The federal anti-corruption watchdog has cleared its first hurdle after the government passed a proposed model through parliament’s lower house.
Arguments from members of the crossbench failed to convince the Albanese government to change its threshold rule for public hearings, or agree to define the provision.
Independent MP Helen Haines, who spearheaded efforts to set up a federal integrity body, tried to remove the “exceptional circumstances” clause altogether, saying the provision was “unnecessary and alarming”.
“This is the single most important change to this bill,” Dr Haines told parliament on Thursday.
When this was not supported, Dr Haines pushed for the government to define the meaning of “exceptional circumstances”.
Her amendments were backed by the Greens, other independents and Liberal MP Bridget Archer.
But Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the government did not support the changes, saying they were matters on which “reasonable minds may differ”.
“The commissioner will have the discretion to hold public hearings if they’re satisfied that it’s in the public interest and exceptional circumstances justify doing so,” he said.
“It is the government’s view that this is an appropriate threshold which reflects the significant nature of the power to compel a person to answer questions.”
Independent MP Zali Steggall said while the proposed model would help increase accountability and transparency, she did not believe it went far enough.
“This [bill] is not capturing that opportunity to genuinely deliver to the Australian people what they asked for at the election, which is public integrity and accountability,” Ms Steggall said.
She said not defining exceptional circumstances left commissioners open to legal challenge, and that Australians would be kept in the dark if the government did not lower the bar for public hearings.
“I don’t think there could have been any clearer call at the election in 2022 that the public has had enough,” Ms Steggall said.
“They want to see integrity returned to this place.”
Dr Haines also called for an amendment to address pork barrelling by political parties ahead of elections.
She said it was “beyond doubt” that pork barrelling fell within the definition of corrupt conduct.
However, Mr Dreyfus said the government’s proposal included the commission’s ability to investigate discretionary grants programs where they breach public trust.
Independent MP Dai Le, who represents the multicultural Sydney electorate of Fowler, was successful in her push for the commission to ensure translation and interpreter services be made available for witnesses.
But a further amendment to protect the mental health of witnesses by allowing them to disclose their involvement in a public hearing was not agreed to.
Mr Dreyfus said the commissioner would have discretion to allow a witness to talk to their spouse or partner about being called as a witness, and it did not need to be specified in the legislation.
“It is the government’s expectation that the commission would make available appropriate translation, mental health and other support services to persons who require assistance,” he said.
Additional cross-bench amendments to improve protections for public broadcasters and put time frames on reporting requirements were not agreed to.
The opposition proposed to mandate factors to be taken into account when determining whether to have a public hearing, and to clarify the definition of corruption, but these were not accepted.
An additional suggestion to only hold investigations on past matters when it was in the public interest was also rejected.
The Senate has extended its sitting calendar so laws to establish the commission can be passed before parliament finishes for the year next Friday.
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