BILL: Investigation Powers of the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption

Today Mark responded to the Government's Bill relating to the ability for the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption to hold public hearings for maladministration or misconduct inquiries.

Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (Investigation Powers) No 2 Amendment Bill 2018

I rise to support the second reading of this bill, which amongst other things seeks to implement the Government's commitment to providing the ICAC commissioner with the power to hold public hearings in certain circumstances in relation to maladministration or misconduct.

When this bill first came to us last year, the Greens supported the option for open hearings. However, our support was not absolute. I stated at the time that with increased power and responsibility comes the need for increased accountability. I moved a number of amendments in relation to accountability, and other members did likewise. In negotiations around that first bill it became clear that there was a majority of the Legislative Council that wanted to see the bill more closely examined by a parliamentary committee that had the power to hear from and question witnesses.

If members recall, back in August last year there was a lot of media interest in this issue. We had competing claims among lawyers and other stakeholders as to the merits of the bill and even more fundamental questions about the way ICAC operates under its current laws, let alone any expanded powers. Getting these divergent voices into the room made a lot of sense to me and, while I am not personally a member of the Crime and Public Integrity Policy Committee, I knew that all of us here would have the benefit of the submissions, testimony and, ultimately, the findings and recommendations of that committee.

At the conclusion of that process the government has come back to us with a revised bill, the so-called No. 2 bill. This is where it gets interesting, because the commissioner has made some public statements along the lines that, unless it was amended, he would probably not hold any public hearings. He did not think that the new Liberal bill was workable. Then we have a large number of Labor amendments, and the commissioner came out saying he did not like those either. So neither the tabled bill nor the Labor amendments were the preferred option of the commissioner, with the likely outcome being that there would not be public hearings, at least during the tenure of the incumbent commissioner. In summary, the preferred position of the two major parties was not the preferred position of the commissioner.

Then we have further amendments moved by the Hon. John Darley. These amendments effectively reinstate, in part, the situation that applied in the original No. 1 bill in 2018—in other words, no opportunity to appeal against the commissioner's decision to hold a public hearing. The commissioner has said that that is his preferred model. The Greens' position is that we maintain our original position that the commissioner should be able to hold public hearings into serious or systemic misconduct or maladministration in certain circumstances and subject to appropriate checks and balances in relation to basic legal rights and human rights.

So, depending on how other members in this chamber vote, the final result may be that no public hearings are held, at least under the tenure of the current commissioner, but if that is the situation, well so be it. As the Greens said last year, the ability to hold public hearings should not be unconstrained.

If it turns out that, as a result of the passage of this No. 2 bill as amended, as I believe it is likely to be, there are no public hearings, then I would like the government to revisit their decision in the last budget to allocate an additional $15 million to the ICAC to facilitate public hearings. If there are not to be any then they do not need that money, but certainly others do. We know that there are other crucial legal services that are being starved of funds. An additional investment of $15 million into community legal centres or the Legal Services Commission would go a long way to meet the unmet need of disadvantaged people in the community for legal services.

We know from the Productivity Commission and other reports in recent years that community legal centres are incredibly efficient and they return far more value to the community than it costs to fund them. Another possible outcome of this bill is that the Ombudsman's office picks up more work, particularly in relation to maladministration and misconduct. If that is the case, then the Ombudsman will require additional funding as well.

I would like to thank the commissioner and also the Attorney-General's staff for providing briefings on this bill. I would like to thank the Law Society for their submission, but I would also like to thank the members of the Crime and Public Integrity Policy Committee for their work in analysing what is a very complex area of law. I made a submission to that inquiry basically urging them to support two amendments that I had put up to the No. 1 bill. Those went to the community's access to information, the right to know. I am pleased to say that both my amendments were accepted. They are included in the government's bill. I do not have any additional amendments to move in the name of the Greens this time around.

I expect the committee stage of this bill will take a little while. There are very complex legal issues to work through, so I am not going to set out now the exact position of the Greens on each one of, I think, over 30 amendments altogether, but we will do that when we get into committee. At this stage, I just want to say that the Greens support the second reading of the bill and we look forward to the committee stage.