Commission with real power and authority.

As promised before the election, this legislation is a priority for this government. Our goal is to have it up and running by mid-2023. Work is already underway to ensure that the commission is led by the most capable and qualified people, consistent with our commitment to restoring transparency and merit to statutory appointments. We've begun the search for Australia's first national anti-corruption commissioner. Any appointments will be subject to the passage of the National Anti-Corruption Commission legislation and approval by the parliamentary joint committee.

It will be well funded. As outlined in the budget, the government has committed $262 million over four years for the establishment and ongoing operation of the commission. This funding will ensure that the commission has the staff, capabilities and capacity to properly consider referrals and allegations, conduct timely investigations and undertake corruption prevention and education activities. This funding is very important to the proper functioning of the commission. We can present the best-designed organisation to the House and empower it with all of the necessary legislative powers—as we have—but, if we don't provide adequate funding for the operation and staffing of the commission, its powers will never be properly exercised.

Funding is such an important part of the story here. As I said, the government has committed substantial funding over the next four years for the establishment and ongoing operation of the commission. This funding is almost $90 million more than the previous government was publicly prepared to put forward. The funding will be critical to the operations of the commission. It will ensure that the commission has the staff, capabilities and capacity to triage referrals and allegations it receives and conduct timely investigations.

I'm proud of what we have achieved so far. We are on track to deliver what we promised to Australians and my constituents in Bean. This bill will establish a National Anti-Corruption Commission with real power and authority. Importantly, our approach consistently meets the path of cooperation and collaboration so that all Australians are heard. Ultimately, the agenda of this government is driven by us working to make sure that all Australians are heard. The establishment of a National Anti-Corruption Commission will begin the important work of restoring the faith of the Australian people in their parliament and government.

As I've said at the beginning of my contribution to this debate, this has been a long discussion. I look forward to seeing the support for this bill from right across the parliament.