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A National Integrity Commission

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 9 Feb 2017

I thank Senator Rhiannon for bringing this bill forward. It is entirely appropriate given what happened over the summer recess and the incredible series of indignities that the public has been exposed to. This is an incredibly important issue. We are all aware, no matter what side of politics we are on—but we are keenly aware of it up here, on the crossbench—that public confidence in parliament and parliamentarians is at an all time low. Certainly, I have been working in this building for a little over 10 years and I have never known a time when contempt for the conduct of MPs at a state and federal level has been higher. That is something that everybody who works in this building needs to bear a measure of responsibility for. We in the Australian Greens are aware that there are things that we can do to lead by example that can help restore a measure of confidence. One of those things that the Greens have been pursuing essentially for as long as we have been a political party is a national anti-corruption commission.

I want to talk a little bit about the Western Australian context in a moment, but firstly I want to go through a little bit of the history and remind senators of how long this issue has been running for. In 2010, Greens Senator Bob Brown introduced the National Integrity Commissioner Bill. In 2012 our member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, introduced a similar bill into the House of Representatives. In 2013 Senator Christine Milne introduced a National Integrity Commission Bill. In 2015 Senator Rhiannon introduced a motion calling for a national anti-corruption body and political donations reform. I can remember sitting here on the crossbench and having that motion voted down by the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. If my memory serves me, a substantial number of crossbenchers supported the Greens and of course the major parties did not. In 2016 Senator Rhiannon reintroduced the National Integrity Commission Bill.

How long is this debate going to need to run for? We have been prosecuting this case in here for more than a decade. The public support for a measure of this sort has never been higher. We are elected in here to represent the public interest, not to line our own pockets and not to set up future career paths in the mining industry, the banking sector or the gambling industry. We are here to serve the public interest. There would probably be a substantial number of people listening to this broadcast or checking in online who are choking over their coffee at the idea that that is what politicians come in here to do. What better way to begin to restore confidence in the work that is done in here than a national anticorruption commission?

I will take an interjection from Senator Rhiannon if she is able to remind me how many New South Wales politicians were eventually prosecuted or went to jail.

Senator Rhiannon:  It is very hard to count, but 11 Liberal MPs.

Senator LUDLAM:  Eleven Liberal MPs! I will take that interjection, Senator Rhiannon.

The PRESIDENT:  That is a little bit disorderly and cheeky, Senator Ludlam. Interjections are disorderly.

Senator Ian Macdonald:  You might talk about all the Labor people in jail for worse than corruption, Senator Ludlam.

Senator LUDLAM:  Hit a bit of a nerve, have we, Senator Macdonald? I've missed you so much!

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—

Senator LUDLAM:  Yes, that is right.

The PRESIDENT:  To the chair, Senator Ludlam.

Senator LUDLAM:  Through you, Mr President—

The PRESIDENT:  To me, not through me.

Senator LUDLAM:  Yes, senior Labor MPs—ministers. Senator Macdonald is quite right: there is mud on both sides.

Senator Ian Macdonald:  And on your own team.

Senator LUDLAM:  I do not actually believe any Greens MP at any level of parliament or local government, state or federal, has ever suffered the kind of indignity and accusations of corruption that your side of politics, Senator Macdonald, and the Labor side of politics have been subjected to.

Senator Ian Macdonald:  What about the last Senate election in Western Australia, where you weren't elected?

Senator LUDLAM:  Let's talk about Western Australia.

Senator Siewert:  I beg your pardon!

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—

The PRESIDENT:  Order! Senator Macdonald and Senator Siewert, order!

Senator Siewert interjecting—

The PRESIDENT:  Order, Senator Siewert! Senators, if you wish to have a discussion about this across the chamber, leave the chamber and do it outside. Senator Ludlam has the call. Senator Ludlam, you may continue.

Senator LUDLAM:  Thanks, President. Going to Western Australia, a little bit before my time in politics, WA Inc is a name that probably lives on in infamy, when the stench of corruption in the state Labor government, going back into the 1980s and 1990s, became impossible to ignore. The government was eventually rolled out of office on that basis.

I acknowledge that the practice of anticorruption commissions at a state level is extremely uneven and there is not really consistency in the way that these commissions operate, but we know that a major missing piece of the architecture is that no such thing exists at a federal level. The Australian Greens' proposal has been on the Hansard for more than 10 years, if senators would care to go back and analyse what it is that we have been proposing, but I will just remind senators—

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—

Senator LUDLAM:  I am sorry, Senator Collins? People are so rowdy this morning, President. I do not know if I am being unusually provocative.

The PRESIDENT:  Ignore the interjections, Senator Ludlam. Senators, do not interject.

