ABC Illawarra Radio - Discussing Whether We Need a Federal ICAC

TONY ARTHUR: Well, there are now calls for a federal anti-corruption body. Federal Labor could soon be pushing for its federal establishment and the New South Wales branch last year passed a motion calling for a federal body and the issue will be discussed at July's national conference. 


The local Member for Throsby, Stephen Jones, supports the idea and he is with us now. Mr Jones, why do you support the idea of a national anti-corruption body?

STEPHEN JONES, MEMBER FOR THROSBY: It stems from the simple principle that the best defence against corruption is transparency and the possibility of disclosure. That's why I think we need a federal body. At the moment we have no standing body which has a specialised responsibility or a generalist responsibility for looking at integrity and administration across all areas of government. We have specialised bodies looking at corruption in sport, in administration of sport, of trade unions, of all organised crime, but nothing that looks at government itself. I think it's a clear gap and I think it is something that we should debate and resolve at our conference.

ARTHUR: How similar would it be to New South Wale's ICAC?

JONES: Different jurisdiction, different shape of government but there is definitely some things that we can learn from the experience in New South Wales. Some positive and some negative lessons. For example, the recent case involving the crown prosecutor, Margaret Cunneen, is an example where clearly the ICAC has over-reached its jurisdiction and I think that is a lesson to us. I think there are also some legitimate concerns about the star chamber or the potential of a star chamber investigative body. But I think that all of those things can be dealt with, all of the objections are obvious and can be dealt with. But I get back to that original proposition and that is that the best defence against corruption is the possibility that those involved in corruption behaviour are going to be found out and their behaviour is going to be disclosed. A standing body looking at that is the best way to do it.

ARTHUR: Would it be difficult to establish a truly independent organisation like you are talking about?

JONES: I don't think so. We have examples of that at the federal level already. We have tribunals which are independent of government, we have statutory bodies that are set up to advise government and to investigate in some respects the behaviour of government. I look at the Audit Commission as an example and the Productivity Commission as an example - they are independent statutory bodies at arm’s length from government. I don't see any good reason why we can't have one looking at integrity measures. People might say, well what is the need? We have all the mechanisms? Well, I simply point to the fact that if you look at the last ten years we have had 11 royal commissions or royal commission type inquiries that have been established. Clearly there is a need and a desire for matters to be investigated. I think that it a more efficient and effective way of doing it to have a standing specialised body. It also takes a lot of the politics out of it.

ARTHUR: What sort of powers would you like it to have? Are we talking about it being able to not just recommend prosecutions but ensure that they occur if someone is found guilty of corruption through government administration?

JONES: Well under our system of government, we have a separation of powers between the parliament, the judiciary and the executive. Any body that we set up would be a creature of parliament if you like, it would be an extension of the power of parliament. It would not be able to exercise judicial functions, they would remain the purview of the court and I think that is proper. But certainly it would have the power to investigate and to expose corruption behaviour. You would need to put some limitations on the way that evidence was gained so that peoples’ reputations weren't trashed without cause and I'm a strong believer that people should have the right to a presumption of innocence. But I think that all of those things can be dealt with and there are examples we can look to overseas where the right protections can be put in place at the same time as giving a federal body the sorts of powers that it needs to investigate and expose corrupt behaviour. 

ARTHUR: Because some people would say that ICAC at times hasn't been that effective, the term "toothless tiger" is used. Are they the sort of lessons you would like to learn from the ICAC example to ensure that those labels weren't put on a national anti-corruption body?

JONES: Well if you say that the measure of the ICAC is how many people have been prosecuted you would say that it has been a manifest failure. I don't think that is the test of the success of the ICAC. I think the test of the success of the ICAC is whether it has rooted out and exposed corrupt and potentially corrupt behaviour. I think that it has been successful at doing that and as a result of ICAC investigations procedures have been changed, laws have been changed and individuals involved in that sort of behaviour have been rooted out. I think that if we get the right balances that protect presumptions of innocence and have that put in place we could have the same sort of body performing a similar function federally. So again I don't think the success of the body is whether somebody has necessarily been prosecuted, I think it's the ability to look at systematic and individual corruption is a part of the function of such a body and it should be measured on whether it does that.

ARTHUR: But at the same time as you have already intimated, you would have to be very careful that you weren't providing a forum for people to settle old scores and trash people's reputations that have been hard-earned.

JONES: Look and there are ways and means of dealing with that. Surely there would have to be a threshold that such a federal body would have to get over before they initiated a public or even a private inquiry. I think that the recent decision of the High Court in the Cunneen matter has sent some pretty clear signals about where you need to put some boundaries about those sort of investigations and inquiries. It shouldn't be beyond our wit to craft a law which sets up a body which puts in place those sorts of protections and the right balances in place. I think we can, I think we should do it.

ARTHUR: Well, Stephen Jones, as I said in the introduction, federal Labor could soon be pushing for the establishment of this national anti-corruption body. The New South Wale's branch last year passed a motion calling on the federal body to be established and the issue to be discussed in July at the ALP's national conference. If it is pushed through and gets the green light and the thumbs up from everyone, how soon could something like this be established and operating?

JONES: Well, this would be Labor party policy and it would be reliant upon Labor to win government and to establish these sorts of laws. We would obviously want and in probably most parliaments need the support of the opposition, the Liberal and National parties, to establish such a body. But look you talked about that national conference and I think that is an important step. I think that it would be very good for us to have a mature debate at the national conference. There are legitimate concerns that have been raised and we've ventilated some of them in this interview. There are legitimate concerns that have been raised about the establishment of a federal body but again I think they can be dealt with. We should have respectful debate about those differences, I come down firmly in favour of the side that says we should set up such a policy. I believe it should be something that we take to the next federal election as part of the policies that Labor has on offer.

ARTHUR: Does the bipartisan support exist for it?

JONES: When we were debating this issue in the 43rd parliament, the last parliament, the Liberal and National parties didn't support it. But as with many issues these things can change over time as the debate matures and people put fresh eyes on the question. There is always the possibility that peoples' minds will change.

ARTHUR: Thank you for explaining your arguments supporting it to us this morning. Appreciate it. 

JONES: Good to be with you. 

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