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ABC 730 with Laura Tingle

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP


Subject: National Anti-Corruption Commission

LAURA TINGLE:  I'm joined in the Canberra studio by Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL MARK DREYFUS: Very good to be with you, Laura.

TINGLE: Mr Dreyfus, much of the debate, as we've just seen about an anti-corruption commission, seems to have been more about protecting the reputations of politicians than holding them to account. If we can start on that point the most contentious issue that's arisen today has been the proposal that public hearings only be held in exceptional circumstances. That phrase did not appear in the design principles you set out before the election, so where did it come from?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's a phrase that’s there because we want this independent and powerful anti-corruption commission to strike the balance. It's an independent decision that this commission is going to make. And obviously there are factors weighing either way between whether or not you want to hold a private hearing, or a public hearing. The bill contains factors for the commission to look at in deciding what it's to be. But we'd expect looking at the experience of the New South Wales ICAC, its experience is that only five per cent of its hearings are in public. That already tells you that it's a fairly exceptional thing for an anti-corruption commission like this, to hold a public hearing.

TINGLE: But would people find out eventually what the Commission found? If you did have a lot of private hearings, would it actually be reporting publicly at the end of the day?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The Commission will report publicly its findings of corruption. Another discretion that it has is deciding when to report, how to report and in what detail. But if it's found corruption the bill provides for it to report to the Australian public and that's the really important thing here. The hearings are only a part of the investigation process that the Commission will engage in. Of course, there's a lot of public interest in public hearings when they do take place and it's one way for the Commission to demonstrate to the Australian public that it's going about its anti-corruption task. But at the end of the process, we're going to get reports and that is the real demonstration of what the work of the Commission is.

TINGLE: But should we see the focus on exceptional circumstances, though, as one designed to reassure the Coalition in order to win its support? I mean, it's pretty vital, isn't it for the Commission itself that this be seen to be broadly supported across the Parliament?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Of course, I want to see support for this bill from the whole of the Australian Parliament, from everybody in both Houses, because that's going to strengthen public reception, public acceptance of this anti-corruption commission. So, the more support we can get the better. But, I say again, there's a balancing process here. There's plenty of reasons why a commission like this, an investigative anti-corruption commission, won't want to do some hearings in public. It'll be because there's national security information to be protected, or privacy matters to be thought about, or really importantly, that it doesn't want to prejudice a current criminal trial or a predicted criminal trial. So, there's some reasons why you'd want to do a hearing in private. But equally, there might be some really good reasons why you want to do a hearing in public, such as showing the Australian community what the work of the Commission is and the immense educative effect that you can get from holding a hearing in public.

TINGLE: Can you explain what serious and systemic corruption might look like?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm not going to engage in hypotheticals. Again, it's going to be a matter for the independent National Anti-Corruption Commission to draw the lines itself. The reason why we've got this threshold of serious or systemic corruption is that we don't want this commission to have all of its time bogged down in minor matters.

TINGLE: Sure, but if we could just think about the viewers for a moment, they might be expecting the scandals of recent years would have been investigated by the Commission. Now, without going into individual ones, if it's only looking at the influence on public officials, things like pork barreling probably aren't covered, are they? I mean, pork barreling is intended to influence private individuals' votes, not the actions of officials. So, do you see pork barreling is something that will be covered by your definition?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: When people talk about pork barreling they're usually talking about misuse of what are known as discretionary grant programs, and we have to look at them as operating in a spectrum. So, it's not going to be corruption if you've got a minister deciding on a tight set of guidelines for a discretionary grant program not to accept the advice of a senior public servant. That's not corruption. At the other end of the spectrum, you can conceive of a huge amount of money, millions of dollars being devoted by government to a program that had no guidelines and was clearly misused. Now, at that end of the spectrum you are starting to think about corruption. But I'm not going to draw the line. I'm certainly not going to give hypothetical examples. It's going to be a matter for this commission.

TINGLE: Well, if we're looking at people who aren't public officials who might be caught up in this, what would happen if the Commission was tipped off, for example, that someone had turned up at the office of a major political party with an Aldi shopping bag full of cash? Would they be caught?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's got to be something which affects the exercise of public power. That is, a statutory duty that has been influenced in some way where there's been a breach of a public official's duty. That's the kind of situation we're looking at here and I'm confident that the way in which corrupt conduct is designed, with the threshold of serious or systemic, is going to achieve the results that we're looking for.

TINGLE: Finally you're attempting to make the Commission as independent as possible, but a lot all right on the parliamentary oversight committee. The Government's going to have three the opposition to and the independence one who's going to chair the committee?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's going to be a Government chair of the committee.

TINGLE: So that gives the Government an ultimate say on this. Is that a question mark over the independence of the committee?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Not at all. It's an unusual thing to see a specification of not merely Government and Opposition, but also an actual position in both Houses for a crossbench member and that means that there's going to be a say right across the Parliament and we're confident that that special kind of committee, even with the Government chair, is going to provide plenty of oversight.

TINGLE: Mark Dreyfus, thanks for your time tonight.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you very much, Laura.