Helen Haines
The NACC is about vigilance

When former independent member for Indi Cathy McGowan introduced her bill in November 2018 to create a national integrity commission, then prime minister Scott Morrison dismissed it as a “fringe issue”.

Less than three weeks later, he would unveil his model for what he called the Commonwealth integrity commission.

The former prime minister would go on to delay and distract on the matter for almost four years. Over that time, we spoke regularly about the need for an integrity commission. I am not sure he ever truly understood how deeply the Australian people valued this reform.

What he failed to understand was the will for an integrity body went right to the heart of what we consider a core Australian value – the fair go for all. Australians were sick of seeing behaviour in the halls of power that not only breached that value, but trampled all over it.

It wasn’t just the scandals themselves; it was the apparent lack of consequences for those in power for their wrongdoing. Each scandal contributed to a gradual erosion of trust, not only in Australian politicians, in government, but in our democracy.

At the last election, voters showed this was in no way a “fringe issue”, but one of ultimate importance across the political spectrum. The polls overwhelmingly showed Australians wanted a cop on the beat, an integrity watchdog.

The Labor government was elected last year promising to legislate its own model, and it was with similar pledges to uphold a better standard of politics that we saw the election of the largest crossbench since Federation. I committed to maintain the pressure for integrity on the Albanese government, just as I had with the Morrison government.

This week, the National Anti-Corruption Commission finally opened its doors. It’s an enormous step in restoring trust in federal government. As described by the inaugural commissioner, Paul Brereton, on Monday, it is the “realisation of an aspiration of the people of the Commonwealth”.

This achievement should not be underestimated.

The NACC will be independent of government, with broad jurisdiction to investigate serious or systemic corruption. Alleged corruption referrals do not need to meet a bar of criminality to warrant an investigation. This is important if we are to shine a light on unethical behaviour and blatant pork-barrelling.

The commission has the ability to compel witnesses to provide evidence, to hold public hearings and to initiate an investigation based on a referral from anyone, or of its own initiative. Its remit includes members of parliament, their staff, members of the Commonwealth public sector and contractors to government. It will be overseen by an independent inspector and a parliamentary committee, on which I am proud to serve as deputy chair.

Each of these features represents a tussle for this watchdog to be both tough and fair, to hold appropriate powers where needed, and protect those who have done the right thing.

There are some ways in which this body falls short of my aspirations – among them is the high bar for public hearings and the missed opportunity for a more independent parliamentary committee – but on balance, this is a strong institution that will serve our democracy well.

While the Labor government is to be congratulated for legislating within months of the 2022 election, this achievement is not Labor’s alone. Without the pressure from the crossbench, including Greens and independents, this robust NACC would not have come to fruition.

That pressure is more than just commentary from the sidelines. By working diligently with civil society and across the aisle, a series of bills for an integrity commission were introduced into the parliament. The Greens’ bill, introduced by Larissa Waters, actually passed the senate in 2019. In the debate over my Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill in late 2021, the Liberal member for Bass, Bridget Archer, crossed the floor – a catalytic moment in this journey. The pressure got to the Coalition that day. Their chaotic parliamentary performance became increasingly desperate, as their leader brazenly denigrated existing integrity bodies across the nation in question time.

So, what next for the NACC and for integrity reform more widely?

For the NACC, we must allow it to do its work. We know it received 44 referrals before even a full day of business was completed. Working through each referral properly will take time. Justice Brereton said priority will be given to investigating matters “that have current practical relevance, rather than those that are historic”.

Already this week there have been accusations and warnings about “politicising” the body. My independent colleague Andrew Wilkie has even suggested MPs who make referrals should keep them secret to protect against such politicisation. How each MP contributes to political discourse around the NACC will be something for us all to consider carefully.

Protecting against the politicisation of the NACC is more than a warning against tit-for-tat referrals and should be a top priority for all members of parliament. As a pillar in improving trust in government, we must also ensure the public can trust the NACC. For years to come we must be vigilant against attempts to dilute or disempower it through legislation, to cripple it with funding cuts, or obfuscate its work through court battles.

These examples do not come from my imagination – we have seen all of them in various states across the country already. This is why the parliamentary committee must be strong and willing to speak up against the government of the day if it threatens the independence or effectiveness of the NACC. We must also hold the NACC to account – its powers are great, and with that comes great responsibility to use them judiciously.

I was heartened on Monday to hear Justice Brereton speak of the commission’s role in “ensuring that the public service embraces a pro-integrity culture”. The role of the NACC isn’t simply to investigate and report on corruption but also to promote better practices in integrity and governance. This work will happen in offices across the public service, guarding us against scandals of the future.

While we must guard against potential attacks on the commission, we must also guard against complacency, both in politics and wider society. With the NACC in operation, we must not pack up our tools and congratulate ourselves on a job well done.

The work of integrity is never finished.

There are many reforms across the integrity landscape that we must now look to, to complement the work of the NACC and to reinforce to the Australian people that we, as politicians, understand we must do more to earn and to keep their trust.

We urgently need better safeguards for whistleblowers, and the creation of a whistleblower protection commission. The NACC will not be able to function fully without this. This is an area in which Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has committed to doing more work and I look forward to working constructively with him again.

Reform around the way political donations influence our elections is already under way. The joint standing committee on electoral matters has handed down a report recommending the threshold for declaring political donations be reduced to $1000 and “real time” disclosure requirements be put in place. The committee also recommended the Australian Electoral Commission be empowered to administer truth in political advertising legislation to crack down on misinformation and disinformation during election campaigns.

Among the 15 recommendations from the committee were caps on donations and expenditure in political campaigns. While worthy in principle, such measures must not be implemented in a way that reinforces the dominance of the major parties or rewards those with the privileges of incumbency. It is here the role of independents and minor parties will be vital to a fair and robust debate. After all, it is the crossbench that has led on electoral reform through private member’s bills over successive parliaments.

It is not only during elections that we must see action on integrity and governance – The Australia Institute’s Bill Browne has compiled a list of no fewer than 40 possible democratic reforms that should be tackled in this term of parliament, covering everything from the way the parliament itself runs to the way in which the ABC is funded.

The crossbench is developing more reforms that challenge “business as usual”, including a bill from the independent member for Mackellar, Sophie Scamps, to prevent jobs for mates, with more to come from other independents on issues such as lobbying.

Integrity is the bedrock upon which trust in our democracy is held firm and that enables our elected leaders to make the right decisions, not just the politically easy ones. Trust in government is key to us as a nation moving cleverly and ethically on the issues of our time, such as climate action, housing and aged-care reform.

This week was a turning point in the struggle for integrity in federal politics. We must keep moving, be ever vigilant and never stop working to be better.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "No more ‘business as usual’".

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