Tuesday, 14 June 2022

So what will the timetables be for introducing national anti-corruption commission legislation and a new religious discrimination bill?

Australia is only on Day 23 of the new Albanese Labor Government, but some timetables are emerging when it comes to promised reforms.

Attorney-General’s Department, Media Centre, ABC Radio National – Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas, Interview with Australian Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus QC MP, Subjects: National Anti-Corruption Commission; Bernard Collaery; Religious Discrimination Legislation, 8 June 2022, transcript excerpt:

PATRICIA KARVELAS: There's little detail on what your anti-corruption commission will look like. Will you be starting from scratch or will you use independent MP Helen Haines' template?

MARK DREYFUS: My department swung into action, Patricia, as soon as the election result was clear. We've now got a task force of senior officials headed by a Deputy Secretary completely devoted to ensuring that we will legislate a national anti-corruption commission this year. And the full resources of the department are now directed to drafting the very best bill that we can bring to the Australian Parliament.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You say that because the Commonwealth is the last to legislate an anti-corruption commission you can pick and choose the best from the states and territories. Can you give me an idea on what you see as best practice?

MARK DREYFUS: There's a whole range of features that have been obviously discussed over the last three years, a lot of it in response to the inadequate model that the former government put forward. The commission is going to be independent, it's going to be powerful, it's going to have the powers of a Royal Commission. And some of the contentious matters that we've looked at are the scope of the commission. It's going to deal with serious and systemic corruption, it's going to be able to receive allegations from a whole range of sources, it's going to be able to, at its discretion, hold public hearings and all of those are important features and, of course, important differences from the former government's model. And it'll be able to look into the past. That's another deficiency of the former government's proposal. We think that it's completely inappropriate to suggest that an anti-corruption commission, once set up, would only be able to look at matters that arose after it was set up. That can't be right. None of the state and territory anti-corruption commissions function on that basis. They've all been able to look back into the past at their discretion when they think it's appropriate.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so two questions on this; how far back into the past?

MARK DREYFUS: That's going to be a matter for the commission.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: What's your view?

MARK DREYFUS: No, I'm not going to express a view. It's not for us, as the Government, to direct this commission…..

MARK DREYFUS: ... and I'm not going to set limits on this commission. It's independent. That's the key to it. It's not there to accept instructions from the government of the day. It's there to be independent.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You say most of the hearings would be held in private. What would justify a public hearing in your view? How will that be articulated in the legislation for when the threshold is met for a public hearing?

MARK DREYFUS: There will be circumstances in which it is clearly in the public interest for a public hearing to take place. The experience of the state and territory commissions - because almost all of them have got the power to hold public hearings - is that they are sparing in the holding of those public hearings. They can, potentially, be very useful. A number of the anti-corruption commissioners around Australia with whom I've spoken about this have pointed out to me that it's a way of building confidence in the activities of the commission, if people can see it in operation. It's a way of showing how the commission is going about its work. And very often the holding of public hearings, some commissioners have told me, is something that prompts others to come forward. It brings out evidence if people hear of the investigation because the public hearing is being reported on. But overwhelmingly the work of these commissions is conducted by private hearings. They're sparing in their use of the public hearings…..

PATRICIA KARVELAS: When will the full design of the commission be announced?

MARK DREYFUS: We're going to bring a bill to the Parliament. And I'm going to be consulting before we do that, I'm certainly going to be consulting with the crossbench. As you said, in your introduction, the election of many independent members of the Parliament who campaigned on integrity issues tells us about the level of public support for this anti-corruption commission. It's a nation building reform. We're treating it extremely seriously. It's, as I've said, a paramount objective for the Government. I'm looking forward to consulting right across the Parliament on the details of this.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, if you have it legislated by the end of the year Attorney-General, does that mean it could be operational by next year?

MARK DREYFUS: We are going to legislate to create this anti-corruption commission, put the legislation in place, by the end of this year. That is the most clear commitment that we've given during the course of the campaign when it might be operational. If the legislation is passed by the end of this year it'll be a matter, as always for the establishment of a Commonwealth agency, of finding premises, finding staff appointing the commissioners, and then then it can get up and running.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And what sort of timeframe might that might that look like?

MARK DREYFUS: I'd be hoping around the middle of 2023…..

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just finally, prior to the election Labor said it would seek to legislate a Religious Discrimination Act and scrap the ability of schools to expel gay and transgender students at the same time. But a timeline hasn't been given. Are you still committed to religious discrimination legislation? And when would you do it?

MARK DREYFUS: Very much so and it's something that we will do, as we've said, in the course of this Parliament. Unlike the commitment on the National Anti-Corruption Commission where we've put a timeline on it by saying we are going to legislate by the end of this year, we haven't put such a timeline on the religious discrimination legislation that we will be bringing before the Parliament. But be assured, Patricia, we are bringing religious discrimination legislation before the Parliament. I have a very sharp memory of being interviewed by you at about 7:30 in the morning after an all night sitting for Federal Parliament earlier this year, when I think we'd sat to about 5 am in the morning. And one of the things I said to you in that interview was that, if we were successful at the upcoming election, we would be returning to this subject and bringing legislation to the Parliament on religious discrimination. That's why we voted for the government's bill, even after our amendments, only one of the amendments we supported, was successful. Because at its core, there is an appropriate, at the core even of the government's bill, there was an appropriate structure of anti-discrimination law, bringing in a prohibition on discriminating against people on the grounds of their religious beliefs. So I think we've made our position clear. It is a matter again of drafting legislation, which we will be doing and we will be bringing legislation to the Parliament…...

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