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News update

Australia’s new anti-corruption watchdog

Doberman pinscher isolated in the studio on a black background.

The long awaited National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) legislation was recently introduced to the House of Representatives. It’s a monumental development and major step forward for public sector integrity in Australia. The political gears are now grinding, and parliament is expediting the legislation process to ensure it is debated before the end of the year.

In this article we outline everything you need to know about the new commission – and look at what we can expect next.

Next steps

The legislation will now go to a Joint Select Committee in Federal Parliament with the committee report due by 10 November in anticipation of a parliamentary debate in the week of November 21.

The joint committee will be chaired by Victorian Senator Linda White and in a break to usual parliamentary committee convention, the deputy chair is to be the Independent MP for Indi Helen Haines, one of the key speakers at Governance Institute’s upcoming Public Sector Governance Forum.

There has been criticism from the opposition, which has not been appointed the deputy role—a break with committee convention. Some things, however, might be bigger than politics.

Helen Haines has long been at the forefront of efforts for a NACC, and the Federal Government has used a significant proportion of her draft legislation—introduced during the previous parliament—in the current bill.

What powers will the NACC have?

The NACC will have strong coercive powers to investigate serious and systemic corrupt conduct in government, equivalent to the powers of a royal commission.

These include:

  • powers to investigate serious or systemic corrupt conduct across the Commonwealth public sector by all politicians, officials, and contractors, ensuring that any person who seeks to adversely influence a public official to do wrong will be covered
  • powers to investigate retrospective allegations of serious or systemic corrupt conduct
  • powers to hold public hearings only in exceptional circumstances when deemed in the public interest
  • powers to refer findings that could constitute criminal conduct to the Australian Federal Police or the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

Any hurdles to the legislation?

Most discussion about the progress of the legislation through the Parliament is likely to focus on the public hearings clause. The crossbench has called for public hearings when “it is in the public interest” to do so. Whereas the Opposition expressed scepticism about any public hearings but appear to be willing to support the legislation with some provisions.

In relation to when public hearings should take place, Senior Counsel at the Victorian Bar and Chair of the Accountability Roundtable Fiona McLeod said at a Transparency International Australia virtual panel that this requirement was redundant, as the decision on whether a hearing would be public or not would lay at the discretion of the Commissioner.

‘The courts will have to decide what constitutes exceptional circumstances,’ McLeod said.

For McLeod, the courts might get bogged down about the legal definition about what is and isn’t an “exceptional circumstance”.

It will be fascinating to watch the Joint Select Committee process and where the legislation ends up.

Governance Institute of Australia will make a submission to the Committee advocating that the NACC provides the best outcome for public sector integrity in Australia.

Public hearings will take place 18–21 October 2022 and can be viewed here.

Read Governance Institute of Australia’s media release welcoming the new bill here.

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