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Speech: National Integrity Commission Bill 2013

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 15 May 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (10:18): I rise to support the National Integrity Commission Bill 2013 and congratulate the Australian Greens Leader, Christine Milne, on her comprehensive speech in which she detailed not just what this bill will do but why it is needed. There are so many examples that reinforce every day why a national corruption watchdog is so urgently needed. I believe that every politician in this parliament would know that there is deep cynicism among the public about the state of politics, about how politics work, about how decisions are made. Setting up a national ICAC would be a step towards restoring confidence in how politics works in this country and the standing of our democratic institutions.

Often in this debate the example of the New South Wales ICAC is given, a body that has certainly earnt its stripes. Time and time again the New South Wales ICAC has shone a light on the relationships between politicians, lobbyists and corporate backers—how that whole network of making decisions actually plays out. When you are on our side of politics it is something you do not often see, and certainly the public rarely see it. Because of the revolving door—somebody is a politician, or has been an adviser, or may be sitting on a board or even be a CEO—they are moving from one position to another, and that can often mean that there is a financial benefit.

We are seeing a response from politicians that something needs to be done about this, but my concern remains that a lot of that is just words to try and deflect the growing public concern. We have recently heard the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, promise that he will fight influence peddling and that he is going to crack down on lobbyists. But what does that really mean? We are yet to see the detail. But clearly so many measures need to be brought in, and it needs to sit under a national ICAC.

The Greens proposals call for three new integrity officers—a national integrity commissioner, a law enforcement integrity commissioner and an independent parliamentary adviser. Thee process that we need to develop does need to be very broad. Any commission will need to be empowered to investigate and expose allegations of corruption in the public sector. I emphasise that that should not just be among members of parliament; we need to include public agencies and departments, courts, public officials and all MPs. I note the speech that we have just heard from Senator Singh. I also note that the union leader Tony Sheldon recently called for a national ICAC and gave great emphasis to the need for there to be greater transparency, particularly with regard to financial donations. It is good news to see that there is a shift going on here because having a national ICAC is certainly overdue.

I have listened to the debate, and it is an area I have followed for a long time. In recent times I cannot help thinking whether, if there were a national ICAC, Senator Arthur Sinodinos would have the problems that he presently has. If this body were in place, as set out in the bill before us, the senator could have gained some advice and maybe he would not have made the mistake that came out on 23 February-he called it an innocent oversight that he failed to declare his directorship of various companies. But when you look at how issues are playing out in New South Wales with the evidence coming up before that state's ICAC with regard to other issues to do with Senator Sinodinos's work, again there is a national flavour here. It certainly reminds us why we need to have a body to be able to look into how decisions are made, where the influence is coming from, has money exchanged hands, has it been done in a proper way.

One of the decisions I have been asked about and which has been written about is the decision of the former Assistant Treasurer, Senator Sinodinos, with regard to the Future of Financial Advice. This was a set of reforms that Labor put in. It was limited but it was an important set of reforms essentially designed to prevent financial planners from hitting clients with commissions that the planners did not deserve. This Future of Financial Advice was also designed to reduce the risk of disasters like the one we saw with Storm Financial. When Senator Sinodinos held that position of the Assistant Treasurer, he effectively got rid of and moved to wind back the Future of Financial Advice. This is something that now warrants being very closely looked at because in the context of the current inquiry it starts to look like a pattern of rewarding those who would benefit at the expense of the public, the taxpayers and the consumers. This is a pattern we saw in New South Wales when the Greens were doing a lot of work exposing developer donations that were coming in in millions of dollars over the years to the Labor Party. People would often say to us, 'Give us an example of where that actually influenced some project being granted.' There were a couple of them but I acknowledge there was not a huge number. But what we did see was a change in legislation, in this case the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, a fine piece of legislation once upon a time. Through the 2000s it was gradually weakened by the Labor government, and then the coalition government in New South Wales to the great benefit of the coalition. This is the sort of thing that is so hard for the public, even investigative journalists, to be able to penetrate because of the limited reporting requirements currently. But we do not want it to happen, we want to change the culture, and having a national ICAC is an important step towards achieving that.

Another issue that is relevant to this is with regard to the Prime Minister himself. We are seeing that more questions are emerging about Mr Abbott's role in selecting Karen McNamara. She was the Liberal candidate and is now the Liberal MP for the seat of Dobell. It was reported that Mr Abbott was quite angry after the 2010 election because of the failure of the New South Wales Liberals to win a number of seats on the Central Coast where there are marginal seats and it was identified that that was one aspect of the coalition losing the 2010 election. So coming up to the 2013 election the pressure was on to find candidates and Mr Abbott favoured Ms McNamara. What is interesting here is that it is reported that the Prime Minister was behind the decision of the New South Wales state executive on 20 April 2012 to appoint Ms McNamara. However, three months before that senior Liberals had received complaints of an unreported donation on the Central Coast that is implicated with Ms McNamara. Many of you would have heard all the details of this at ICAC. Here we have again national issues involving national political parties, possibly reaching to the higher levels of one of our major parties. Again it underlines why a national ICAC is needed.

What we are seeing here is a very murky way money moves around Labor and the coalition. Much of the evidence that is coming before the state ICAC involves these associated entities, bodies associated with political parties, and so often the money is not properly reported. It is a reminder not only with regard to the issue we are immediately dealing with here about consistency of corruption watchdogs between the state and federal level but also that we need consistency in the laws governing political donations, because these two issues are very much coming together at the state ICAC. So much of the evidence is now on the aspect where we have laws in New South Wales that limit the donations that can be given by corporations, and we know that federally we do not have those laws in place. It looks like so much of how the donations coming to the Liberal Party were working is that they would be ostensibly coming to the federal body, which is legal, but then being funnelled to the state Liberal body because that was the way they could get money in there. It is illegal for a New South Wales political party to take money from developers and various other corporations and there are certainly limits in place. So we are getting into a very murky world there.

To give you some examples of that, property developers like Harry Triguboff and Westfield donated to the Free Enterprise Foundation and they said the funds were for the federal Liberal Party. But counsel assisting ICAC, Geoffrey Watson, has said that the Millennium Forum executive director, Paul Nicolaou, told the Free Enterprise Foundation that many of these donors wished their funds to go to the state party. Again it is a reminder of why we need consistent laws with regard to political donations. We need the bans and the caps in place on election expenditure, we need much greater transparency in disclosure of those political donations and we need the national ICAC. Bringing those reforms in would be an important step to bringing greater confidence back to our democratic process.

Clearly corruption is not isolated to New South Wales. I can understand why people laugh about the situation going on with some of the extraordinary evidence, but we are hearing that because we have a corruption watchdog that is able to undertake investigations and is able to expose these crimes. Obviously that is the first stage in restoring confidence in the democratic process. The public interest is best served by the clear separation between politics and business—and, to achieve that, we need a national ICAC. I certainly commend this piece of legislation. It is long overdue.

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