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Speech: National Integrity Commission Bill 2013: Second Reading

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 16 Nov 2016

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (16:11): I rise to speak on the National Integrity Commission Bill. The trappings of power are dangerous. The more successful and powerful a politician is, the bigger the trap. Without an equally powerful institution to keep all of us in line, even well-intentioned politicians could get tempted by the power of their office. Everywhere you look there are questions asked about conflicts of interest between decision-makers and backers of major projects that require government funding or approval. This is just one way that problems can arise for politicians.

Many law and politics experts have noted policy trajectories favouring vested interests and have joined the call for a national anticorruption agency. The time for such an agency is long overdue. Our state parliaments worked on this, in some cases, many decades ago, and we are still dragging the chain. We are dragging the chain because Labor, Liberal and the Nationals too often unite together to stop the introduction of a commission that is well overdue.

A national anticorruption commission would be an independent statutory agency. The Greens proposal outlines the need for a National Integrity Commissioner, a Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner and an Independent Parliamentary Advisor. Surely we all know that the public interest is best served by a clear separation between politics and business. I would hope that that would be a starting point in how all politicians of whatever persuasion operate when they are elected. But we see that there are so many cases where politicians not only do not leave their business behind but also foster new practices or get into bed with businesses that have an interest in fleecing the public purse.

Recent revelations by state corruption watchdogs make it clear that there are corruption practices across Australia. They do not stop at state borders and they certainly are not ring fenced out of national politics. We know that confidence in the political process is low. We have seen that around the world with repeated examples, and we are not immune from it. We know that the public is increasingly cynical about politicians, whatever party they are from. When there are bad practices, it impacts on all of us and is a reminder of why we need greater accountability, and that means the need for a national corruption watchdog. So on behalf of the Greens I again put on record the urgent need for a national anticorruption commission to oversee anticorruption measures at a federal level in the same way that such commissions do at a state level.

At the recent federal election there were a number of incidents that reminded us of why such a commission was needed—examples which, if we had a commission, could have been referred there, good have been dealt with quickly, could have helped to give confidence to the public in terms of the politicians who put themselves forward for office. We saw Sophie Mirabella claim that the Indi electorate was denied hospital funding due to her 2013 election loss. At a candidates forum, Mrs Mirabella claimed that $10 million for a local hospital had been secured by her but the Abbott government pulled the plug when she was not elected. Is that how politics is done? Are those the deals that go down? That was a clear example that could have been investigated if we had a national anticorruption commission.

And then we heard of the possible fraud of Joe Hockey's Cabcharge account. Several questionable hire car rides were charged to Mr Hockey's Cabcharge account amounting to $10,000, according to research undertaken by Fairfax Media. And then it was alleged that the Liberal Democrats were offered a seat in return for $500,000 in donations. A written agreement shows that Roostam Sadri offered to donate to the Liberal Democratic Party in return for a position as the party's lead Senate candidate in South Australia. Significant evidence has also been uncovered that the Liberal Party used its own software company, Parakeelia, to recycle parliamentary entitlements into political donations. Questions were also raised over the role of a staffer who was employed at the coalition advisory service but was also allegedly doing work for Parakeelia. It is extraordinary using allowances in that way. It is a story that has fallen out of the headlines and, from what we know, is not being pursued. Certainly, it is a very clear example of what should have been investigated further so that we can ensure allowances—public money—are being used properly and the politicians in this place learn, and abide by, the standards that the public expects.

Evidence also came to light that the federal government removed Dr Lynn Simpson after she exposed cruelty and horrific conditions aboard live export ships. The then First Assistant Secretary of the Department of Agriculture's Animal Division, Karen Schneider, admitted the removal was because the live export industry expressed dissatisfaction with Dr Simpson. So here we have Dr Simpson, who is employed to carry out work on the ships, work that the government requires, and an external body, a business that is making money out of how the shipping of live exports is conducted, puts pressure on the government, which in turn sack somebody who is carrying out the work they are employed to do. There was no explanation and no investigation. Again, that is really unacceptable.

