Right now, we have a once-in-a generation opportunity to create the best possible anti-corruption commission to future-proof the democratic institutions we all rely on. Senator David Shoebridge explains why the Greens are committed to achieving that before the end of the year.
By David Shoebridge
In politics there are critical moments when major changes can happen. Right now is that moment for a national integrity commission – the public demands it and we finally have a Parliament that is willing to deliver it.
This is a once-in-a generation opportunity to create the best possible National Anti Corruption Commission (now called a ‘NACC’) that will future-proof the institution from this or any future government that seeks to avoid scrutiny.
The Greens are committed to using our expanded numbers in the Federal Parliament to create a powerful, fully resourced and independent NACC before the end of the year. This is a promise we made to our supporters in the election and we now have just a few short months to get this done this year.
The good news is that the Labor Government is also committed to this timetable. Labor has stated that they want a serious NACC with many of the features needed for it to succeed. This includes giving the NACC powers to compel the release of information, retrospective jurisdiction to look at past misdeeds, and the ability to make reports and recommendations when it finds serious or systemic corruption.
The bill they have tabled is a solid starting point in delivering on this promise, and as I write this we’re holding a comprehensive Parliamentary inquiry into this bill. After two days of our five-day hearing schedule I can already say that there is a really strong consensus among civil society that some critical changes are required to deliver on the public mandate for change.
The first issue is the need for far less restrictions on public hearings, and this means removing the proposal to only allow a public hearing in ‘extraordinary circumstances’. There is strong evidence about the key role of public hearings in fighting corruption. Public hearings deliver public accountability, they have a proven capacity to bring other key witnesses forward, they foster public understanding about the work of an integrity commission, and they allow for efficient hearings with procedural fairness for all witnesses.
This does not mean all corruption hearings should be in public, and most witnesses and commentators have supported only having them when the Commission decides that they are in the public interest. As I’ve said before, sunlight is a great disinfectant. As Greens we know the critical role of transparency and accountability, and we’ll be working hard to rebalance the proposed bill to deliver on this as far as public hearings are concerned.
The second key issue raised by witnesses, and of core concern to us, is the failure to allow the new federal ICAC to investigate the conduct of all third parties who seek to improperly influence government policy or decisions.
The proposed model will likely leave the federal ICAC unable to consider the role of donations in buying policy outcomes from the government of the day. Many experts have also said the bill is drafted so that the new NACC may not be able to consider the offensive practice of pork barrelling. This clearly needs fixing.
Another key issue that has been raised is ensuring independent funding and oversight. You cannot have an independent NACC if its purse strings are controlled by the government of the day. I have witnessed this up close in NSW where successive governments have refused the ICAC’s budget requests, deliberately limiting its budget that has the effect of restricting the ICAC’s ability to hold them to account.
Lastly, when we get a NACC, and courageous whistleblowers finally have somewhere to take their concerns, we need to protect those whistleblowers. We are assured that before the NACC begins operation there will be a comprehensive reform of the Protected Interest Disclosures Act with a view to ensuring appropriate protections are in place. This is a core reform that we will be collaborating with Labor on to deliver a best practice scheme. We know that too often whistleblowers are targeted by well resourced government agencies for the crime of telling the truth, while the actual wrongdoing is ignored. That clearly cannot continue.
Let’s hope that we collectively grapple with these issues from the point of view of the public interest rather than the destructive partisan bickering of the last Parliament. So far I’m optimistic: we are so much closer to delivering a NACC than ever before, and we are working hard with stakeholders across the spectrum to get this done.
With a new Parliament, a new government, a bunch of new independents and the Greens with the balance of power in the Senate this is a unique chance for essential national reforms. Where we land with the NACC will be the first test of this.
David Shoebridge is a Greens senator for NSW.
Hero image: via Wikimedia Commons.