Monday, 26 November 2018

Sky News Live – Sharri with Sharri Markson



Subjects: Federal integrity commission

SHARRI MARKSON: Canberra is in chaos, facing an embarrassing defeat on the floor of parliament, Scott Morrison buckled and supported a motion in favour of an anti-corruption body. This shows that the Coalition in minority government has already lost control of the policy agenda. A federal ICAC was Labor's policy, it was off the back of a campaign by Fairfax, and Bill Shorten was planning on not just announcing it but starting it when he became Prime Minister.

Now, of course exposing corruption is one of the most important things in our society. It's part of the reason I'm a journalist. But what's equally important is justice - a fair process, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. All of this risks being destroyed under a federal ICAC, it would be bringing witch trials to Canberra. It would be public executions of the innocent.  I'm not exaggerating.

ICAC in New South Wales has been the most disgraceful institution to get public funding in modern history. Its conduct is often far worse than that of any of the MPs it's investigating. It has extraordinary access to text messages, private internet searches, phone calls - even what you say in a phone call, even if this has nothing to do with the official investigation at hand. And these private text messages can then be leaked to your boss and can be used to destroy your career. And this happened in the case of Margaret Cunneen. Evidence that might support your case is hidden or deliberately suppressed and other bits of evidence is completely taken out of context. Those under the spotlight, those under investigation are then not allowed to defend themselves in public, while the smear - which is very often false or manipulated - gets splashed across the front page of newspapers and on the TV news. Forget facts, forget the truth, the innocent are already deemed guilty, their lives are ruined, their families, their children, their reputations all impacted.

This isn't just my opinion by the way. In the case of Murray Kear, he was a former emergency services commissioner, ICAC found him corrupt and the DPP pressed charges. The whole thing went to court but in court, Sydney magistrate Greg Grogdin ruled that ICAC's investigation ….(unclear) an unreasonable and improper manner. He said the decision to prosecute was contrary to the substance of the overall evidence. Just let that sink in - the decision to prosecute was contrary to the substance of the overall evidence. Yet Murray Kear still lost his job as SES commissioner., he's a good man, he'd led a very solid public service record, a family man. And this is just one example. This is not justice, this is not how we want our society to operate.

The Government should instead focus on fixing up its existing corruption bodies like ACLEI, making sure they're properly resourced, properly funded, rather than bring a model of a disgraceful body to Canberra. In all seriousness these bodies can be more corrupt than the politicians they investigate.

Now, Christian Porter, the Attorney-General, he joined me a little earlier this evening to discuss this issue. He has Cabinet right as we speak, so the interview was done just a short while ago. Here it is.

Attorney-General, corruption bodies in both New South Wales and WA have been an unmitigated disaster where innocent people have been deemed corrupt they've lost their livelihoods, their reputations, their families pay the price. You're from WA, what's been your experience, what do you think has gone wrong with the corruption bodies in the states?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, there are different models in each of the different states, I'm not sure that I'd say all of them have been unmitigated disasters. But certainly in New South Wales and Western Australia there've been some very notable instances of very serious failure, procedural failure, substantive failure and essentially instances where findings of misconduct or corruption have been made and then they've been overturned either in many cases by parliamentary inspectors or oversight bodies or in fact, in the Margaret Cunneen case, by the High Court itself. And in the meantime, hardworking members of the civil service in those states have been labelled corrupt by a finding of a body, that finding has damaged, destroyed their careers, sometimes irreparably and there's no recourse in those sort of circumstances to that sort of damage. So, I would just - as I did in the parliament today - urge some caution about how it is that you would go about changing the types of arrangements that we already have at a federal level, which do work well but are also capable of improvement.

SHARRI MARKSON: The problem is also their lack of oversight. These bodies have very powerful access to some of our most secret communications but yet they're subject to barely any oversight at all. How dangerous do you think a body like this can be and do you think in some instances the corruption bodies, we've seen that they've become more corrupt, do you think, than the people that they're actually investigating?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, in my state of Western Australia, there have certainly been charges of unlawfulness levied against the employees of that body, which meant that it had to go through a period of very serious reform itself. I mean, at the national level we have 13 agencies that deal with integrity and corruption issues, each of them responding to a different part of a very broad public sector. The centre of that is the Commissioner for Law Enforcement Integrity, a very, very powerful body with similar powers to a standing royal commission. And at the moment that system works relatively well. It does at certain points have a lot of overlap in its jurisdiction, it can be quite complicated. But the idea that you could just transplant a model from New South Wales in terms of their ICAC and layer that on top of everything that exists at a federal level in the Commonwealth at the moment and not expect to see the same sort of problems that you've seen in New South Wales, I think, is unrealistic. And we had, of course, a private members' bill today, which we the Government don't support.

