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Speech on National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022

On 23 November 2022, I gave a speech during the second reading debate on the government's National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill 2022, calling out the ways in which the NACC won't go far enough to address legal forms of corruption like politicians taking lobbyist jobs and corporate donations.

The Greens have been pushing for a federal corruption watchdog for 13 years now and will be supporting this bill. My colleague Larissa Waters, who actually had a bill pass the Senate to establish a national anticorruption commission last year, has been relentless in this space, along with Bob Brown, Lee Rhiannon, Christine Milne and independents Cathy McGowan and Helen Haines, as well as my colleague David Shoebridge in the Senate.

This bill is an absolutely important step forward when it comes to accountability and integrity. Indeed, this is a chance to get it right. Getting it right does mean listening to the whistleblowers and civil society organisations and associations who have provided excellent advice and feedback about amendments that we need to make to this bill. There is a strong public mandate for a truly independent, accountable and empowered commission that can get to the bottom of integrity matters, including porkbarrelling and dodgy donations. This bill gets right the establishment and powers of the commission generally. We strongly support the retrospective capacity. The test of serious or systematic is generally appropriate.

There are some key concerns, though, that we have with the final model, which we will seek to address with amendments in the Senate. The bill doesn't go far enough to establish an integrity commission with teeth. I will be seeking amendments to address the following issues. The bar for public hearings is too high. This has been well ventilated in public. Public hearings are an essential function of the NACC, and limiting those to extraordinary circumstances in a secret deal with Peter Dutton isn't acceptable. Secret trials won't stop corruption. Indeed, I think we're seeing the impact of two different types of anticorruption commissions across the country right now. In New South Wales, where there is a much better standard for public hearings in the New South Wales ICAC, the public is at least able to see the workings of that anticorruption commission, whereas down in Victoria with the IBAC we've seen a lot of rumours and innuendo around the operation of that IBAC without the capacity for the public to actually see what's going on and what's being investigated. I think that's an excellent example of exactly why we need a less stringent standard for public hearings than is currently proposed in this bill.

The oversight committee should be genuinely independent, which means there should be a non-government chair to ensure the government doesn't dominate the body. There was a commitment of $262 million to the NACC over four years in the most recent budget, but there is no independent budget process in place, meaning this could be significantly reduced by any future government at will. An independent process would be a better way to guarantee the NACC is not hobbled by those that it may be seeking to investigate.

We will move to exclude former politicians from being commissioners of the NACC. I don't think anyone in the public would think it appropriate that politicians be appointed commissioners of an organisation that is meant to investigate those past colleagues. We will also look to improve protections for journalists' sources and protect journalists' interests when warrants are issued, and we will propose changes that limit what type of corruption can be investigated.

I think it's worth being clear that the National Anti-Corruption Commission on its own is not going to be the silver bullet that deals with so many of the concerns in the public and the institutional influence that often big corporations in particular wield over our political system. It's worth noting that a lot of the concerns held by the public—which the Greens share—are that too often it seems like big corporations are able to wield enormous influence over the political process, often in what are, technically, legal ways. This does nothing to address the revolving door between politics and big business. Ministers and their senior staff from both major parties routinely go on to work for the industries they were supposed to be regulating: sitting on boards, taking up generous consultancies or lobbying their former colleagues in government. It is worth considering a list of past ministers and major party MPs who have gone on to work for big corporations or their associated lobby groups. At the state level, the ex-premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh, is now the CEO of the Australian Banking Association. Ian Macfarlane went from industry minister to the board of Woodside and CEO of the Queensland Resources Council. His ALP counterpart, Martin Ferguson, took the role of the chairman of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association advisory council. Just this week, Joel Fitzgibbon is in the news because he's joined the board of Brickworks, a company which invests in coalmines and has profited from the New Hope coal corporation, just the type of fossil fuel development Fitzgibbon pushed for in his time in parliament. Nicola Roxon, a former health minister, later worked for the private health insurance fund Bupa. Ben Wyatt, a former treasurer in WA under a Labor government, joined the boards of Rio Tinto and Woodside immediately after retiring from politics. Brendan Nelson, a former defence minister, is now president of Boeing Australia, a top-five defence contractor.

These are not just isolated instances. The Grattan Institute has found that since the nineties more than a quarter of major party federal MPs who served in executive government move across to peak bodies, lobbying firms or directly into big business after their retirement from politics. That is a massive problem, because, in particular, too often surely one of the most general motivations for these corporations or peak lobby groups in hiring ex-ministers or ex-government and ex-opposition MPs is because of their connections into those governments or political parties. I think the general public would assume that is a generally bad and terrible precedent and standard to set, and it is something we should be doing a lot better on. The Greens previously proposed that we should ban ex-politicians, and in particular ministers, from going on to work for lobbyist organisations or for big corporations that they were previously in charge of regulating.

Nor does this bill do anything to address corporate donations and cash-for-access meetings. Cash-for-access meetings via fundraising forums don't count as donations. Often, they are listed as other receipts. The ALP's federal Labor Business Forum costs up to $110,000 a year, giving donors the chance to mingle with ministers at dinners and drinks and be briefed on policy. Members of both parties' fundraising arms in 2019-20 included Wesfarmers, Woodside Energy, banks, resource companies and big pharma companies, alongside consulting firms like PwC and Deloitte, who regularly win government contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It is completely inappropriate that we have a fundraising strategy by the major parties that involves giving special access to government and shadow ministers, which the big corporations will often pay either $110,000 or $27,500 for. In the past, we know that corporations like Bupa have paid for that access to government ministers, which is completely inappropriate.

When you think about it in simple terms, the effect is that when you have $27,500 or $110,000 you get access to government ministers and opposition shadow ministers that you otherwise would not get. We are meant to live in a democracy. It seems deeply inappropriate that someone who does not have $27,500 to spare or $110,000 for the federal Labor Business Forum is not able to get the sort of access those big corporations can. I think most people generally agree that big corporations already wield far too much power and influence over politics. Bob Brown, when advocating for a national anticorruption commission way back in 2009, wrote:

The current political culture in Australia decrees that if you hand a minister $10,000 in a paper bag marked ''for you'' in return for a talk about your business plans, it is a bribe. But if you hand the $10,000 to a party official to sit next to the minister at dinner and discuss your business plans, that is OK.

In recent years, the fossil fuel industry has donated millions of dollars to both major parties, including $670,000 to the coalition and $470,000 to Labor in 2020-21. According to the Australian Democracy Network's report on state capture, this roughly even spread of donations to both sides of politics is a major red flag, suggesting that the fossil fuel industry are comfortable that, no matter which party is in power, their interests will be taken care of. At a very minimum, we need to end cash-for-access meetings, ban all corporate donations, crack down on lobbying and end the revolving door between politicians and their staff and industry jobs.

While the National Anti-Corruption Commission is a crucial and important step in tackling what are often systemic problems of corruption and malpractice, in both federal and state politics, the other big problem at the moment, which this bill still does not address, is the often perfectly legal—under our current laws—ways that big corporations influence the political process, to a degree that ordinary people do not have access to. That is a major problem.

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