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Speech: We need a National Independent Commission Against Corruption

Lee Rhiannon 25 Sep 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (15:38): At the request of Senator Milne, I move:

That the Senate calls on the Government to establish a National Independent Commission Against Corruption, delivered through an integrity commissioner, to ensure Australia is equipped with a national framework for the comprehensive prevention of corruption and misconduct, and to restore faith of the Australian people in the integrity of our democracy.

A national ICAC, a corruption watchdog, is well overdue. Evidence is mounting for this around the country, particularly in New South Wales. It is a time where we need leadership from the Liberals, Nationals and Labor on this. For too long these parties have worked together to thwart this happening. The leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Christine Milne, has taken this up on many occasions and has a bill before this parliament that would very quickly put this body in place. I put it to the senators in this chamber that it is time for leadership. It is a time for leadership rather than avoidance. That is because if there is not leadership from the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, sooner or later a scandal will push this onto the front pages and it will be clear to everyone. Then the need for a national ICAC will be unstoppable. That is why I put it to those from the coalition parties and the Labor Party that now is the time.

The backroom deals, the lobbying, the money trails that have been exposed at the New South Wales ICAC do not stop at the border. People often joke with me that things look pretty bad in New South Wales. Yes they do. But we know about them because we have a corruption watchdog. That corruption watchdog, with the work that it is doing, has already laid an important foundation and sent an important message to people in public life in New South Wales about how they should act and about standards. The public will not have any confidence in our federal parliament and Commonwealth institutions until we have this body in place.

I certainly acknowledge a lot more is needed, particularly around electoral funding reform. But more and more, the need for a national ICAC is going at the top of the agenda with regard to the need to protect our democracy. This is an issue that we have taken up many times. I would like to share with my colleagues in this place some of the evidence that is coming out before New South Wales ICAC that further underlines the need for this body at a national level. What we have seen as the hearings at ICAC have proceeded is that more and more the federal Liberals have been drawn into the orbit of this investigation.

On 7 August this year, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Federal Director of Liberal Party, Brian Loughnane:

…knew federal channels were being used to subvert NSW laws banning political donations from property developers.

That report goes on to say:

'Brian Loughnane has agreed that for the time being the Fed Sec will operate on the policy … in effect, there is no benefit for a NSW donor to donate via the Fed Sec, unless they are a property developer,' said federal Liberal executive Colin Gracie in a 2010 email to Simon McInnes, the finance director of the NSW Liberal Party.

This inquiry heard allegations that were very relevant to this issue. They set out that there was clear work undertaken, collusion, to divert money that could not be taken as donations in New South Wales. I acknowledge it is a grey area. But when money is consciously redirected through a national body, usually the Free Enterprise Foundation, that then goes back to New South Wales where it could not be accepted as a donation. That has been done by elected officials in a political party, in this case the Liberal Party. It certainly highlights some very serious behaviour, possibly breaking the law. I would certainly argue it is not of the standards we require in any political party.

The Sydney Morning Herald editorial on 7 August this year said:

Revelations last week at hearings of the Independent Commission Against Corruption have gone much further than merely highlighting that political graft runs across party divides in NSW. The highest levels of the state and federal divisions of the Liberal Party are being examined over how much they knew about what counsel assisting the ICAC, Geoffrey Watson, QC, alled the use of a Liberal-linked federal fund-raising body as a 'means of washing and re-channelling donations made by prohibited donors' to the 2011 state election campaign.

This is very serious. Some excellent work has been done in New South Wales to reform the electoral funding laws there. That came about after a decade of work by the community groups, by the Greens and by many independent voices. To their credit, Labor eventually heard that message and reformed the laws in 2009. That is when the ban came in on developer donations.

And then we have the 2011 state election. Everybody thought the Liberals were going to win because Labor were caught up in various scandals, but they got themselves involved in these very murky arrangements, which are now coming to light thanks to ICAC—again highlighting why we need these bodies to do the investigation but, most importantly, to lift the standards so that hopefully this sort of behaviour does not continue. To share with you some more reports, on 9 August, the Sydney Morning Herald stated:

This week ICAC's hearings produced a telling email between NSW Liberal Party finance director Simon McInnes and his federal colleague Colin Gracie—

That is the one I have just described. It goes on to say, because there was more information:

In it, McInnes raises the matter of a potential donor 'will who want [sic] to donate towards the NSW campaign (Banks) for this federal election but don't want to be disclosed in detail under NSW disclosure laws'.

That is another example of the same issue that I have raised, that there is a style of fundraising which developed in the lead-up to the 2011 election where we have collusion, where developers have given millions of dollars to Labor, Liberal and Nationals, when you add it up over about the last 12 years. So big money has come in.

Interestingly in that time in New South Wales you also saw a weakening of the planning laws, which made it much easier for developers to undertake everything from coal mines to shopping centres et cetera, with such little public involvement or scrutiny. So certainly some interesting trends have been going on there, but there has been a way of running election campaigns which has largely relied on a lot of money from a certain sector, in this case the developers. Then that is banned and we have this collusion at high levels within the Liberals and within the federal Liberals for this to be avoided. So that is one aspect of where the federal Liberals have been drawn into the New South Wales ICAC.

We also have some interesting examples on the New South Wales Central Coast. For a bit of background, we all would obviously remember the 2010 election, when then opposition leader Tony Abbott thought he was going to win. He did not win it and became quite furious with his own party, with the New South Wales Liberals, and particularly blames them because of the loss of the seats on the Central Coast—there were a couple of marginal seats there. So come to 2013 and he really wants to parachute his people into those seats. So here we have Karen McNamara and Louise Wiest, MPs from those marginal seats, who have been given the nod—however that works in the Liberal Party—who were parachuted in with the support of the Prime Minister. Where this becomes interesting is that some of these MPs have been very closely associated with a number of MPs and with some former Liberal state MPs who have got caught up in the New South Wales ICAC hearings.

