Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on the Commonwealth Integrity Commission

11 November, 2020


I've long been advocating for a Commonwealth integrity commission and was pleased to see that the funding allocated to the integrity commission from last year's budget remains. To the Attorney-General: I was also pleased that the average staffing levels to that commission stand at 76 people this year, according to the budget papers, and that is in addition to the 88 people that the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity already maintains. In last year's budget, I accepted there were 39 people allocated, because the budget papers said that the Commonwealth integrity commission would be established by 1 January 2020. Of course, it wasn't, and it still hasn't been. In fact, under the current government plans, it won't be until March next year at the earliest, in light of the extensive consultation phase announced. An average staffing level of 76 over the course of the financial year is a pretty big workforce to come on board between March and 30 June. While I welcome the commitment, it's difficult to see how these 76 people will be employed, given the government has just announced a six-month consultation process on an exposure draft that it first put out nearly two years ago and has not incorporated any of the feedback received since. I would like to use the opportunity to ask the Attorney-General for more detail on the proposed consultation process to better understand how those 76 people will be gainfully employed in that effort.

I would also like to ask the Attorney-General for a clearer picture of the time line, from the conclusion of the consultation process to the setting up of the integrity commission. The consultation conducted to date has been ineffective. I call on the government to accelerate that consultation time line and immediately incorporate provisions to enable public hearings, have greater avenues for referrals for whistleblowers and broaden the definition of 'corrupt conduct'. While consultation is necessary, this time line will delay the implementation of a Commonwealth integrity commission. The proposed model is very similar to the model that was already proposed back in 2018 and was widely condemned as not being strong enough.

I continue to support the member for Indi's bill, presented to parliament last month, in relation to the establishment of an Australian federal integrity commission. That bill has been through significant consultation and has support from a wide variety of judges and experts in integrity, as well as the Australian Federal Police Association, which is more than there appears to be for the Attorney-General's current draft legislation. The Australian federal integrity commission is significantly stronger than the model proposed by the government and addresses the concerns outlined. The government model presents two commissions: one for the public sector and another for law enforcement. The government model embeds a double standard, where parliamentarians and other public servants are held to a lower level of scrutiny than law enforcement officials. Law enforcement officials have a lower threshold for corruption and a different definition and may be exposed through a public hearing, while parliamentarians and public servants would not be.

Some of the key concerns with the proposed legislation include the lack of public hearings for the public sector integrity division, meaning that only the law enforcement integrity division would have the power to have public hearings. Parliamentarians and other public servants would not appear publicly. The definition of 'corruption' differs, depending on whether it is conducted by law enforcement or parliamentarians. 'Corruption' should be defined consistently and fairly, a broad definition of 'corrupt conduct' should apply, greater avenues for referral need to be permitted, and protections for whistleblowers need to be created to generate true public accountability and transparency. In the current definition and the referral pathways, this body would not be able to investigate recent events, such as sports rorts, the Leppington land sale or forgery of documents. The definition restricts the commission from investigating unless there is a reasonable suspicion of a criminal offence. This sets a very different standard to the public expectation and will preclude investigation into very important incidents. Attorney-General, will you reflect on the feedback and amend the model proposed?