Integrity and Accountability Legislation Amendment (Public Interest Disclosures, Oversight and Independence) Bill 2018
Mr HIBBINS (Prahran) — I rise to speak on behalf of the Greens on the Integrity and Accountability Legislation Amendment (Public Interest Disclosures, Oversight and Independence) Bill 2018. This is a bill that makes a number of changes to Victoria's integrity system, most significantly around protected disclosures but also to the powers of IBAC and the Ombudsman, and changes to the oversight committees as well. The Greens will be supporting this bill. It has been an ongoing journey since IBAC was created to get the sort of integrity system that we need in Victoria. Subsequent to this bill, there is still more to be done, which I will outline later on.
I will start with a bit of history on an anti-corruption commission in Victoria. As previously pointed out, there was resistance from the previous Brumby Labor government to setting up an anti-corruption body. The former Premier has even outlined, subsequent to that, that he thought the existing arrangements were satisfactory. Following the election of the previous Liberal government, IBAC was set up, and in setting that body up there were a number of flaws in the original legislation.
It is a bit unfair to call it —
Honourable members interjecting.
The ACTING SPEAKER (Mr Edbrooke) — There is too much audible noise in the chamber. I ask members to refrain from speaking.
Mr HIBBINS — It was a bit harsh to call IBAC a toothless tiger, but it did have issues with just exactly what it could investigate. There was a need for them to lower the bar for what matters they were able to pursue without getting caught up with people trying to use legal technicalities to delay investigations as well as having the ability to conduct preliminary investigations which, to the government's credit, was addressed in previous legislation. It is absolutely critical for an effective anti-corruption agency to have the power to root out corruption wherever there is the barest whiff of impropriety without, the Greens feel, overly prescriptive legislation that could either limit its ability to pursue a matter or make it subject to legal proceedings designed to stymie those investigations.
I will preference my comments on the bill by saying that it has been a pleasure to have been on the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission Committee that has looked at a number of these issues that are addressed in this bill. It is certainly welcome to see a number of recommendations from various committee reports being adopted by the government.
The bill is a very extensive bill so I will not go into every single detail; I will just outline some of the important matters. There have been changes to protected disclosures. Again some of these were recommendations which the IBAC Committee put forward, including changing the title of the act to include 'public interest disclosures', which better communicates the public interest nature of the disclosures rather than protected disclosures. It also allows for a complainant, someone who is subject to protected disclosure, at some point if they deem it necessary — for example, if there has been a delay in the agency following up their complaint — to disclose to a journalist and still retain those protections. Whilst there are confidentiality provisions, if breached, they could result in forfeiting that protection. Certainly it is in the public interest for a complainant to be able to provide that information to a journalist if they feel that the response from the agency they complained to has been inadequate.
There are changes to IBAC. My understanding is that the changes are in relation to having public hearings only for serious and systemic misconduct. I do have some concerns around this provision because one would think it would go without saying that only serious matters would eventually go to a public hearing. But IBAC should be able to pursue matters or public hearings if they feel they are in the public interest without overly prescriptive legislation preventing them from doing that. We will have a further look at that particular element in the bill.
The bill allows IBAC to park or defer a decision to investigate a complaint or to make a ruling, which is important because often concurrent investigations can be ongoing, whether that is through the complaint being made to IBAC or to the police. It might be in the best interests for IBAC to defer that complaint until other matters are dealt with. In fact the previous IBAC Commissioner raised this particular issue where, under legislation, they were not permitted to defer a decision. They had to either dismiss the complaint or make an investigation, where that would not be appropriate. We certainly welcome those changes.
There are changes to how the oversight committees will work. There is going to be a merger of the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission Committee and the Accountability and Oversight Committee into a new Integrity and Oversight Committee. I think that is a good move as long as, as previous speakers have pointed out, it is properly resourced. It will probably be able to provide a bit more of a holistic oversight of the integrity agencies. It is certainly important given the expanded powers that that committee will have. It will allow members to develop further expertise in this area. The greater powers that the committee will have are important, because one part of a strong oversight and integrity agency is its independence from the executive.
Budgets will be determined for each of IBAC, the Victorian Inspectorate (VI) and the Ombudsman in consultation with the Integrity and Oversight Committee, and they will have their annual appropriations specified in the Parliament's appropriation bill rather than as part of the Department of Premier and Cabinet. That is a welcome move, because what we have seen in New South Wales is that the government has essentially waged war on ICAC, their anti-corruption commission, which I think has now resulted in their budget being cut, and that is an appalling outcome. I am not entirely sure about the budget arrangements in New South Wales, but further independence from the executive for the budgeting of oversight agencies would limit any abuse by the executive through cutting that integrity agency's funding.
Finally, the oversight committee will be empowered and legislated to conduct an audit of IBAC, VI and the Ombudsman, which is certainly something that the IBAC Committee looked into and recommended. It will go a long way in ensuring that we have an effective anti-corruption body and oversight agencies. That is a welcome change.
Where I do think the government needs to be going in terms of integrity legislation is the oversight of members of Parliament and the integrity framework around MPs. As has been raised by other members, we have seen scandal after scandal, over not just this term but the last term as well. The previous speaker, the member for Mordialloc, addressed the Leader of the Opposition referring himself to IBAC, as if that was a move to draw a line under the scandal that he found himself embroiled in, knowing full well that IBAC did not have the power to investigate that matter. When we look at the circumstance that the Leader of the Opposition found himself in, and a lot has been made of him going to dinner and having dinner with an alleged mobster, I think all the jokes around the lobster seemed to miss the point.
