Politics

Crossbench concerns over narrow scope of national anti-corruption body

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Days out from the likely release of the federal government’s anti-corruption bill, some key crossbenchers are raising concerns it might not be given the level of power they are looking for. 

Federal parliament will resume next week after a fortnight’s delay due to the death of the Queen, and the government will use the sitting period to introduce the long-promised integrity commission legislation.

While details around the bill remain a secret for now, the government says it would establish a body with “broad powers” to tackle corruption both inside and around the federal government.

But key crossbenchers — including some the government might rely on in the Senate to support the bill — are concerned it could be hamstrung by tight definitions of who it can and cannot investigate.

Independent senator David Pocock and independent MP Helen Haines both argue the commission has to be able to investigate anybody undertaking any sort of dealing with the government.

It could emerge as a stumbling block as the government looks to have the bill legislated before the end of the year.

How broad should the body’s powers be?

In a recent speech, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus spelled out who would be covered under the government’s integrity bill.

“The commission will operate independently of government and will have broad jurisdiction to investigate serious or systemic corruption across the Commonwealth public sector,” he said.

“It will have the power to investigate ministers, parliamentarians and their staff, public servants, statutory office holders and contractors.”

Some on the crossbench want the bill to go further than that, and cover any third party involved in federal politics.

David Pocock talking in the Senate chamber.
David Pocock says the body needs to be able to investigate people who are not politicians.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

Senator Pocock, who could provide a critical vote for the government in the upper house, said there was no reason to limit the body’s scope.

“It’s crucial that the integrity commission has the power to actually investigate third parties, people who aren’t politicians,” he said.

“We know that a lot of corruption starts with people potentially getting in touch with politicians, whether they’re business people, unions, developers — this body needs to be able to actually investigate them and bring them before the integrity commission.”

Ms Haines said while it was good that contractors would be covered by the new body, it needed to be able to capture people and businesses trying to pick up government work too.

“There are others that would seek to have contracts, who may seek to have dealings with the Commonwealth, that could be potentially trying to corrupt a public process,” she said.

“So we need to make sure that we can capture anyone in such circumstances.”

Defining corruption not a simple task

The government is also being urged to adopt a very broad definition of corruption, to avoid limiting the potential work of the new body.

Anthony Whealy KC, from the Centre for Public Integrity, said the bill should adopt the definition taken on by bodies like the New South Wales ICAC and other state bodies.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s somebody bribing an official, or offering favours to an official and actually corrupting them, or whether it’s serious misleading of officials, that constitutes criminal corruption,” he said.

“We would like to see the broadest definition available so that third parties know they’re on notice that they will be scrutinised at federal level, just as they are at state level throughout most of the states and territories.”

He said there might be some overlap with the role of police, which would not necessarily be a bad thing.

“There’s a theory around that you don’t need to include third parties because they can be investigated by the police for criminal behaviour,” he said.

“But I think we all know that the police don’t have the broad powers that an anti-corruption body has, and they don’t have the experience in unearthing corruption.

“So I think that it would be a great shame to restrict the ability of our new anti-corruption agency to examine corrupt third-party behaviour in as broad a manner as possible.”

Asked what sort of definition the government would adopt, a spokesperson for the Attorney-General pointed to the bill’s impending release.

“The Albanese Labor government will introduce legislation to establish a powerful, transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission in the next session of parliament,” they said.

“The commission will be tasked with investigating serious or systemic corruption.

“The commission will be independent and the government will not be instructing the commission on what it can and cannot investigate.”

The bill is expected to be introduced on Tuesday.

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