Shorten steps up to support a federal ICAC

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday January 30, 2018

Opposition leader Bill Shorten has promised that a Labor government would aim to establish a federal anti-corruption commission with powers like a “standing royal commission” within its first year, if elected.

It would have to be independent and “well resourced” with a broad jurisdiction and legislation that keeps it free from any government interference, he said, such as fixed five-year terms of appointment for one commissioner and two deputies chosen by a bipartisan committee.

Much like the model used in most states, bar South Australia, the proposed anti-corruption commission would be able to hold public inquiries, subject to a public-interest test, and would focus on serious and systemic public sector corruption. “Commonwealth parliamentarians or their staff, public servants, statutory office holders, the Commonwealth judiciary and the Governor-General” will be within its remit.

It would cost about $58.7 million over four years to set up, the Parliamentary Budget Office estimates.

It would make findings of fact, not of guilt or innocence, and would refer this information to the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide if evidence of criminality warranted charges.

“A national integrity commission will resolve the gaps and inconsistencies in the current system, designed to ensure the highest standards in public administration,” the opposition leader said. He would be happy to start the process right away if the Coalition agreed to support such a body.

Shorten told the National Press Club today that he had accepted 2017 was a “particularly bad year” for the federal Parliament in general, and that “restoring faith” in democracy would be one of his main priorities if he became Australia’s next Prime Minister.

“None of us can change the past. We can do better in the future, and this starts with more transparency, with greater accountability, and with rebuilding trust in our … public institutions, rebuilding trust in democracy itself,” he said.

Shorten said he did not want to blame one side or the other, but argued federal politicians in general could stand to pull their socks up considerably.

“This is about restoring confidence in our democratic system and our public institutions. We should treat this mission as seriously as we take national security, because the most corrosive sentiment, awash in Western democracies around the world is that politicians are only in it for themselves.”

Shorten said this was not true of most politicians, in his experience, but that a “minority who do the wrong thing” undermine public trust in various ways, examples being abuse of travel entitlements or when cabinet ministers go straight into “a cushy job in the same sector” they were responsible for when in government.

The Labor proposal includes seven design principles:

  1. The Commission will operate as an independent statutory body, with sufficient resources to ensure it is able to carry out its functions regardless of the government of the day.
  2. The Commission would be constituted by one Commissioner and two Deputy Commissioners, each of whom would serve for a single, fixed, five-year term.
  3. The Commission will have sufficiently broad jurisdiction and freedom of action to operate as a standing Royal Commission into serious and systemic corruption by Commonwealth parliamentarians or their staff, public servants, statutory office holders, the Commonwealth judiciary and the Governor-General.
  4. The Commission will be granted the investigative powers of a Royal Commission, including search and surveillance powers, the power to compel witnesses and subpoena documents and carry out its own investigations, with warrant oversight by the Federal Court.
  5. While the presumption will be that hearings will be held in private, the Commission will have discretion to hold hearings in public where it determines it is in the public interest to do so. Labor will continue to consult on the appropriate threshold for such hearings.
  6. The Commission will only be empowered to make findings of fact. Any findings that could constitute criminal conduct would be referred to the AFP or Commonwealth Department of Public Prosecutions.
  7. A Joint Standing Committee of the Parliament will be established to oversee the Commission and will be empowered to require the Commission to provide information about its work. That Committee will be responsible for appointing the Commissioners. The Commission will also report to Parliament on its performance annually.

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