Senator LUDLAM:  I am doing my best here. The proposal that the Greens have put forward and that Senator Rhiannon has put on the Notice Paper today is effectively a threefold body: a law enforcement integrity commissioner—so effectively taking the existing Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity and rolling it into a body that will then incorporate a national integrity commissioner and an independent parliamentary adviser. The independent parliamentary adviser, you would imagine, would be the sort of person who would advise—before the fact rather than after—on helicopter charters, for example, or trips to polo matches, or taxpayer funded trips to weddings in India, or the various other disgraceful activities through which MPs in this building have eventually had their careers terminated—not through any kind of due process but effectively by public outrage. We saw it happen with the health minister over the summer break: pad out your investment portfolio with spontaneous purchases of investment properties on the Gold Coast—a brilliant idea!—and then have the taxpayer pick up the tab for the flights, the Comcars and whatever else.

These are the sorts of activities that MPs can avoid finding themselves enmeshed in if you have an independent parliamentary adviser. I do not believe the helicopter charters from Mrs Bishop or the taxpayer funded investment property splurge are grey areas at all, but anybody who has spent any time in here would be aware that there are grey areas around the use of entitlements, or the fact that they are even called entitlements at all. All of us from time to time could use somebody—an independent umpire on the end of the phone line—to ring up and say, 'I don't know about this; is this within the rules or not?' So an independent parliamentary adviser is a really important part of this.

The third body, obviously, is a national integrity commissioner. That is where the rubber hits the road. That is where you discover the kind of activities that destroyed a Labor government in WA and that have so disfigured politics in New South Wales. I think probably all of us representing the states and territories around the country would be very well aware that there is no level of government that has not from time to time been tainted with a hint—or a lot more than a hint—of corruption. Why would we imagine, as a government senator—I forget exactly who it was—tried to put to us yesterday, that at the Commonwealth tier of government, dealing with enormous sums of money and with very close contacts between ministers and industry and diaries that are not released into the public domain, we would be somehow magically immune? I think it is absolutely essential that we have this final—or not final but important—piece of institutional architecture, a corruption oversight body looking after what goes on in this chamber and in the other place just across the building.

I want to come to a couple of examples that are much closer to home. It was rather extraordinary again to hear a government spokesperson yesterday tell us we do not need a national anticorruption watchdog and it is better if this sort of thing is diffused throughout the Public Service. The minister is effectively saying, 'We'd rather nobody was in charge; we'd rather there was nobody where the buck stopped to keep an eye on this, unearth corruption, be able to take evidence and be able to be the person where the buck stops.' They would rather that that be diffused and that it not really be anybody's responsibility. I do not know if it is the first time that that form of argument has been run, but I found it peculiar and entirely unconvincing.

An example of where I think we could use this kind of body is in the Western Australian context. You will be aware, because Senator Siewert and I have been raising this matter for many years—as have Senator Lines and Senator Sterle—of the matter of the Perth Freight Link, the so-called Roe 8 extension back in Western Australia.

It was announced very suddenly by the Liberal government right before the 2013 federal election. It is one of these dead dogs of a policy from former Prime Minister Tony Abbott that is still stinking up the place. There is WestConnex, there is the East West Link and there is Roe Highway. It is one of those kinds of zombie policies, a tremendously expensive one, that refuses to fall over. That was $1.2 billion of Australian taxpayers' money committed on a whim, effectively signed off on the back of an envelope by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, with no business case and no public cost-benefit analysis. 

And, what do you know, the contract has been awarded—by the state government, I should say, not the Commonwealth—to a consortium of companies led by Leighton Holdings. I do not know if this was anything to do with brand damage, but they renamed themselves CIMIC a little while ago. They are a massive donor to the Liberal Party. Leighton have donated nearly $700,000 to the WA Liberal and National parties. That buys a lot of TV time, doesn't it? That buys a lot of access. That buys a lot of quiet conversations. These old private-school networks, old boys clubs, are greased by a $700,000 political donation—all above board, nothing illegal. That is $700,000 to the Liberal and National parties.

This is a corporation that is bidding for a massive government contract. So, for your $700,000—entirely above board—you can go in to bid for a $1.2 billion engineering and construction contracts. That is a clear conflict of interest. No wonder trust in the institutions, with that queasy interface between commerce and politics, is at an all-time low.

We think that it is time to ban political donations from for-profit corporations. I know that is going to cause a degree of hyperventilation from the other end of the chamber because it is that money that helped put you here, but we think that these things should be banned. Leighton is a $6.3 billion company; it runs mining, construction and engineering projects all around the globe; and it has been described as company where corrupt practices were absolutely endemic. Highly paid senior executives used a range of bribery techniques, including kickbacks to subcontractors, special payments to procure contracts, and facilitation payments. So, while these bribery incidents occurred overseas, Leighton's involvement with Australian government funded projects has been questioned. Who would you put these kinds of questions to? At the moment, there is nobody. There is nobody that you can put these kinds of questions to.

