The latest proposal for a national integrity commission

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The latest proposal for a national integrity commission

Posted 10/12/2013 by Cat Barker

On 13 November 2013, the Leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Christine Milne, introduced the National Integrity Commission Bill 2013 (NIC Bill). The Australian Greens have long advocated for a national integrity commission to investigate claims of misconduct and corruption across the Federal Parliament and Commonwealth agencies. The NIC Bill is very similar to a Bill introduced by Senator Bob Brown in June 2010 and reintroduced when Parliament reconvened after the August 2010 election, and to the National Integrity Commissioner Bill 2012 introduced by Adam Bandt. Those Bills lapsed without having been debated when the 43rd Parliament was prorogued. This FlagPost provides a brief overview of the NIC Bill and the broader proposal for a national commission of this kind.

Committee consideration of previous Bills

The House of Representatives Selection Committee concluded that the 2012 Bill was an appropriation Bill and could not proceed in its current form. It referred the Bill to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, which agreed with that assessment and recommended that a Parliamentary Joint Select Committee investigate the feasibility and cost of establishing a National Integrity Commission. No such committee was established.

Proposals for a national integrity commission

There is support beyond the Australian Greens for a national commission, however named. Proposals for a national integrity or anti-corruption commission date back to at least the 1980s, but neither of the major parties have taken up the idea. A joint study by Griffith University and Transparency International Australia (TIA) in 2005 recommended that a ‘new independent statutory authority be tasked as a comprehensive lead agency for investigation and prevention of official corruption, criminal activity and serious misconduct involving Commonwealth officials’, including members of parliament.

More recently, organisations including the Law Council of Australia, Accountability Round Table and the Governance Risk Compliance Institute (then the Australian Compliance Institute), and an Associate Investigator with the Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security, have supported the proposal in submissions to the review of Australia’s compliance with the United Nations Convention on Corruption and consultations on a National Anti-Corruption Plan. TIA called for establishment of a federal anti-corruption body earlier this year in light of allegations of corruption involving Centrelink leases.

A counter view is that adequate capacity and resources across the existing integrity framework are more important than the existence of a single permanent oversight body.

Existing framework

The current framework for combating corruption and misconduct at the federal level is outlined in a discussion paper released by the Attorney-General’s Department in 2011. Mechanisms include the Commonwealth Ombudsman, Administrative Review Tribunal, Australian Commissioner for Law Enforcement Integrity (whose jurisdiction has increased from two to six agencies since 2011), Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977, Australian Federal Police, Australian Public Service Commission and Royal Commissions or similar commissions of inquiry. There is currently no formal code of conduct covering members of parliament and no parliamentary advisor to provide advice on ethics and conduct issues.

In contrast, all Australian states have now established integrity or anti-corruption commissions that include the investigation of parliamentarians’ conduct in their terms of reference.

Perhaps it is now time to have a robust debate, given Australia’s reputation for being relatively free from corruption is waning. In the wake of the following examples, it is reasonable to challenge the existing framework and give further consideration to the establishment of a national integrity or anti-corruption commission:
The NIC Bill

The NIC Bill would establish a National Integrity Commission as an independent statutory agency comprising:
  • the National Integrity Commissioner, with responsibility for prevention and investigation of misconduct and corruption in all Commonwealth departments, agencies, and federal parliamentarians and their staff
  • the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner, whose current functions in relation to preventing, detecting and investigating corruption in Commonwealth law enforcement agencies would remain unchanged and
  • the Independent Parliamentary Advisor, to provide independent advice to ministers and parliamentarians on conduct, ethics and matters of propriety.
To fulfil its functions, the National Integrity Commissioner would have access to powers similar to those currently available to the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner under the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act 2006, including:
  • requests for a person to give information or produce documents
  • summons for a person to attend a hearing and give evidence and
  • appointment of authorised officers with the ability to apply for and execute arrest and search warrants.
The National Integrity Commissioner would report to the Prime Minister.

Members and Senators may contact the Parliamentary Library for any further specific analysis of the Bill.

This post was co-authored by Cat Barker, Monica Biddington and Deirdre McKeown.

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