National Anti-Corruption Commission - first step to regaining public trust

An envelope is passed between hands under the table

*Speech delivered on 28/11/2022.

Imagine that: the speaker's list falling. It wouldn't have anything to do with those exceptional circumstances! 

I thought all 76 of us would be running in here, happy to speak about this, throwing out there how great it is. How disappointing! I can tell you, the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022 and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2022 have been a long time coming. Thank you, Helen Haines. What a wonderful job you've done.

The bills are far from perfect. When Senator Tyrrell and I had a look at them, we said to each other: 'They are not perfect. They could be better.' But is there any way in the world we would vote them down? It is not a question that even needs asking. That's the thing about these bills, and it's the thing about being on the crossbench: most of the time we don't get to decide between the perfect and the imperfect. We deal in shades of grey. I can assure you that 50 Shades of Grey is nothing compared to what dealing with shades of grey in here looks like. There's a whole lot of grey here, and this isn't everything it could be. You could say it's not everything it should be. But it's something, and that's a hell of a lot more than what we'd have if we voted this down. Governments don't like changing their own bills if they can avoid it, even if it means making them better. When you have an opposition that are shivering in their boots about what this bill would end up looking like if the crossbench had their way with it, you have the recipe for a free kick. That's what we have here.

The Liberals and Nationals don't want a strong National Anti-Corruption Commission, because they don't want a strong National Anti-Corruption Commission coming after them. That's what's happening here. They're so terrified that they're going to vote to defang this thing before it even gets out of the kennel. That is why they're voting with the government to make it harder for the commission to do anything. This is what the public needs to understand about this anticorruption commission. We only hear about anticorruption commissions when they're in the process of busting corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. If you're corrupt, you should be busted.

It's good that state anticorruption commissions are onto them, but actually the real value in these commissions isn't what they do to politicians; it's what they do to the public. You see, it's what the public thinks about politicians that matters to politicians. You can say, 'Of course it is; they're all as bad as each other,' but politicians care about what the public thinks in good times and in bad, and, believe it or not, you should care as well. Whenever there's a big problem, one that requires politicians to fix, it's hard to fix it when the public thinks politicians are all a pack of so-and-sos. If nobody trusts politicians but we're relying upon politicians to fix things, what do we do when one of them comes up with a fix? We say, 'It sounds way good to be true.' We say, 'What's in it for them?' We say, 'They can't be trusted, so we shouldn't support it.'

If you can't trust politicians you don't get solutions from politicians, because politicians can't do anything if you don't trust them to get the job done. There's a certain degree of trust that's required to make big reforms. You need to trust that, when things look a bit uncertain, there's a plan in place. Sometimes, reforms break things. Sometimes, you have to break a few things to get to a better place. Life was never meant to be easy. Welcome to the real world.

There's always that bit mid-jump when you're not rising and you're not falling; you're just hanging in mid-air, at a standstill, and it's not clear whether you're going to land it. It's right then that you need the confidence that comes from knowing that you're in good hands. Politicians rely on that trust when they want to make a big change. It's the trust that made the gun buyback possible. The GST, the NDIS, the Prices and Incomes Accord—you don't get big changes without trust that the people making those changes have your best interests at heart.

That's what we have lost, like a trickle out of the bottom of a leaky bucket, slow and steady. Slowly but surely, it's drained out of this place and the people who sit in it. People think we're all corrupt, by the way. They think we're all up to our necks in the gravy train, and we're just lapping up the donations and the dodgy deals. Sometimes they have a great point. But most people aren't crooks. Most people are just here to try and have an honest crack at making people's lives better. And when we lose trust in them, my word, we lose out ourselves. That's why we need anticorruption commissions—because just knowing there's a cop on the beat is supposed to make us safer, even if we never need them. And, by the way, they are a deterrent to make you think twice. Seeing them haul in a bad politician every now and then reminds us that they're out there doing their job. But the rest of the time we've got to have confidence that if there's something dodgy going on it will be sniffed out and caught and punished.

That's what the point of an anticorruption commission is supposed to be: not just putting bad politicians up in the docks but actually reassuring the rest of us that the ones who aren't doing anything wrong are actually doing a decent job and giving it a go. Any anticorruption commission which is focused just on catching dodgy politicians misses the point, because if all we see is a conga line of dodgy pollies getting hauled into the National Anti-Corruption Commission we don't have any confidence that politicians are in it for the right reason at all. That's what can happen as well. After a while the public loses track of which politician is corrupt and which one isn't. After a while the whole brand just goes sour, and just being in the same building tars all of us with the same brush.

