Zali Steggall NACC: public hearings in exceptional circumstances

24 November 2022


I also commend the member for Indi for her amendment and all the members of the crossbench, and many in this parliament, who have been advocating for so long for sunlight to finally hit at federal level when it comes to integrity and anticorruption. We must have a strong national anticorruption commission, and throughout the last parliament and this parliament there has been much discussion about this.

What we have now before the parliament is a good bill—I commend the Attorney-General for that—but it is not a great bill. This is not capturing that opportunity to genuinely, truly deliver to the Australian people what they asked for at the election, which is public integrity and accountability. The threshold test of the commissioner needing to be satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances and in the public interest means, as the Victorian IBAC submission to the inquiry identified, that on top of the normal circumstances of corruption and integrity questions that are being investigated, the circumstances must be, in addition to that, exceptional in nature to then justify a public hearing. It is really important for the public to understand the high bar of this threshold.

What this also means, because it is not defined—the Attorney-General wants to leave this to the broad discretion of the commissioner—is that it is open to legal challenge. So what is likely to happen—and this is a broadly held view—is that in very few instances will a commissioner risk litigation by actually finding 'exceptional circumstances' and 'public interest' and going for public hearings. You can just see the simplicity of the route. The route will be: you keep it private, and an investigation can proceed, but the public will be in the dark. The public will not know what comes out of that investigation, and that is directly contradictory to what the public wants. In the circumstances of finding 'exceptional circumstances', you will then see litigation. That will be challenged in court. It will be held up. It will go all the way to the High Court, and the public, again, will not see the outcome of investigations.

At the election in 2022, I don't think there could have been any clearer or louder call that the public has had enough. They have had enough of politicians at the federal level being held to a different standard than everyone else. They want to see integrity returned to this place. For that, we have an opportunity. This is a moment in time. It's a culmination of a lot of work, and I urge the Attorney-General to really consider stepping up to the plate at this moment in time to make this a great bill and to endorse this amendment.