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ABC RN Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas

Senator the Hon Amanda Stoker

Subjects: Criminal Integrity Commission, NSW ICAC


PATRICIA KARVELAS: Senator Amanda Stoker is the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, working on the legislation for a federal anti-corruption body, and my guest this morning. Amanda Stoker, welcome.

AMANDA STOKER: Good morning, Patricia.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Prime Minister Scott Morrison first proposed a federal anti-corruption Commission in late 2018, but no legislation has been introduced to Parliament, so that's three years of talk and no action. Have you been sitting on your hands all this time?

AMANDA STOKER: The short answer is no. It's a complex piece of legislation. It is well advanced in its preparation, and I think that time has been well spent in making sure that we have a really detailed consultation process with everybody who has a view on this, and there are lots of people in the community who have something to say about both whether it should happen and what its design should be. And it's been a really challenging legal design process to make sure that we avoid many of the pitfalls that have come from other attempts to implement a body like this, while making sure that the important objective of making sure that people in the public sphere are transparent and accountable or achieved.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, there's reports the legislation will be introduced in the final sitting fortnight of the year. Is that the timeline that you're working to?

AMANDA STOKER: It's certainly the case that we hope to have something before the Parliament before the end of the year.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Hope, or will you promise and guarantee that you'll do it?

AMANDA STOKER: I think we expect to. I'm not going to, I'm not going to promise anything because there are-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Why not? It's been three years.

AMANDA STOKER: Because we're going to get it right, and because not everything is necessarily within my individual control. But we are really keen to get this done, and to get it done a way that makes sure we get all the advantages of having an integrity body and avoid the pitfalls of those bodies that I would suggest have become almost rogue in the way that they operate.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: We heard from the Prime Minister there saying the New South Wales model is not something that your government will follow. You’re quoted in today's paper describing the New South Wales ICAC as a ‘monster’. What are the problems that you see that you would use such a strong word?

AMANDA STOKER: Well, if we look at the history of the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption, its broad sweeping powers of inquisition and compulsion have seen lives destroyed over trivialities, careers ended over investigations that have gone nowhere, and the tarnishing of the reputations of people who appear as witnesses, not as suspects, only to find themselves painted guilty in the public eye by their mere appearance. None of that is acceptable. So if we start from the premise that a broad anti-corruption body has a purpose of making sure that those in public office who may be prone to wrongdoing aren't able to do that without accountability, we need to also ask, who's going to watch these all-powerful armies of lawyers who are able to hide under the veil of independence? Now, that really matters, because New South Wales ICAC has been guilty of executing unauthorised warrants. It has acted beyond its powers to hunt down people on grounds that haven't even constituted corrupt conduct under law. These are really big steps that should have us worried. And once a body like this is established, it's rarely held accountable for those types of actions, because any attempt to rein it in is painted by political opponents as being soft on corruption

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But isn't the fact that 3 premiers had to resign in the wake of an investigation a testament to the independence of the New South Wales ICAC?

AMANDA STOKER: Well, I would suggest that there's really not something that we could point to in the case of Gladys Berejiklian, particularly this point in time, to indicate she has done anything of concern. Now-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: We don't know, we don't know. What we do know is that she chose to stand aside- sorry, actually, resign. She didn't have to. She could have just stood aside and let this process unfold.

AMANDA STOKER: Well, her comments make it very clear that the length of time that it has taken to this investigation to go on so far, and the length of time it is expecting to continue to take, are what make it untenable. And so processes that make sure that those long delays, that allow a person to have a cloud hang over them, even while they're undertaking duties that require them to be trusted with important information on behalf of the state, or in this case, the Commonwealth Government, is not viable. That's one of the many things that we need to make sure isn't allowed to occur in a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, where it is important that these matters be resolved swiftly, so that where people are in fact innocent, they can get on with doing with they're elected to do.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Labor says a federal ICAC must have retrospective powers. Will the Commonwealth Integrity Commission be able to look at allegations of corruption that happened in the past?

AMANDA STOKER: Look, that's a very, it's a very broad question, and it can be crafted in a whole bunch of different ways. So I won't be drawn on that-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Hang on, you have to be drawn on it, Amanda Stoker. Do you think it should have retrospective powers?

AMANDA STOKER: I mean, that just opens a whole bunch of other questions. How long? How far? Into what? I think the question is a [inaudible]-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Great. And I will ask them, but do you think- yeah, okay, and you will have to specify all of that at some point, but the concept of retrospective powers, will your body do that?

AMANDA STOKER: Well, retrospective powers are something that should only be done very sparingly and in circumstances where the people involved should expect for that to occur. In the present circumstances, we already have about 12 agencies that deal with public sector corruption. And so you could make a reasonable argument that anyone in these kinds of jobs would expect to face that kind of scrutiny already, and so the case isn't too bad for doing that. But it's something that I'm not going to speak for, one way or the other. That's a matter for Cabinet to decide-


AMANDA STOKER: -based on the advice [indistinct] to the Attorney and I.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: -But is retrospectivity still an option, or are you ruling it out?

AMANDA STOKER: I think at the moment I would want to allow for all matters to be on the table. We have genuinely taken into account all the different feedback we've got from different places. But the more important question here, Patricia, is what are we going to have it look into? Because if we look at the New South Wales ICAC model, a body that was supposed to be set up to look into corruption, it has spent its time looking into things that have been described by the High Court as ‘trivialities’, matters that do not go to whether or not a person is able to exercise their public duties, or whether they are doing it in a way that reflects integrity. So-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: -I don't think that fairly describes a lot of the ICAC's work. Triviality is not the sort of- the bulk of its work, would you say?

AMANDA STOKER: It's the High Court's words, not mine.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well, anyway, that's kind of, we haven't got time to contest all of that statement. But just very quickly, I know some of your colleagues are saying that they are warning that this integrity commission, you know, you want to walk away from it, that it will have too much power. Do you share their concerns?

AMANDA STOKER: We are committed to discharge the promise to bringing in a body of this kind, and the work is well advanced. The- there is a lot of benefit to be gained from this being implemented by Coalition Government, who will provide the balanced approach that's necessary to make sure that we are properly holding people to account, properly holding them responsible for when they do the wrong thing, without going into the star chamber kind of behaviours that we have seen from the New South Wales ICAC. And so they should take heart from the fact that it is a Coalition Government driving this reform.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Senator, thanks for your time.