National Anti-Corruption Commission bill needs a few tweaks

Parliament House
Photo: Josh Withers / unsplash.com
Clancy Moore I 23 October 2022
CEO

Originally Published in The Canberra Times

The National Anti-Corruption Commission bill, introduced by the Labor government at the end of September, is good. Very good. It ticks most of the boxes, including corruption prevention and education.

It’s 90 per cent there.

But there are some critical gaps we need to fix to ensure our future anti-corruption commission can effectively do its job.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission bill is the most significant piece of integrity reform Australia has seen in half-a-century. It’s absolutely vital we get this right.

This week our advice to a parliamentary committee tasked with scrutinising the new legislation was to focus on four areas to strengthen the bill.

Broader scope to tackle corruption

 

The commission’s ability to investigate grey areas of corruption – anything less obvious than handing over an envelope full of cash – is something anti-corruption campaigners like us have been very focused on.

We give the government a gold star for putting a comprehensive but simple definition of corruption in the legislation.

We do see one area it could be better. We’d like to put beyond doubt that corrupting actions of third parties or private individuals can also be investigated, even if the relevant public officials are not themselves aware that they may have been, or were intended to be, corrupted.

Best practice model on public hearings

 

Holding hearings in public can be vital for gaining important information if it compels witnesses to come forward.

It’s also important for the public to see justice being done.

More than 80 per cent of the Australian public have repeatedly stated, over many years, they want to see a national anti-corruption watchdog. Australians are heavily invested in this reform.

Our research finds the proposed legislation presents the most restrictive test for public hearings in the country – except South Australia, which has no public hearings.

While most hearings before the commission will be private, and that’s a good thing, it’s important the future commissioner is empowered to hold public hearings if that’s in the public interest.

Our solution is to clarify the wording around public hearings, and we propose a new solution that hasn’t been talked about much yet: further empowering the inspector.

The inspector is a new role in the proposed legislation that provides oversight over the NACC.

If the NACC itself is engaged in corruption, or doesn’t do its job properly, it’s the inspector that can investigate.

The inspector role should be strengthened so it has more power to verify the commission is using appropriate safeguards around public hearings.

Stronger whistleblower protections

 

Whistleblowers are the single most effective way to detect corruption.

The original National Integrity Commission bill from independent MP Cathy McGowan, and then her successor Helen Haines MP, contained a whistleblower protection commissioner role to act as a central authority and protector for whistleblowers. We liked this.

The new legislation does not have that. While the Attorney-General has said the NACC will have stronger protections for whistleblowers, it does not go anywhere near far enough.

As anyone can see just glancing at the ongoing and absurd court sagas of public interest whistleblowers in Australia – we desperately need whistleblower reform.

We propose overhauling – not tweaking – public and private sector whistleblower protection laws, and establishing a central authority to review whistleblower cases and ensure appropriate protections are provided.

Greater independence and oversight

 

We need to ensure our National Anti-Corruption Commission is future-proofed against any risk that a future government will undermine its work.

This means ensuring the government can’t cut its budget or appoint one of their mates as the commissioner.

It’s therefore important that the NACC has its own independent budget track and a commissioner who is appointed by a two-thirds majority of the parliamentary committee that oversees the Commission.

Transparency International’s experience from around the world has shown national anti-corruption watchdogs can’t tackle corruption alone – they need to be embedded within a wider system of pro-integrity checks and balances.

We would like to see the NACC launched next year alongside a comprehensive, coordinated plan to tackle corruption, involving the public service, business, civil society, and Commonwealth, state and territory governments.

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