As I said, Leighton now operate under the name of CIMIC, after corruption allegations came to light in 2013. So that's fine—just change the name! We do not know whether those practices have changed, whether the corporate culture has changed or whether these kinds of under-the-table activities are occurring here in Australia, because there is nobody tasked to find out. 

In 2013, The Sydney Morning Herald reported 'Building giant Leighton rife with corruption', and they disclosed evidence of massive bribery and corruption in the way that contracts were being won around the world—most notoriously, the multimillion-dollar kickbacks paid to win contracts in Iraq, which were later investigated by the Australian Federal Police. As recently as 31 January of this year, the Herald reported 'Building giant Leighton rife with corruption', and I want to quote from that article:

In revelations that will cause international embarrassment for Australia and raise questions about the role of the nation's corporate watchdog, the files expose plans to pay alleged multimillion-dollar kickbacks in Iraq, Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere, along with other serious corporate misconduct.

Hundreds of confidential company documents, obtained during a six-month Fairfax Media investigation, also reveal a culture of rewarding corruption or incompetence, and abysmal corporate governance in what looms as the worst recent case of corporate corruption involving a major Australian firm.

So they can throw down $700,000 here in Australia and, as if by magic, through some black-box tendering process that is shrouded in commercial-in-confidence—this parliament has not been able to assess exactly why that contract was won or whether the contract represents value for money—they nailed down a $1.2 billion construction contract for a completely pointless road, a freight highway through an important wetland area, an area of enormous significance to Aboriginal people, an area of very high neighbourhood amenity, an area that has being dubbed the Kings Park of the south. Anybody from Western Australia will know that this is an area of extraordinary biodiversity and of extraordinary value to the community, and it is being torn in half, effectively, by this project.

I want to acknowledge Senator Rhiannon's work, particularly on the Democracy for Sale site. In many ways, our New South Wales colleagues are a bit ahead of the curve, presumably because—knowing a little bit about the way politics have worked in New South Wales in the past—it has been essential that the New South Wales Greens have held the major parties to account, partly because the institutions have not really been there to do so. The Greens have been a really important part, in New South Wales and elsewhere around the country, of holding the major parties to account and trying to throw some sunlight on that interface between corporations, commerce and the political tier.

This weekend, the launch of the Greens WA state election campaign is underway, and I am very proud to foreshadow an announcement that my colleagues will be making on integrity in government—

Senator Ian Macdonald:  Is that what this is all about—a bit short of votes, are you?

Senator LUDLAM:  because in WA we know that vested interest groups and wealthy powerbrokers have been able to undermine and influence our democratic system. It is one of the reasons people are fleeing the major parties in droves, including your party, Senator Macdonald. I do not know whether you snoozed through that part of the memo, but you lot are really on the nose, and confidence in government, confidence in the Liberal and National parties, is at an all-time low.

For example, there is the aggressive attack that the mining lobby has thrown into the field against the proposal to increase royalties in Western Australia. The mining industry wields extraordinary power. We saw that in the way that they damaged and ultimately destroyed the prime ministership of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Meanwhile, the government are abusing freedom-of-information requests; they hide behind commercial-in-confidence excuses to keep out of the public eye these slimy deals that they make. 

The Greens believe that a resilient democracy depends on all levels of government being transparent about how these decisions are made. That includes this tier of government. I am looking forward to coalition spokespeople standing up to tell us why there is nothing to see here and why they do not feel the need for an anticorruption watchdog at a Commonwealth level. I am really looking forward to that. Please go ahead, those on the coalition side—because I understand that, after 20 years of campaigning by the Australian Greens, the Labor Party ship, like that oil tanker at sea, may be slowly turning. 

I remember being told by the coalition side when we were debating mandatory data retention that, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Do you remember that? Anybody complaining about overwhelmingly intrusive government surveillance was told, 'If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.' I think at a personal level, as far as personal privacy is concerned, that argument is completely hollow but, in terms of powerful institutions and in terms of governments writing cheques for billions of dollars at a time to their mates in the construction industry, to oil and gas companies, to engineering companies and to developers, what is it that you have to fear?

I am reasonably sure that when you stand up and try to run counterarguments to this incredibly sensible and longstanding proposal by Senator Rhiannon you are going to tell us that you have nothing to hide. Well then let us see. Let us get these cards on the table. Let us have a national anticorruption watchdog to do the kind of job that is being done in New South Wales and has done so much good, not necessarily to restore confidence in politics and the rule of law but at least to raise the bar to corruption and to increase transparency so that people doing these slimy deals behind closed doors are aware that there may be some consequences. It is about time that those consequences fell due at a Commonwealth level.

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