Subjects: Commonwealth Integrity Commission
ATTORNEY-GENERAL:I just want to commence with a short opening statement with respect to yesterday's announcement of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission.
Last night I saw former Labor Minister, Stephen Conroy, say that Bill Shorten, in his words, should take a very deep breath because if you were to have a body of this type at a commonwealth level, the model that the Government has proposed is how you would go about doing that.
I might also just thank the Law Council of Australia for their very strong support yesterday of the model that we've proposed.
Instead Labor's response yesterday was the typical opposition for opposition's sake. The criticism of the proposal in circumstances where they clearly could not have read all of the many detailed documents that explain the nature and operation of what will be a very substantive and effective addition to commonwealth integrity arrangements.
Yesterday, we had Labor effectively saying after months, where they have asked for constructive, detailed planning and engagement from the Government; we had Labor yesterday receive the constructive, detailed planning and effectively tell us that they liked none of it, but of course had absolutely nothing to offer in any detail by way of alternative.
What we saw yesterday was just ridiculous, political point-scoring in a very serious area where the Government has put a very serious, detailed policy to the public and one which will greatly improve integrity arrangements at the commonwealth level.
QUESTION: Well on that point, Labor said your model prevents the Commission from examining this government, can you just explain….
ATTORNEY-GENERAL:You're quite right, the question was, and it was put by Labor yesterday, that the model that we have set out would prevent the future Commission from examining this government or any past government. 100 per cent incorrect. And that statement couldn't have been made by way of criticism if Labor had bothered to read the detailed plan that they'd been calling for months. There are already about 40 corruption offences on the commonwealth statute books. We've indicated that we're going to create a few more – even tougher offences. With respect to those 40 existing offences, it is of course the case that when this body is created, it will be able to look back in time and ask itself the question by way of due and proper investigation, have any of the existing offences been committed. That means they could investigated this Government, the previous Labor Government, Sam Dastyari, whoever it might be in the past if they had reason to believe that that person may have committed had committed an offence that exists.
With respect to the number of offences that we will create – they will not be retrospective. Not merely would that be unusual, it would be extraordinary for any government to create a retrospective criminal offence. The offences that we are looking to create are offences of serious and repeated public corruption; aggravated offences of public corruption and corruption by senior executive officials of the public service. They will not be retrospective, but as I say there are already 40 corruption offences on the books.
I mean is Labor today seriously saying that they're intending to create serious criminal offences, new offences, and make them retrospective? Are they saying that they're going to create a bespoke criminal offence for the behaviour that Sam Dastyari engaged in and retrospectively investigate Sam Dastyari? I mean that is absurd and it demonstrates that Labor actually didn't bother to consider the detailed proposal that came out yesterday, that they could get that point so wrong.
QUESTION: So, why did you say that……?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So, I was asked a question about whether or not it would have active criminal retrospectivity. And answered of course it won't, with respect to the new criminal offences. That's what retrospectivity is. But being able to investigate things that occurred previously, pursuant to existing criminal offences, is not actually retrospectivity. That's what the AFP does now, and that's what this body do in the future.
QUESTION: Can you explain how matters will be referred to the commission and who can refer them….
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So there will be two sides, of course, to the Commission: the law enforcement integrity side and the public sector integrity side. On the public sector integrity side, the public can make complaints to any of the number of agencies that already exist. There are 13 agencies that already exist. They would of course consider the matter. If it's minor, it would stay with them. If it's a serious and substantial matter, they would refer it on to the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner. Equally, the AFP, which can receive complaints from the public at any time, would make an assessment. And if they thought it was something that was best investigated by this new specialist agency, they would hand it on the agency. Not at all an unusual set of arrangements.
QUESTION: What do you make of,….could the ABC be investigated?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, all public servants could be. But unlike the proposal that was put by the private members in their private member's bill, which effectively said an ABC journalist could be breached for a minor code of conduct violation, here, whether the person is a journalist or a senior executive in the public service or a politician, the standard would be: have they breached a known criminal law that exists in the Commonwealth statute laws? And if so, they could be investigated. The complaint that I, that our Government, and many others had about the private member's bill brought in very recently was the standard and the definition of corruption was so low, it would capture a whole range of behaviour that really is minor in nature. But also the definition, remarkably, was to be applied retrospectively. So even minor behaviour six or seven years ago that wasn't an offence at the time could've been brought forward and made an offence in the future, which would be an extraordinary thing for anyone to do.
QUESTION: What do you make of the assessment of several senior lawyers, including the a former ICAC Commissioner that you're model has …. powers?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I'd just simply reject that. I mean people will have views about whether you should have more or less public hearings. And of course, that's fine. But we've been absolutely clear as to when there would be public hearings, who would be able to conduct them, and when there would not be public hearings. Now, we think that setting up a body with about 150 staff with an indicative budget of $125 million, with very serious investigative powers is exactly the right approach. Now, some of those that have criticised have been associated with bodies like New South Wales ICAC, who have had spectacular failures in their operation. And what we want to do is avoid those type of failures.
QUESTION: So one of those criticisms is that it will make it easier for politicians to cover things up and it's been a step backwards for …?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL:Well, who said that?