SHARRI MARKSON: Yeah, on ACLEI - which you've just raised - are you concerned, though, about the reports regarding the Australian Border Force and claims that an under-resourced ACLEI, which is said to have relied on the good-will of other agencies to investigate corruption, has not been given enough resources to actually prosecute Customs officials who've been suspected of corruption?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, ACLEI has had some very good results in its oversight of law enforcement agencies for instances of corruption. I'm not pretending for a moment that they are not a very, very hardworking and at times a very busy agency. So, if your question is are there improvements that can be made to a body like ACLEI with respect to its jurisdiction, the way it interacts with other agencies and potentially its funding - my response would be likely there are. And of course the way in which we, the Government, have approached this national integrity issue is to look at the agencies that we have at the moment, assess them, understand their jurisdiction, look at how historically they've been operating, consider the adequacy of their funding and the sources of their funding and then ask the question how can those present relations be improved on in a significant way? ACLEI is at the core of that, so we are looking very closely at that organisation and ways to improve it.

SHARRI MARKSON: And what sort of ways could that be? I mean, injecting more funding or what are you going to do?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I'm not going to speculate into where this issue will eventually land but where we do land on the issue of improving the national integrity arrangements at a federal level, those suggested improvements are obviously going to be the subject to a great deal of public scrutiny and consultation. But if I might just raise one issue with respect to ACLEI, in many instances its funding represents a proportion of funding of the agencies that it is tasked to investigate. Now, that might have been a good way to set up parts of ACLEI's funding model in the very early stages of ACLEI's operation but I'm not sure that that's a very long-term solution to funding of ACLEI.

SHARRI MARKSON: Today in Parliament you did commit to a national integrity commission despite all your concerns about it. Was this purely to avoid an embarrassing defeat on the floor of the House of Representatives?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, we've always said that we do not rule out, nor are we close minded, to all of the suggested models for improving the federal integrity relationships and organisations. One thing I…

SHARRI MARKSON: ….but a federal ICAC body is something that the Government has never supported. Malcolm Turnbull never supported it, he always said he wasn't going to go down that path.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Sharri, we just we have said that we don't rule out any particular model. I think you can safely say that today we've ruled out the model that the private members' bill represents, which is, if you like, a transplanting of the New South Wales ICAC into the federal sphere, which would also cover journalists. Of course state governments don't employ journalists like the federal government does like the ABC and the SBS.

SHARRI MARKSON: But it is true - sorry to interrupt Minister - but it is true that Turnbull repeatedly said there is no need for a federal ICAC and that the bodies that already existed did the job - and there are about 10 of them. So, surely the decision today to support the motion was purely to avoid an embarrassing defeat in the House of the Representatives.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I've worked very closely on this with the former and the present Prime Ministers. I'm not sure that the former Prime Minister ever actually said that. When Labor announced its very broad support of a national body, it noted in the press release where it gave that support, that there is no corruption issue of an urgent or pressing nature at a federal level in Australia. And I would tend to agree with that. Largely the existing relationships have worked well. And I think that there were occasions where the former Prime Minister did note that there doesn't seem to be a very high level of evident or urgent corruption in the Australian federal sphere. But we've always considered our options in terms of the ways in which you would improve the present system. Now, whatever label that you might ultimately put on those improvements, what we are looking at is how do you take a complicated system with 13 different integrity agencies and ensure that it operates better, that it identifies and policies more corruption but it does so in a way that it doesn't trample over individual liberties or rights to due process and certainly doesn't destroy the ability of the ABC and the SBS to effectively critique any government of the day.

SHARRI MARKSON: So, ultimately are you looking at setting up a new body or some sort of improvement with how the existing bodies work together?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I mean, they're two very live options and I'm not going to foreshadow what the Cabinet process that the Prime Minister indicated is well underway, is going to ultimately resolve upon. But what I would say is that we already have 13 agencies, bodies and organisations, each of them tasked with looking into integrity and corruption issues in different parts of a very broad public sector. So, it does seem to be common sense that the first question that you ask is how do those organisations inter-relate? Which is the most important of them? I think the answer to that is - as you've noted - ACLEI, and how do we improve the operation and coordination and jurisdiction - funding of existing agencies, whatever label we put on them? Now, some of those reforms might be quite substantial to existing agencies.

SHARRI MARKSON: Attorney-General Christian Porter, thank you so much for your time tonight.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's a pleasure.