I think the real issue here is that there were people on the record who were seeking to use our very lax donations laws to funnel money into the Liberal Party. That was on the record. We had an alleged mobster as part of that plot, and then what we are supposed to believe is that the Leader of the Opposition was none the wiser — that he was just attending dinner. So it was far more serious, I think, than just having jokes about lobsters. The response to refer himself to IBAC, full well knowing that they did not have the ability to address such a matter, was really a bit of a farce, and I think it could be addressed if we could actually strengthen IBAC's role to oversight of the members and ministers codes of conduct.
We have had this year the disappointment around the second home allowance, the resignations of the former Speaker and Deputy Speaker from their roles in regard to this matter and again the further issue of those members not being referred to the Privileges Committee. Seemingly the government is using its powers within this chamber not to refer those members when under the previous government, where my understanding is there was a smaller amount of money involved, the matter of the member for Frankston did actually go to the Privileges Committee in that Parliament. We have not been given any real reason as to why those members have not been referred to the Privileges Committee. Again I think that could be addressed if IBAC or an independent parliamentary standards commissioner was actually given the power to investigate and look into breaches of the members and ministers codes of conduct.
Again we have had issues around lobbyists. We have had Stephen Conroy, who the papers would describe as a factional warlord, acting as a lobbyist for the gambling industry. This normally would be in breach of federal lobbying rules, but it is not in breach of state lobbying rules. I think it would be best practice if we had codes of conduct or rules around lobbyists, not just a document overseen by a department but actually put in legislation. I think with areas where members of a national executive were also registered lobbyists, we could iron some of those issues out.
Mr Burgess interjected.
Mr HIBBINS — We will have to wait until the Tasmanian disclosures come out before we start talking about donations from gamblers and who has got the biggest ever.
We have had the rorts for votes scandal. Again it is probably not appropriate to say that. These are allegations at this stage, but they are allegations that this government has failed and has looked to prevent the Ombudsman from investigating at every turn — every step of the way. It has taken the Ombudsman to court to prevent these matters being investigated. It is just ridiculous. There are a whole range of issues that have come up in this term of government and in the last term of government. We really need to start looking at the integrity of members of Parliament and political parties.
As I said, we should be looking at lobbyist reform and we should be making sure that we actually put out a lobbyist code of conduct and tighten up arrangements to make sure that a member of a political party's national executive cannot be a registered lobbyist. That should be in legislation. We should also be making sure that there is appropriate post-employment separation for ministers, making sure that you cannot have ministers and ministers advisers having a revolving door out of government straight into either being lobbyists or working for a company that is highly regulated by the government. It is just completely inappropriate to have a person potentially using the information and what they gained from either being a minister or working for a minister, working within the executive, to suddenly benefit a private company after they are employed.
We do need to overhaul the MPs code of conduct, and I am glad to see that that is actually on the notice paper after I raised it last year as an adjournment matter. It is good to see that the government is acting on that. I will probably speak more to that when it hopefully comes before this Parliament. I am not exactly sure what the delay is. Again I think the real issue with that is the oversight of that code of conduct, both an MPs code of conduct and the ministerial code of conduct.
At the moment the best suggestion I think the government has come up with is an ethics adviser. I think it would be appropriate to have an independent parliamentary standards commissioner with the power to investigate and make rulings on breaches of codes of conduct and for that body to be placed potentially within IBAC itself and to have all the powers and all the resources available that IBAC has. That would mean we would not have this ridiculous situation where members have, on the face of it — and this has been reported by the Audit Committee — breached their entitlements yet are not facing sanction from this house and are not facing referral to the Privileges Committee because the government, the executive of the day, is using its numbers to protect them. It is simply an untenable situation. Certainly I think we could go a lot more towards having far better oversight and far better rules around enforcing the code of conduct for MPs and ministers.
As the member for Hastings has brought up, yes, I think we need donations reform. Again the government have indicated that they are interested in donations reform. They put something —
Mr Burgess interjected.
Mr HIBBINS — That is right, and I would give that advice right back to the Liberal Party: stop taking donations from property developers and then making decisions that benefit those property developers. I actually missed out on referring that particular incident.
That particular decision looms large not over this Parliament but over my constituents. The council did not support a planning application in Forest Hill, yet the previous planning minister moved in, changed the planning scheme at the stroke of a pen — on behalf of a developer who was also a Liberal donor — to approve it far beyond what the local planning scheme allowed. Even worse, that developer went on to not actually build the building but flip it and make millions in profit. It is just outrageous, the complete conflict of interest.
Absolutely yes, we should be stopping donations from not just property developers but the gambling industry as well. We saw what happened in Tasmania. When political parties decide to take a strong line against pokies, the gaming industry sink all their money into that campaign. It is absolutely corrupting our democracy. Yes, we need to enforce donations reform. So I would encourage the government, who made announcements last year, to actually show us this legislation and bring on this legislation, because it is absolutely critical to the proper functioning of our democracy.
We will be supporting this legislation. I am not convinced of the opposition's reasoned amendment. I think we can probably address some of the issues; it might be worth having a look. If this bill were to go into committee, we could certainly answer some of the questions, so I am not convinced of the reasons to support the opposition's reasoned amendment. We will be supporting this legislation. We welcome the strengthening of our integrity agencies. I would urge the government not to stop there but to go further.