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Adjournment Speech: National Commission to Fight Corruption

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 23 Nov 2016

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (20:37): 

On another matter, yesterday—it might have been today, actually, because we were here into the early hours of the morning—when we were debating the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 there were a number of votes, but one of the votes concerned the need to establish a national commission to fight corruption. Again, we saw the Liberal, National and Labor parties voting together to vote that down. I find that very disturbing. This keeps on happening in this parliament. There really is no movement from the major parties on this issue.

I thought it was timely to pull together a range of organisations and a range of prominent Australians who have so much experience in this area, who have made very clear contributions of the need for a national integrity commission or a national anticorruption watchdog—whatever you want to call it. It is time we worked through this. I want to share the range of support there is with the senators tonight.

Transparency International Australia has done extensive work in this area: a national integrity systems assessment, published by Transparency International Australia and Griffith University, recommended as far back as 2005:

… new independent statutory authority be tasked as a comprehensive lead agency for investigation and prevention of official corruption, criminal activity and serious misconduct involving Commonwealth officials …

Including members of parliament . You could not get it much clearer than that. Transparency International, to their credit, have been consistent in calling for such a body. In 2012 they, again, put forward the need for a national anticorruption plan and made a series of recommendations.

In 2014 Professor AJ Brown, then the head of Transparency International Australia, said, 'a stronger national anticorruption agency' was required and 'Most of the federal public sector continues to lack effective independent oversight.' There it is. That is still the problem today. That is why we keep raising the need for movement in this area. Professor Brown also commented, 'The Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity would need to be rolled into any new body or it would need to dovetail with it.' To quote him, 'There is no reason to continue to leave any Commonwealth agencies outside the jurisdiction of a properly resourced independent anticorruption agency.' He went on to say, 'The Commonwealth needs to make it a policy priority to get on with designing a comprehensive anticorruption agency structure that will work. There is no off-the-shelf model.' There is the challenge. Our job here as legislators is to make it work. Our job is to iron out those differences and get this body up.

The current head of Transparency International, Anthony Whealy QC, reiterated the call for a federal anticorruption body. He did that at the beginning of this year, following the release of the latest Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International. That call was similar to the call from the Law Council of Australia, which called for the establishment of a national commission in 2011. This was in a submission on Australia's compliance with the United Nations Convention against Corruption. It argued that existing criminal law enforcement had its place but was not on its own sufficient, and that ad hoc inquiries rely on political will at the time, meaning a standing national agency would be best placed to prevent and address evolving corruption risks. Again, it is another solid recommendations that we should be getting on and doing our job here.

The Accountability Round Table have also lent their voice to this, calling for the establishment of a national commission as the means to improve both coordination and leadership on anti-corruption. They have said that:

Each State in Australia now has an anti-corruption body. But by far the largest quantity of money, power and influence is in the control of the Commonwealth Government in Canberra. There is no reason to assume that the corrupting influences that exist in Sydney, Melbourne or Perth do not operate in Canberra, where the Federal government each year purchases tens of billions of dollars of goods and services ...

Then there is the comment from Professor George Williams, the Dean of Law at the University of New South Wales, who has long argued for a national integrity commission to fill the gaps that the state anti-corruption bodies are unable to address. He has said that:

The arguments for such a body are overwhelming. The litany of corruption and other scandals over a long period of time demonstrates that there is a need for a co-ordinated, national approach to anti-corruption. Past assumptions that corruption was limited to the state and territory level can no longer be sustained.

I acknowledge that there is a similarity in some of these comments but what is very clear here is that people who have such experience in the legal affairs of this country give enormous weight to the need for an anti-corruption watchdog.

Then there is Geoffrey Watson QC, former counsel assisting the New South Wales ICAC, who called for establishment of a national commission in 2015. He stated:

I am satisfied, based upon my work over four years with the two premier anti-corruption bodies in New South Wales—the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and the Police Integrity Commission—that we are grossly underestimating the nature and extent of corruption, and in our ignorance we are failing to compile sufficient information so that we can understand and assess its effects on our community.

He continued:

It is only my personal opinion, but I think it would be quite mad not to introduce a specific federal anti-corruption commission. One of the principal arguments put by certain Coalition senators in arguing against the Greens' bill when it was presented in 2013 was that the problem—that is, corruption in the federal sector—does not exist. That claim, if true, makes Canberra the only corruption-free place in Australia and—wait for it—the only corruption-free place in the world.

That is Mr Geoffrey Watson really putting it out there so clearly. It is ludicrous so many of the arguments that have been entertained when we debate the need for a national ICAC.

We also have David Ipp, a former commissioner of the New South Wales ICAC. In 2014 he called for the establishment of a federal anti-graft agency with the powers of a standing royal commission. Mr Ipp told Four Corners in 2014:

It is so screamingly obvious that there is a breakdown in trust at the moment. …The only way of maintaining trust or recovering the trust is to demonstrate that there are adequate means of discovering corruption so that the public can be confident that what the Government is doing is not tainted by dishonest behaviour.

Every time Labor, Liberal and National vote together. When senators representing those parties get up and speak against having such a body, they are flying in the face of such considered opinion.

Then there is Tony Fitzgerald, who headed the Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct in Queensland in the late 1980s. He backed Mr Ipp's call when saying:

I think it's self-evident. The people who go into state parliaments and the major political parties are the same people who go into federal parliament. … I cannot understand why they'd be corrupt at one level, or be corruptible at one level, and not at the other.

Then we have Graham Samuel, former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, who also backs a national anti-corruption body. Then there are numerous journalists who have worked very closely on this and done outstanding work in exposing the problems that we face. Bob Bottom, a retired investigative journalist who played a key role in the establishment of the New South Wales ICAC, is also a strong backer of a national body, as are Quentin Dempster, Nick McKenzie and Kate McClymont, all of whom have done such very important work in exposing issues in New South Wales. When you look at those issues in New South Wales and the corruption that has been exposed there, it flows over—there are so often links to the federal level. But those inquiries have not gone further, because we do not have that national body.

So the pressure is on for a national body. The evidence is overwhelming for a national ICAC. There is a big stumbling block when you have the two major parties working together and voting together to stop it. But the time will come and the embarrassment will be theirs. It is time for a national independent organisation to fight corruption at a national level.

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