Now that we are considering the bill, it is worthy to put on record a scandal that Senator Bob Day has been caught up in that is relevant to this debate. As we know, there are many scandals associated with Mr Day, but the one that is relevant to this debate is the $2 million in funding granted to the North East Vocational College. The college was chaired by Mr Day. The grant equalled $90,000 per student. By comparison, the equivalent certificate IV in construction and building at TAFE costs just $12,000 per student. The money did not even go towards a student's tuition. The students were still forced to take out loans under the discredited VET FEE-HELP scheme. I understand that Minister Birmingham has denied any knowledge of this. But then a photo came out of him with Mr Day at the college. Clearly he has more information about that, so it would be useful to hear from him. But that will probably not occur because there is no central body to investigate these types of breakdowns in standards.

Just to add a little more on that case: we understand that, really, Mr Day was triple dipping. As well as getting this $2 million grant from the government, and as well as requiring the students to apply for VET-FEE HELP, he was also requiring employers to pay for the apprentices that were taken into the college he was associated with. The Electrical Trades Union has claimed that the money that came in from the government was tied to Mr Day's support for government bills while he was a senator. Again, we do not know of any discussions that went on behind closed doors, so it is understandable that people will speculate about these types of arrangements.

Again, this is very serious. Are votes being bought because of deals that are done and money that is exchanged? It is not something that people associate with Australia—that level of corruption. But we are starting to find some disturbing examples, and to say that it does not happen at the federal level is ludicrous.

These allegations, whether true or not, damage the reputation of all involved. I cannot emphasise that enough, and I do believe that all politicians in this place must recognise that. When we are out talking to the public we have those conversations with people who have become deeply cynical about how politics works and about our own individual activities as politicians. I am sure we all try to explain how the situation works, but it underlines the unhealthy aspect that is now occurring at the federal level because we do not have this national commission.

As former Labor senator John Faulkner noted, the perception of corruption can be just as bad as actual corruption. That is so important to reflect on. The public is wondering increasingly what the point is of participating in our democratic processes if they are rigged against them. This is particularly so in New South Wales, because we have had such a big problem with donations from developers of millions of dollars at the same time as the laws were being changed. Labor, Liberals and Nationals voted together to weaken the planning laws in New South Wales. People in communities were just fighting for a fair go and fighting for some decency—at least to be consulted. A lot of them would just say to me, seriously, 'We just want our turn—to be able to put our position and for there to be a fair judgement here.' The result so often was that they just became deeply cynical about politics.

One comment that was said to me on a number of occasions is, 'What's the point of engaging? I don't have the money that the developers have. Politicians won't listen to me, because I can't donate money. They're not going to pick up the phone when I ring, and I know they pick up the phone when the developers ring.' This is how things are playing out in our society because of this very serious failure at the national level to introduce a national corruption watchdog.

I believe that a federal anticorruption watchdog would give the public some confidence that their representatives are actually representing them fairly—that it is not loaded against them and that there are not other people in the room who have more power because they have money, they have influence or they have something over somebody. Transparency International supports a national anticorruption watchdog, as does the Law Council of Australia, the Accountability Round Table, the Governance Risk Compliance Institute and an associated investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security.

When you consider the very impressive line-up of organisations supporting a national anticorruption watchdog, the big question is: why do the major parties—the Liberal Party, the Labor Party and the Nationals—not support one? You have to ask the question: is it because they have interests that prevent them from making that step? This is 2016—why do they keep holding out on it? I believe it would be in the interests of the major parties in terms of improving their own standing, as well as doing something for the democratic process across Australia. I also argue it is in their interest to cooperate and weed out the corrupt people that damage the credibility of everyone, and those closest to that corruption are damaged most. We need a federal anticorruption body for both corrupt politicians, and those trying to do the right thing, to tackle real corruption and the perception of corruption. We need this body most urgently.

A national anticorruption commission would have extensive roles—and I will just finish up with some of the aspects of what it could undertake. It would investigate and work to prevent misconduct and corruption in all federal departments and agencies and corrupt behaviour by federal parliamentarians and their staff. The commission would deal with corruption in relation to public officials and federal agencies. It would have full investigative powers, including conducting public and private hearings, summoning any person or agency to produce documents and appear before the commission.

I congratulate our former leader, former senator Christine Milne, who did a great deal of work in this area. She was very passionate about it and she continues to advocate for it. It is something that the Greens feel very strongly about, and certainly we will continue to put it forward. But it really is about time that we had a combined position in this Senate. How can you keep saying no to a national anticorruption watchdog? The time to introduce it should be now. We are already running late on it. There are so many things that should have been investigated. It needs to happen now, and I look forward to the debate.

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