a strong federal integrity body is long overdue

Earlier this year I distributed a publication in which I stated:

With perceptions of corruption in Australia increasing the erosion of public trust in institutions and the advent of an increasing number of political scandals, there are growing calls for a better national integrity commission than the one proposed by the government.

I further noted:

Being from New South Wales, I’m conscious of the need to heed the lessons from the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, which was used to settle factional scores and destroy careers. However, the role of such a body needs to uncover corruption and expose it publicly.

Some state bodies have powers which the police and prosecuting authorities do not have, including the power to force people to answer questions which may incriminate them but which are often inadmissible in court. Clearly this is overreach and not synonymous with the intent of our justice system. I maintained that public hearings with appropriate safeguards are important but stressed that, most importantly, there be no special treatment for politicians and their staff.

Much has happened this year which has only reinforced my view that a federal integrity body is overdue. 

In November 2020, a report was issued by Griffith University and Transparency International Australia which set out how Australia should build a stronger, fairer and more accountable system of government. Its lead author was Professor AJ Brown from the Centre for Governance and Public Policy. It was funded through the Australian Research Council and included contributing researchers and authors from across Australia. The introduction reads as follows:

In every country, a strong system of public integrity and accountability is essential to meet the public’s expectations of trustworthy, ethical and effective governance. Once an international leader, Australia’s efforts to fight corruption, undue influence and protect the integrity of democracy have been slipping. Nationally — even when individual states or territories are showing the way — Australia is now failing to keep pace. A new federal integrity commission is a crucial step in creating a better and world leading system.

I have observed over the years the NSW ICAC claim political scalps. Political hit jobs saw innocent people tried in the court of public opinion. However, those examples are outweighed by the investigations that led to criminal prosecution and jailed four perpetrators. Where we have seen resignations, I remind the Senate that those resignations resulted from consideration by the persons in question. In reaching their decisions, those persons no doubt assessed their position based not only on public information but also — and I have no doubt — on information within their own purview and legal advice.

In a media release dated November 26, 2021, the Law Council of Australia called for ‘moderation in the debate over the proposed federal anti-corruption commission after comments comparing the NSW ICAC to a “kangaroo court” in the context of an ongoing inquiry. The council’s comments are salutary:

We feel strongly there must be robust debate and detailed consideration given to the establishment of a federal anti-corruption commission and we welcome the opportunities the Commonwealth has provided for organisations and individuals, including the Law Council, to provide input and views…

Its president said:

Respect for legal institutions underpins the administration of justice in Australia. The structure and powers of any commission are important topics for discussion, but any commentary must be tempered by fairness and balance.

In October 2021, the Centre for Public Integrity issued a discussion paper, a useful analysis of state and territory integrity commissions. It concludes:

… the strongest and most effective integrity commissions in NSW and Queensland share the following powers:

  • The ability to investigate any conduct of any person that affects the impartial exercise of public administration. This allows investigation of those outside the public service who seek to unduly influence public decision-making, and does not limit investigations to criminal conduct
  • The ability to commence own-motion investigations
  • The ability to hold public hearings if in the public interest
  • The ability to make findings and report publicly.

The analysis finds that none of these powers feature in the draft CIC model put up by the Commonwealth, rendering it ‘the weakest and least effective integrity agency in the country”, potentially.

Politics is about perception and, regrettably, the public perception of our politicians is not good. Repeatedly politicians from local, state and federal ranks have acted without integrity and contributed to the ongoing and deteriorating perception of the body politic.

In any survey about the most trusted professions in our society, politicians usually rank among the lowest, and why wouldn’t this be the case given the continued exposure of questionable activities over the years? Whether it’s alleged lies in election campaigns, dodgy preselections, misappropriation of public monies, personal benefits resulting from insider information, monies sequestered in overseas tax havens, abuse of office for personal advantage, dodgy land deals or connections with foreign governments. The list goes on and on.

In conclusion, those who resist the introduction of an effective federal integrity body raise people’s curiosity. One has to ask the question: are they conflicted? Why are they resisting the implementation of such a body? And when we speak of integrity, I’m once again reminded of the words of Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and philosopher: “If it is not right, do not do it. If it is not true, do not say it.

This is an edited extract of NSW Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells’ speech to the Senate during the adjournment debate on November 30, 2021.

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