I rise today to speak in support of the National Integrity bill. This is the third time the Parliament has had the opportunity to consider this bill. I am the third leader of the Australian Greens to put this bill before the Australian Parliament. I do so at a time where there is a tremendous appetite for reform in the area of politicians' entitlements and an appetite around the issue of corruption more generally.
What this bill does, is establish a National Integrity Commission which is in effect a National Corruption and Standards watchdog. The National Integrity Commission would have three arms: the National Integrity Commissioner which would be responsible for the investigation and prevention of misconduct and corruption in all government departments, agencies and federal parliamentarians and their staff; the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner and the Independent Parliamentary Advisor.
Because of the level of abuse that exists around the issue of parliamentary entitlements. People have never held politicians in lower esteem than they do in the current time and it is part because of some people in this place who seem to use the entitlements that allow us to do our job, in a way that furthers their personal self- interest.
We've seen people claim family holidays, travel to weddings, rock concerts and so on and claim these as professional business expenses.
We have had the spectacle of the former Speaker of the House travelling by helicopter to do a trip that I do regularly by car. And one has to wonder about how someone can come to a view that that gross excess is acceptable. Having done that trip regularly myself, she can also be accused of gross stupidity because I suspect she would have got there quicker had she driven than board a publicly funded helicopter.
The issue here is this: collectively, hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent in areas that are simply not consistent with what we would all accept is good practice. At a time where the Treasurer tells us the age of entitlement is over, that we're facing a budget emergency, that we need to tighten our belts, what message does it send to the Australian community that we, here, need to engage in those gross excesses?
It is gross hypocrisy of the highest order. This is why we do need to engage an independent umpire to make judgements of whether something is a legitimate business expense.
One of the areas I think most of us will agree on is that there is an area of 'grey' in deciding what is a work expense. For example, as a portfolio holder in the area of health, being asked to open a conference interstate - was that something which I was entitled to claim as a legitimate business expense? What if it included a meeting with a candidate from my party? What proportion of the trip should be claimable?
An independent umpire would take the discretion out of the hands of politicians - many of whom have shown they cannot be trusted.
An independent umpire would also put some clarity on some areas where there are legitimate debates about whether they should be classed as reimbursable expenses.
Here we have an opportunity to do something in a way that ensures we get some movement on this issue. Instead what we saw from this government was a classical political response. Right out of the "Yes Minister" handbook - when you're in trouble, when the pressure is on and you don't want to act, what do you do? You call for a review or inquiry. We are now on the fifth review into parliamentary entitlements.
Of course, in an effort to try and shift this from the front page of newspapers, the government is pushing for another review into entitlements.
And I note that the panel for the review does not include a member or a former member of ANY of the crossbenchers. There are a number of Green MPs, democrat MPs, and other crossbenchers who would have been able to make a valuable contribution to this debate. Instead we see only the Labor Party and Liberal Party on this panel, and of course what we'll see is weak recommendations and a ploy to make sure we stop talking about this until the review hands down its findings.
Its classic distraction tactic, and I implore the Prime Minister that if the review is going to go ahead we have representation from the cross benchers including the Greens.
The Independent Office of the Parliamentary Adviser would ensure there was a code of conduct for all MPs to sign up for. It would make sure that we were clear of what was expected of us, and we had access to independent advice.
It is my view that the issue of entitlements actually goes much, much deeper. It goes to a complete disengagement and disillusionment with the political discourse in this place. It reflects an anger with the level of political debate that we have here, with the angry and partisan debates that have come to dominate parliament.
I think we have an opportunity to go some way to addressing that by ensuring that the work we do here is made easier, nor harder, because the community understand that we are acting in their interest - not our own.
There are other things we should do that aren't in the substance of this bill. We should look at the election of the Speaker, and indeed the President of the Senate. We need to makes one significant changes to our standing orders including the way we engage in Question Time and there are bigger issues around issues like political donations.
Let me come to the other arms of this bill. This bill is not just about workplace expenses, it is also about corruption more generally.