QUESTION: Geoffrey Watson
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, that is ridiculous. I mean it's just ridiculous. Politicians would be able to be investigated and scrutinised by this body just like any other single public servant. This body would have serious investigative powers. It would be able to receive referrals from all the bodies that already investigate politicians like the Independent Inspector of Parliamentary Expenses, like the Electoral Commission. Anyone could make a complaint to the AFP which could be handed on to this body. Politicians would be treated no differently by this body to any other public servant amongst the many hundreds of thousands of public servants. I just think that is a particularly ill-informed comment.
QUESTION: $30 million dollars a year, That's less than the ABCC. Is that going to be enough to try and cover the ….
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So, $30 million a year - in excess of $120 million over four years - as an indicative figure is a very substantive amount of money for an nvestigative body of this type. We think that that - of course it's got to go through budget processes, but that is an indicative estimate of what you would have - and it is a monstrously large amount of money: $125 million to investigate corruption at a federal level across the public service. I mean, again, is anyone seriously suggesting that that's not inadequate? I might note that that is on an indicative basis a larger budget than what Labor are proposing would be necessary.
QUESTION: Inaudible question
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, if the crossbench are serious in their call for a body which can investigate, uncover, detect and build briefs to prosecute corruption then I am sure that they will take their time, look at this proposal, see it for what it is - which is a very, very serious approach to a difficult area of public policy. So I would be surprised given that they are enthusiastic for a body of this type that they wouldn't see this - whilst it might not have everything that every person on the crossbench would want - that they might not see this as a very, very good approach to solving problems in this area. But I might note that what we have been interested in as a government is not producing a showboat agency. This is meant to be a serious investigative machine for law enforcement.
What Labor have done is said that they spent 12 months developing a proposal and consulting, put out a press release with no detail, and then today will criticise the basis upon which we say public hearings and a body like this should be able to be conducted, but can't tell us when they would have a public hearing.
So we had Tanya Plibersek out yesterday, telling us the public hearings were terrible because they've been shown to destroy people's reputations based on findings that were found, years after, to have been unfair or untrue. And then suggesting that somehow they would have a system where all public hearings would have to be, first of all, predated by a private hearing. That's the first that we've heard of that. No detail around that. How would that work?
What you've got here is a plan that gives all the details around the key questions. The Law Enforcement Integrity agency at the moment can already conduct public hearings, if it chooses, at its discretion. That power remains. That side of this new organisation's jurisdiction is very greatly increased. So the Law Enforcement Integrity Commission, with the power to hold public hearings, would now also have jurisdiction over the ATO, ASIC, the ACCC, APRA. But what we have said is that if you want an agency that's not a showboat agency but is a serious investigative machine for law enforcement, that on the public sector integrity side you are better off having a truly investigative body that does not have the ability to call public hearings. Now, as I say, some people might take a different view. Some people say that's too much. By way of public hearings some people say that will be too little by way of public hearings. But Labor tell us that they don't like our plan, but can't tell us what their alternative is. They're not even close and they've been utterly confused in every explanation that they've offered publicly as to what they think the alternative should be.
QUESTION: Inaudible question
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I've had many conversations with Cathy McGowan particularly, who's probably - if I can say - the leader of the push on the crossbench to have a body of this type. I've given her briefings on this model. I've spoken to her about my views, about some of the deficiencies in the model that she presented and what alternatives we think might be preferable. They've been, I would have to say, very constructive conversations. So there's definitely room for negotiation with the crossbench.
QUESTION: Inaudible question
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So, the question being why not have it all out there in the public in public hearings? Well I guess that's a question that many people would answer by saying that they themselves were subject to those public hearings. They themselves in those public hearings, or later by reports publicly made, had their reputations destroyed and had the findings of those public hearings and those public reports overturned by Parliamentary inspectors, by the High Court. And so what we say is in the public sphere on the public servant side of this organisation, it is better to avoid those showboat type processes where there is cross-examination of witnesses without prior disclosure, where there is no adherence paid to the usual procedural fairness and natural justice rules, where there is evidence by ambush and no disclosure to people being questioned.
We think that on balance, that very extreme power is best left on the side of this organisation that deals with investigative bodies themselves; so where bodies like the AFP or Border Force or ATO have themselves investigatory powers, the most serious powers known to government, and there is a sense or reasonable suspicion that there is corruption then it may be appropriate in those circumstances to have public hearings. But that the better balance on the public servants side of this organisation is to conduct investigations in the normal way, with very strong powers and strong funding and specialist skills but in the normal way.
QUESTION: Inaudible question
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, it would depend on the subject nature of the corruption that they'd witnessed. But there are very significant protections under our whistle-blowers act for people who might want to give complaint about matters of that type and in fact they were recently strengthened. Matters of that type can be given inside the agency. If the person believes they can't do that there are existing agencies like the Ombudsman, the Auditor General, and the AFP. And what we've designed is a body which is a peak body with specialist skills, robust funding, that is able to take referrals from those organisations in the most serious of matters. But there are any number of avenues for people in the public sector who are whistle-blowers and see wrongdoing to put those complaints properly and in a way where they're very well protected.
Okay? Thanks everyone.