‘Show trials’ or ‘critical’? Why debate is raging over this federal anti-corruption commission issue

The prospect of a has been an ongoing debate in Australian politics, but the Labor government is set to bring forward its legislation on Tuesday.
The bill is set to go to caucus before being put to the House of Representatives, with the government hoping to have legislation passed this year.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton has indicated he would support an integrity commission but remains cautious about the potential for public hearings turning into ‘show trials’.
The Oxford dictionary defines a show trial as “a judicial trial held in public with the intention of influencing or satisfying public opinion, rather than of ensuring justice”.

Here’s what you need to know about the debate over Australia’s long-awaited federal anti-corruption commission.

What is an anti-corruption commission and why doesn’t Australia have one federally?

An anti-corruption commission is designed to uncover corruption, guide the conduct of public officials, and ensure members of government are held to account.

Every Australian state and territory has an individual anti-corruption agency, but Australia does not currently have one operating at a federal level.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison promised to introduce a federal anti-corruption body ahead of the 2019 election.
In 2021, the Coalition proposed a public sector commission that would not be able to host public hearings, investigate tip-offs from the public or issue public findings.
Ahead of the 2022 federal election, the Labor Party promised it would introduce a stronger model by the end of the year if elected, with politicians being subject to public hearings and the agency able to act on tip-offs.

In August, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said he hoped a bill to establish the commission would be brought forward in the next sitting fortnight.

Clancy Moore, Chief Executive Officer at Transparency International Australia, described a federal anti-corruption as an important step to addressing transparency and accountability.
“We know that corruption and allegations of corruption in our politics weakens democracy and has been eroding people’s trust and faith in the Australian federal parliament for many years as well,” he said.
“It’s a key reform and it’s well overdue; I think it has been delayed probably due to lack of political will over the years.”

“Recent polling shows about 88 per cent of Australians want the federal anti-corruption commission so it’s well overdue, and it’s an important reform.”

What is the case for public hearings?

Mr Moore said it was important for the National Anti-Corruption Commission to have the power to hold both private and public hearings, and develop reports for the public.

He pointed to several state anti-corruption commissions, which usually hold private hearings apart from instances wherein a case passes a ‘public interest test’, which would then lead to a public hearing.

“Public hearings are essential, particularly if it’s in the public interest … it demonstrates the seriousness of corruption in our federal politics, it’s also transparent, which means the public is informed about what took place and the workings of the national anti-corruption commission,” Mr Moore said.
“The need to have those public hearings in a transparent and open way is really important because it builds faith from the public in the workings of the national anti-corruption commission, and actually can act as a deterrent as well, if people who are potentially acting in corrupt manners know that there could be public hearings in the future as well.’

In recent years, several figures have been subjected to public hearings in different jurisdictions in Australia, such as Gladys Berejiklian, who faced the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) following her relationship with former MP Daryl Maguire.

Former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian faced a public hearing by the NSW ICAC in 2021. Source: AAP

What is the case against public hearings?

While proponents of public hearings say they are an important means of transparency, critics have expressed concerns that they could damage reputations and compromise privacy and confidentiality.

Mr Morrison previously criticised public hearings and the model of the NSW ICAC, describing it as a “kangaroo court”.

The term “kangaroo court” is often used to describe an ad hoc court that has limited power and does not follow normal legal procedures.
“I’m not going to allow that sort of a process, which seeks to publicly humiliate people on matters that have nothing to do with the issues before such as a commission,” he said.
“The Australian people know that Gladys Berejiklian was done over by a bad process and an abuse.”
NSW ICAC commissioner Stephen Rushton hit back, labelling as

This week, opposition leader Peter Dutton told ABC’s Four Corners program he expected to support the government’s bill, but warned against ‘show trials’.
“I don’t want people’s lives destroyed,” he said.
“I’m not interested in something which is titillating for the media, but ultimately not good for democracy in this country.”

“I support the integrity commission, we’re working with the government in that regard, and I believe that there’ll be a bill that we can support.”

What will the government’s proposal look like?

Ahead of Labor’s bill being introduced, Mr Dreyfus has confirmed public hearings will be a key component of the proposal, amid concerns the body may not be as tough as earlier thought.
“Public hearings must be available to this commission because that is something that the experience of the eight existing state and territory commissions has shown us,” he said on Monday.

“In order for an anti-corruption commission such as the one we are proposing to be fully effective (it must have) the possibility of public hearings.”

Mr Dreyfus also said the government would not seek to instruct the commission on what would be able to be investigated.
“In relation to pork barrelling, decisions about the allocation of public funds should be made of course in the public interest,” he said.
He also appeared to indicate business people could come under its scope.
“The commission will be able to investigate a corruption issue that could involve serious or systemic conduct by any person that could adversely affect the honesty or impartiality of a public official’s conduct.”

Key crossbench MPs have promised not to impede the passage of the legislation, but warned they would not rubber stamp the bill.

In a joint letter, the Greens and independent MPs and senators say they want a commission to be set up properly after “good faith” consultations with the government in the preceding months.
Mr Moore said TIA would also like to see stronger proposals around whistleblower protections.
“What we’ve seen previously is that when people blow the whistle on corrupt practices, they’re often left to dry and it sends a really chilling effect down the spine of potential whistleblowers as well, so we’re looking for really strong protections for whistleblowers.

“We also want the national anti-corruption commission to be independent, fully funded, have independent oversight, and then have that ability to hold public and private hearings, when they’re in the public interest as well.”

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