We have in every state in Australia, some version of an anti-corruption commission, and yet here in the Federal Parliament we have nothing. There is a view that somehow we are immune to the corruption scandals that have engulfed other state governments.
Corruption at a state level has been clearly identified, established and individuals have been prosecuted.
Last week in South Australia, the chief executive of a state government agency was charged with two counts of abuse of public office;
In Victoria, my home state, we have the likes of Education Department financial manager Nino Napoli, who funnelled $2.5 million from schools into his pocket and the pockets of his relatives and department officials. Some of the money was spent on overseas trips and lavish parties and so on. Last month IBAC that is Victoria’s version of the anti-corruption commission, charged nine people, including two mid-level public servants, for allegedly funnelling $25 million from Victoria's public transport department into various family-linked businesses over seven years. The money was spent on real estate and luxury goods, jet skis and a grand piano. And we now have IBAC turning its attention to revelations of a fraud worth up to $1 million involving the botched school computer system.
There are growing calls in Victoria for the powers of IBAC to be ramped up because of what’s been exposed.
I’m not going to go into the now infamous revelations of the NSW ICAC; charging with corruption offences of former state Labor Ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald along with the exposure of illegal donations from property developers to several state Liberal MPs.
The question is this: does anyone think that this behaviour is limited to state parliaments?
That somehow the Australian Parliament is immune?
We are the only jurisdiction left unchecked against the very real threat of internal corruption or maladministration across the federal public service
It is clear, given the widely established corruption charges that have been dealt with at the state level, that we need as a matter of urgency a Federal Anti-Corruption watchdog.
We had the counsel assisting the NSW ICAC, Geoffrey Watson QC say: “I have seen things that show that federal politicians are not immune from temptation.” And of course, information gathered by the NSW corruption body left him "convinced of the need for a federal ICAC”
We have, Transparency International director Neville Tiffen state “it is almost unbelievable that the Commonwealth does not have an ICAC. Detractors say that there is no need for a federal ICAC because there is no evidence that corruption exists at the federal level. This is a nonsense. They must believe behaviour changes as you board a plane for Canberra. Without a federal ICAC, we simply do not know the level of corruption that exists.”
If you don’t look for it, you won’t find it. If anything the recent scandal around parliamentary entitlements show us it is that there is behaviour that is unacceptable, and borders on corrupt, if we don’t have the structures in place to expose it. If you don’t look, you won’t find it.
And transparency International has criticised Australian law for its low and ineffective penalties for corruption. A report in 2009 highlights that Australia made little or no effort to enforce the OECD Convention on Combating the Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions.
We have a very, very poor record when it comes to stamping out corruption in all of it guises.
As recently as late 2014, Transparency International released a report which said Australia had dropped for the second consecutive year in its annual Corruption Perceptions Index, now slipping outside the top ten countries for the first time.
Of course when it comes to comparing ourselves to some low income nations, of course we do better. But is that where we want to set the benchmark?
Let’s be clear: corruption is a cancer. It impacts on all levels of public life. We need to stamp it out wherever it occurs and whatever guises it occurs in.
We are slipping in global standing, and we are slipping in the standards that the Australian people expect from us as parliamentarians. The recent scandals are symptomatic of something much broader. And who is to say that if we looked deeper we wouldn’t find not only abuse of entitlements but broad and wide-ranging corruption within all levels of our parliamentary agencies. That’s why we so desperately need this bill to pass.
Of course the review into entitlements is a small step forward – the concern being that it is simply to create the illusion of action when Labor and Liberal parties are committed to inaction.
But we need much more.
We need a federal ICAC, an independent body that has the powers to hold all Commonwealth departments, agencies, and all federal parliamentarians and their staff to high standards of transparency.
We can and should do better.
We need an independent umpire to provide advice to ministers and parliamentarians on conduct, ethics and matters of proprietary, including use of entitlements.
We can have these reforms right now. We don’t need to wait for the fifth review.
We could act now. We could, if we had the government and an ‘Opposition’ who were prepared to support this – and we could show that were committed to ending corruption in all its forms, and ensuring that parliamentary entitlements were used for what they are intended for: and that is parliamentary business.