A really important part of the Anti-Corruption Commission has to be the ability for the commission to promote trust. It has to have a role to play in putting itself out of business. We all know we need a federal ICAC, and what we want is a world where we'd never need one. It'd be a perfect world, wouldn't it? That might be hard to imagine. Even I find it difficult, believe you me. But that's the position we want to be in. We want a parliament filled with politicians who aren't afraid of an anticorruption commission because they have—would you guess it—absolutely nothing to hide.

I think we need to be brutally honest with ourselves that we are miles away from that when it comes to public trust. We've got a parliament where the two major parties are terrified of an anticorruption commission. They've both been effectively bullied into supporting one by the public, who are sick and tired of both of them. And now they've got the chance to actually deliver it, what do they do? A little deal behind closed doors—which is not helping with trust—to make the NACC do its business behind closed doors as well. Seriously? Not off to a good start. You know why? They're worried about their reputations, apparently, and I don't know why if they've got nothing to hide. Here's an idea. If you're worried about what sort of damage to your reputation a public hearing might do, maybe make sure you don't give the NACC a reason to pull you in front of it in the first place. There's a plan of attack. How about that?

So we've got the crossbench backing an integrity commission that works, and we've got the major parties voting together to prevent it. In spite of that, I'm going to vote for it, because I will take a bad NACC over what we've had in the past few years. We've had the former prime minister put his former chief of staff in charge of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and then ask his old chief of staff to investigate any accusations of corruption that are hanging around the necks of his ministers. I think we need a better set-up than that. We need a better anticorruption system than just having the Prime Minister's former staffer doing a little report into how everything's fine and dandy and there's nothing to see here. A flawed NACC is better than no NACC. It's the NACC that's been knackered, let's be honest, but it can be fixed. It will have to wait to be fixed, but you can build a foundation, and at least we've got that. You have to start somewhere, and I want to start here.

We've got two major parties with the most to fear from a NACC, who are both voting to make it a bit less frightening—to remove its fangs, as I've already said. I'm not sure it's quite the jaws that the A-G promised. I'm telling you now that that won't last. It'll get stronger—that's my prediction—and we'll get a decent NACC sooner or later, because the public do not trust you.

The public will demand it be strengthened. It's as simple as that. You hiding behind closed doors will not satisfy the appetite of the Australian public. It will not satisfy it at all; it won't even get to the entree! You will promise to strengthen it because you'll have no choice because you'll need their votes. This is how we work. It's going to be a very, very slow process here, but we will get there. I just know it. Cute little arguments like the one you've done on this are not helping the situation, I'll be brutally honest with you. It has not helped reinstate public trust. Throwing things behind closed doors when politicians are being corrupt will not help the situation either. As a matter of fact, in building the trust of the public—because apparently none of us have got anything to hide in here—what is the problem? Can't you defend yourselves? Seriously? It has got to this.

Anyway, Senator Tyrrell and I took a look at the amendments, and we'll back the ones that make sense. But I can tell you, at the end of this debate, when we're asked to vote yes or no, we'll vote yes. No matter if all the amendments get up or if none of them get up, we'll vote yes, because we are done talking about this. Seriously, at least there's a foundation there. The only thing left remaining is for you to build the house that goes on it—roof, chimney and all. Only then will public trust return to politicians. Only then will that happen. I can only hope that the NACC will use its ability, when it requires 'exceptional circumstances' for a hearing to be in public, to make everything fall under exceptional circumstances. If there is corruption here, I can assure you that the 'exceptional circumstances' clause needs to be used to let it play out in the public arena. It needs to be used as a deterrent, and people need to be held responsible for their actions. That is grassroots. That is the Australian way. That is the way things should be done. So, as much as we are grateful to get something, which is better than nothing, I can tell you now that it is a long way off from being satisfactory.

Once again, I very much look forward to finding out who those commissioners are. I'm hoping and putting trust in them that they know what I know—to build back public trust and the reputation of politicians. Those who deserve to be hauled out in front by the NACC deserve to be pulled in and have it played out in the public arena, because that is in the public interest. It is in the public interest to build back public trust in this country's politicians. That's where I want to see it going.

You may also like View all