SHADOW MINISTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
MEMBER FOR ISAACS
MONDAY, 2 NOVEMBER 2020
SUBJECTS: National Integrity Commission; Australia Post.
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Almost two years after the Government promised to start with legislation to establish a National Integrity Commission, today the Attorney-General has unveiled an exposure draft bill which he says would lead to the establishment of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission.
Unfortunately, this bill, in the short time that we have had to look at it, appears to be essentially the same as the model that the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General unveiled in their discussion paper back in December 2018.
It is good that after months and months of demands from Labor the Government has finally brought forward this exposure draft, but it is tragic that the Government has
brought forward a bill that would do no more than establish a sort of integrity commission that you have when you don't want to establish an integrity commission.
Let's remember that the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, described a National Integrity Commission as a “fringe issue” in late 2018, just weeks before he stood up with the Attorney-General, Mr Porter, and announced that they were in fact going to move to establish an integrity commission. Regrettably, they seem to not have listened to the avalanche of criticism that descended on their proposal after December 2018. They have not listened to the criticisms that said that you need to have public hearings. They have not listened to the criticisms that said that you cannot just investigate criminal offences. They have not listened to the criticisms that said that an integrity commission that is worth its name must be able to start its own investigations.
Instead, what we have here unveiled by the Attorney-General, is still the model of an integrity commission that was described by many commentators as a sham, was described by former Court of Appeal Justice Stephen Charles as a feather duster. This is an integrity commission that would not be able to start its own investigations. It’s an integrity commission that for most of its activities would not be able to hold public hearings. It’s an integrity commission that would be limited to not making findings of corrupt conduct, limited to investigating only criminal offences, and I think everybody who has watched the wave of allegations about dodgy conduct by this government understands very well, corrupt conduct is a far wider concept than simply criminal offences.
So it is very disappointing that after all of this time this is the best that the Commonwealth Government has been able to come up with. We will be pursuing a proper, strong, independent integrity commission in every step that we take from here on in.
It is ironic that just last week the independent Member of Parliament Helen Haines unveiled her own model of an integrity commission bill which, of course, does not have this long list of deficiencies that this particular exposure draft suffers from.
It is quite apparent that the Morrison Government does not want to have proper investigation, it does not want to have proper investigation of all of the scandals that we have now come to associate with this government. Think Sports Rorts, think the use of the forged document by Angus Taylor and a whole list of other activities that have been swept under the carpet by this government.
It is the kind of integrity commission, unfortunately, that you get when you don't want to have a proper integrity commission and we will be pushing very, very hard to make sure that when Australia gets an integrity commission - and if it has to wait for the election of a Labor Government, so be it - when Australia gets an integrity commission it will be a proper integrity commission, one that is worth its name.
JOURNALIST: Is this better than nothing? Starting at a point that can be strengthened from here at least?
DREYFUS: The history of integrity commissions, and all states of Australia and both territories now have integrity commissions, is that very often the model that was initially introduced had to be upgraded, beefed up. And of course it is better that we have an integrity commission and if this government manages to persuade
crossbench Members of the Senate that they should favour its inadequate model, then a future Labor Government will certainly commit to giving Australia the proper integrity commission, the powerful and independent integrity commission that we should have.
JOURNALIST: Is it a bit of a toothless tiger? Is that what Labor is saying?
DREYFUS: It’s an integrity commission that does not follow all of the lessons that have been there to be learned over the last three decades or so as state after state and both territories, have established their own integrity commissions. We have seen the good work that has been done by integrity commissions across Australia to stamp out corruption in public life, to stamp out corruption in administration, to stamp out corruption among parliamentarians. That is why we want a National Integrity Commission at the federal level. And it has got some good aspects to it but it does not have, as the Attorney General has just said at his press conference this afternoon, more powers than a royal commission. That is simply not right. A royal commission is not prohibited from holding public hearings. This integrity commission would be, except apparently for investigations of police officers. The Attorney-General hasn’t explained why it is acceptable to have public hearings for investigations about police officers but not acceptable to have public hearings into other government officials.
