Tuesday, 30 January 2018

ABC Radio Melbourne Drive



Subjects: National Integrity Commission; Wage Growth

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: So, a National Integrity Commission.

Both major parties in politics were not fans of a federal anti-corruption body. Labor's been making noises. There is a Senate committee that is looking into the issue, and today the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said that, yes, if he were to win the next election, he would establish a national integrity commission. What does Malcolm Turnbull's Government make of it? Christian Porter is Attorney-General in the Federal Cabinet.

Good evening, thanks for joining us.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's a pleasure.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Do you see merit in what Bill Shorten announced today?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I don't see merit in the process he's engaged in, and we're not ruling out that an ultimate decision for a consolidated national body that would oversight public sector and political integrity could be an end result. But what we've seen at a state level – if I can be generous about it – is a fairly mixed result in terms of the type of outcomes that these bodies produce, which indicates that the design of the body for the particular circumstances is absolutely critical to make sure that a possible future body represents an improvement on the model that you've got at the moment.

One thing I would agree with Bill Shorten on is that, and I think he opened with this, is that there's no substantial evidence of widespread corruption at a federal level. So, it's not as if there is a screaming urgency for a model of this type. What we have at the moment I think could best be described as a sort of specialist multi-agency approach. So, we've got a range of bodies; the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity; AFP hosts a fraud and anti-corruption centre; there's the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security; each with their specialist area for oversighting integrity. Of course, a system like that has some drawbacks; the benefits and virtues of it are that you get specialist attention to integrity issues, but of course there's overlap and duplication.

So, we're not closed-minded to the idea, but this is an area where you should work up through a long, consultative process with detailed models being available for public consultation and comment before you decide, and not do that after you've decided.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: So, do you think we need one?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I don't think that at the moment there's evidence of widespread corruption at a federal level. There's been a couple of high profile cases recently, not the least of which of course was former Senator Dastyari. Whether or not a consolidated body would represent an improved set of arrangements to this specialist multi-agency approach I think is an open question.  And all of that depends on design and making critical decisions around threshold definitions say, for instance, when you would have a public or a private hearing because, Rafael, as you'd be aware, much of the criticism that's been levied against the ICAC body here in New South Wales has been that that discretion is virtually at large and indeed, the inspector of that organisation has heavily criticised that organisation for being too willing to exercise its discretion for these public hearings, from which little result may occur.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Clearly an issue.

You're the Attorney-General though, Christian Porter. When will the Government come to a position on this? Bill Shorten's announcement will be very popular amongst some voters, when will you make a decision?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, not today is the answer to that question. We've had a 150-page report as you've noted, and the first recommendation of that report is that the Government give careful consideration to this type of model. Even in that report, they point out some of the problems and of course some of the benefits, of this type of model…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: You're on a hiding to nothing arguing against it, aren't you?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, we're not arguing against it, but what we are saying is that there should be a..if you want a body whose job it is to oversight, in a transparent way, integrity and enforcement issues in the federal public sector, isn't it the best possible approach to ensure that the design of that body in itself is a transparent consultation process, where before you make the decision you actually put out different models for the design of it, including these key issues, such as when you hold public and private hearings.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Just on design, probably the best-known case recently with ICAC is the two former Labor ministers. That investigation began with an anonymous phone call and just a concern on behalf of the New South Wales anti-corruption body. Would you be happy with a federal anti-corruption body that could investigate politicians on the basis of an anonymous phone call?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the bodies that I've mentioned earlier in this conversation so, the Expenses Authority, the Australian Commission of Law Enforcement Integrity, I mean, they have very broad discretion to commence investigations based on a reasonable suspicion that there's been …

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: …but they couldn't investigate politicians in a case like this, could they?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, that's not entirely accurate. I mean, it would depend on all the circumstances, but say for instance the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority - they could receive information that could warrant an investigation from an anonymous source, as could many of these organisations, but it's the quality …

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: ….but expenses aren't whether or not a politician is abusing their position.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Sorry, if you could just say that again?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: The expenses issue is not whether or not a politician is abusing their position, which was the case in New South Wales.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, well, that's right, but I think fundamentally your question is could or should organisations be able to conduct investigations based on anonymously-provided information. I think the answer to that, of course, depends on the quality of the information. But these are questions that are left completely unanswered just by a global commitment to a body, as Bill Shorten has done, which has no detail surrounding it. I mean, obvious questions arise. So, for instance, if we're looking at some of the things that we think logically that such a body may want to investigate, like the recent Sam Dastyari matter, would that be inside the jurisdiction? If so, would there have been a public or a private hearing about that matter?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: There's definitely a lack of detail, I'm happy to agree with you there. Christian Porter as the Attorney-General in Malcolm Turnbull's Federal Cabinet. 1300 222 774 is the number.

I'm just curious, I guess, as both politician and Attorney-General, chief law officer, Christian Porter, Bill Shorten's argument is that there's a distinct lack of trust in politicians. You say there's no screaming need for an anti-corruption body; he argues that a federal anti-corruption body would help restore trust in politicians. Is he right?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I think the central question about making the decision of whether you'd have such a body is; is it going to do a better job in the practical day-to-day ensuring of integrity being exercised by public servants and politicians than the present arrangements? I mean, that's the question, and if the answer to that is yes, you would expect the trust levels would increase.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: These will have had a practical impact.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Correct, of course. But, I mean, it's hardly surprising that we've got trust deficits in some areas. I mean had Bill Shorten been as quick to act internally as the leader of a party against Sam Dastyari as he is to propose a body without any detail, that trust deficit might not be at the point that we're at, at the moment.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: But you're Attorney-General though, Christian Porter. I mean, you're well aware of the appearances of justice being seen to be done. If your only emphasis is whether or not a federal body has a practical impact, doesn't that discount or dismiss just the value of having a body; people know the body is there, that someone is keeping an eye on these things? That has value, doesn't it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I don't argue that no value attaches to increasing peoples' confidence in processes and the integrity of politicians and the public sector. I don't argue that that has no value, but equally, making announcements about very substantial reforms with no detail, for what looks at the moment, dare I say it, a cosmetic purpose, is not actually the best way to produce the best result.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: The other issue that Bill Shorten raised, and I suspect this might be a bigger issue this year than anti-corruption,  he said that the enterprise bargaining system itself is on life support, that it is no longer driving wages and productivity. Is he right? Do you reckon enterprise bargaining is pretty much stuffed in this country?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, you know, this is a system that, through the Fair Work Commission, both governments have operated under fairly well for some period of time. I just wouldn't take the basis of his proposition as being correct. I mean, last year as a government we've created more jobs in one year than any other single year on record.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: His argument might be about wages and not jobs.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah, but of course, but if you create more jobs and there's greater competition by employers for people to fill those jobs, that is of course what is going to put upward pressure in due course on wages. So the best thing a government I think can do to ensure that family budgets aren't as strained as they have been in the past, is ensure employment and watch the way in which that drives wages growth over time. That's the real hard work of government.

Tinkering around with processes in the absence of a real plan to create jobs and we have created hundreds of thousands of them in the previous year, more than 1000 jobs a day, means, again, what you're doing is having public headline-grabbing debates for cosmetic reasons and ignoring the hard work of government.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Thanks for your time today.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's a pleasure, cheers.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Christian Porter is the Attorney-General, MP from the west, part of Malcolm Turnbull's Cabinet.