Those hearings have covered a range of activities—I think it is up to 12 between state and federal Liberal MPs who have either resigned or stepped aside while these hearings are going on. In the case of the MPs on the Central Coast, what we see is that some of the candidates that the Prime Minister was very keen should run and did successfully run were closely linked with the campaigns of some of the MPs on the New South Wales Central Coast—either illegal or highly questionable with regard to raising political donations and then the campaign manager linked with that. I find it hard to believe that a campaign manager would not know that the donations being raised for a campaign she was linked with were problematic. We do not know whether that is the case. I am not suggesting that the Prime Minister knows about any of this but the problem we have is that, because of the lack of investigation and the lack of standards, people's reputations become tarnished and rightly or wrongly the public do not know. Then a great deal of cynicism develops and that takes us back to the issue of why we need a federal ICAC.

With regard to the federal ICAC, as I mentioned, Senator Christine Milne has brought a bill before the parliament about this issue. Back in May we tried to get that up but what we are seeing too often is that it is just not taken seriously. It seems as though Labor and the coalition are at one on this. Too often there is a revolving door between people who are one minute MPs and the next minute lobbyists, that there is a very unhealthy way these relationships play out. At the moment they can avoid scrutiny. When you have a corruption watchdog in place, it helps put the spotlight on and, I think, focuses people's attention on the fact that they are accountable, that when you are in public life you have been elected to serve, that you are being paid by the public, you are accountable to the public and surely there are certain standards which should be followed. That is why we say that we need to be serious about cleaning up politics.

The Greens proposal in our private member's bill calls for three new integrity officers: a national integrity commissioner, a law enforcement integrity commissioner and an independent parliamentary advisor. We are hoping to advance that private member's bill; for the moment, we are able to discuss the issue in this motion.

Surely it is time to hear, from Labor, the Nationals and the Liberals, not just excuses about why it is not needed and excuses—sadly, I have heard such the excuses from some Liberals—that all ICAC does is ruin people's reputations. That is not a good starting point. This needs to be taken seriously. What will work best at a federal level needs to be worked out.

I would argue that the New South Wales model is a very good one, because they can investigate and it has many more teeth than the Victorian model. Something like that is warranted. But if it is not going to be like that, at least come into the debate and say what form it should take rather than just rejecting it. I put it to senators that if you are going to say in this debate that a national ICAC is not needed—that it is not warranted and that the New South Wales ICAC is out of control, that it is just ruining reputations—that is not just damaging to yourselves and your party but is betraying our responsibility to strengthen the very democratic fabric that is so important to the running of our country.

We do need to restore confidence. Public confidence in the political process has been hit hard. That has been going on for many years, now. On a one-to-one basis—I say this across parties—a lot of us work very hard. When people get to know you they might have respect, but across the board there is a deep cynicism about the political process.

One of the things that makes me most sad—it is why I am so pleased that ICAC got into all these investigations—is that people often say to me, 'Why should I bother trying to influence and say my piece that I do not want this huge box of a shopping centre plonked in my little heritage township?' or 'Why should I even bother to try and resist this new coalmine application? Who is going to listen to me? They won't listen to me or pick up my phone call because I don't give lots of money.' Or people say, 'They're all corrupt.'

I am sure you have all had something similar said to you. This damage to the democratic fabric has been going on for years. I would say that that impacts on all of us. Again that brings us back to why we need a national corruption watch dog.

Let's get into the detail. It is time we started talking about what form that should take rather than just saying no. This very much goes to our accountability, our integrity and how we are perceived in the work that we undertake extensively throughout our communities.

I would also say that this is very urgent. We are now into the second half of the year. In a few months time we will be enjoying the lovely time of Christmas and the New Year, which is so wonderful in Australia. But for another year to go by—to get into 2015—when at a federal level we are still dragging the chain on this most important area is just not acceptable.

I also wanted to note that former Australian Greens leader, former senator Bob Brown raised the issue of a need for a national corruption watchdog when he was here. So the Greens have brought it up in the 42nd Parliament, the 43rd Parliament and, now, the 44th Parliament. To continue with these delaying tactics or a negative attitude to it will be a real set back. I hope that we can have some debate. I seek some indication that we can sit down and progress this issue.

It is important for the standards, not just of ourselves but of the Commonwealth agency and of public officials.  It needs to have that broad brush-stroke that we see in the New South Wales ICAC in terms of people who are associated with public institutions. And I would argue that it needs full investigative powers, including the ability to conduct public and private hearings and the ability to summon any person or agency to produce documents and appear before the commissioner. It should be able to conduct investigations, apply for and execute search warrants, and hold public inquiries. That is the type of federal ICAC we need. We need to ensure that the commissioner has the capacity to investigate cases where corrupt conduct is foreseeable, making the officer's role proactive in addressing corruption. We do not have that in the New South Wales ICAC but the experience at the state level shows that this is needed.

Sometimes you can anticipate where possible corruption could occur. For a national ICAC to have that proactive aspect to its work would be outstanding. It would give a lead across the country in improving the standards under which we all operate. I believe it would help change the culture so that people do not just think, 'I can get away with it. I can come up with this scheme where we funnel money. It's illegal to take it in one state but we will take it somewhere else—this time at a federal level—and send it back to the state.' It seems as though that is the culture in the federal Liberals and how they operated in the last state election. That is not good.

I congratulate the New South Wales ICAC for bringing it to light. It is a reminder why we need a national ICAC and why we need to raise our standards so that we change the culture and that we understand. We need to ensure that there is a widespread commitment to ensuring that our democratic process is protected and if there is a breakdown it can be investigated and we can restore the standards as quickly as possible.

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