It's limited in other ways as well. Royal commissions are not limited to simply investigating criminal offences. They have got much broader powers so I'm not sure why it is that the Attorney-General has made, what appears from where we are standing, to be a false claim that this proposed integrity commission has got more powers than a royal commission.
JOURNALIST: What do you make of that, the idea that there may be public hearings into the public sector?
DREYFUS: I find it shocking to suggest that you would establish a National Integrity Commission and deprive it of the possibility of holding hearings in public.
Of course there are dangers to the reputations of public officials who are accused of wrongdoing in integrity commissions. But commissions have shown that they are capable of dealing with those reputational consequences. Commissions have shown that they are capable of protecting witnesses who come before inquiries, not as people accused of wrongdoing, but simply assisting commissions with their inquiries. And because of that experience of the past three decades or so of state and territory integrity commissions I think we should certainly be providing for public hearings by this National Integrity Commission. And that is because public hearings encourage witnesses to come forward, public hearings educate the public, public hearings build confidence in the integrity of our public administration which is, of course, why we establish integrity commissions in the first place.
JOURNALIST: Christian Porter said today that he wants the existing court systems as the final arbiter of corruption, is that appropriate?
DREYFUS: No-one would suggest that integrity commissions, any more than royal commissions, should make findings of criminal guilt. That is a matter for the courts and it must remain a matter for the courts. But we've found, by decades of experience, that there is tremendous public good that can come from holding public hearings, having a powerful integrity commission that is able to investigate corruption, able to investigate wrongdoing in public administration. So there are two very different things and regrettably the Attorney-General of Australia seems to be mixing up those two things. Integrity commissions serve one purpose. Courts of course, over centuries, have served a different purpose.
JOURNALIST: Do you think, perhaps, the integrity commission should have the power to instigate its own inquiries?
DREYFUS: Absolutely. We have said that from the outset. When Labor committed to establishing a National Integrity Commission in January 2018, we outlined principles and one of those is that the commission must be able to self-start. The commission must be able to respond to tipoffs, to information that it obtains, sometimes anonymously, sometimes from whistleblowers who are prepared to be named but need protection. Either way an integrity commission that is worth its name must be able to act on its own motion. It must be able to start its own investigations. The model that Mr Porter is putting forward here would prevent this integrity commission, if it is established in the form he proposes, from starting its own investigations and that simply is wrong.
JOURNALIST: And just say this does pass through the Parliamentary processes, how soon do you expect this will be in place?
DREYFUS: Well, the timetable is a matter for the Government, obviously, but the way in which this Government has dragged its feet over the past several years now, being dragged kicking and screaming to committing to an integrity commission - which is what it did at the press conference held by Mr Morrison and Mr Porter on the 13th of December 2018 - it has now been dragged kicking and screaming to producing this exposure draft of its inadequate integrity commission.
How soon it proposes to act is anyone's guess but the form of this government's past conduct suggests that they won't be doing anything anytime soon. They clearly don't want a powerful integrity commission investigating the activities of this government. They don't want a powerful and independent integrity commission investigating the scandals that are now surrounding this government. They don't want the stench of corruption that is around this government to be cleared away anytime soon. So the short answer to your question is I'm not holding my breath for the Government to get on with the job of establishing what Australia sorely needs, which is a powerful and independent integrity commission.
JOURNALIST: What is your reaction to Christine Holgate?
DREYFUS: I just heard this when I was standing up to the press conference. There are many broader issues at Australia Post than the departure of the Chief Executive Officer. Those broader issues are around the regulations that the Morrison Government brought in to provide slower, less reliable service to the ordinary people of Australia. I think ordinary people in Australia are much more concerned about losing daily postal deliveries and the intermittency and irregularity that is now infecting the postal service than they are about the issues concerning the CEO.