Parliamentary Speech: National Anti-Corruption Commisson

To build on what the Prime Minister just said: Australia is one of the world's oldest continuing democracies. It's a great achievement and it's a great inheritance. And so today I rise to support the establishment of a National Anti-Corruption Commission. But, in doing so, I also rise to lament the need to have one. Many in this place have spoken about the loss of trust, the breach of confidence and the moral corruption of leaders and the compromised decisions they make. They make the case for why we need a regulator, an enforcer, a higher body to which parliamentarians and those who deal with them owe their fears. They desire greater transparency. The argument is that, without fear of exposure and penalty, and without the fear of punishment and the compliance that comes before it, we have no hope of integrity or virtue in our Public Service.

It is often said that compliance is what you do when you are being watched but culture drives what you do when no-one is watching. While I support the establishment of a commission, for the transparency it will bring, my observation is that its extraordinary powers will tend to promote compliance on pain of exposure and enforcement, rather than fostering a revival of integrity and virtue in our public institutions. It will still be possible to pursue corrupt ends or undertake corrupt means, even as the overwatch of the commission is activated. Much of the time, misdeeds will be examined long after they have occurred, long since the effect and impact of wrongdoing has done its work and long after the benefits of exploitation have been wrought.

What I lament is the state of politics and the state of public service in Australia today, that we might need an anticorruption commission. What I lament is the necessity we feel to legislate for a commission with extraordinary powers, with unelected officials overseeing our elected officials, our Public Service and the Australian Defence Force. I lament that the key message at the heart of this debate is that those in public service can no longer be trusted.

Many in this place have been rightly focused on the design and details of the commission. That is important work, and I acknowledge the focus and diligence of all those involved. However, what does it say about Australia, about our nation and our people today, that we cannot be trusted to do what is right, let alone to not do what is wrong? What does it say about this generation of leaders, that what we need amounts to an integrity police escort wherever we go? What does it say about the times, that we elect people to represent us in this place and those people cannot be trusted?

It's fair to say we have seen breaches of public trust across society: the Australian cricket team, with the ball-tampering scandal in 2018; the alleged misdeeds of Australian Special Forces identified in the Brereton report; the countless royal commissions into aged care and veteran suicide, among others, including the financial sector; and the recent collapse of FTX cryptocurrency. Today, reports indicate that 30,000 Australians will have lost money through that collapse. The public has the right to feel let down by public institutions and those who lead them.

The commission might help put a floor under acceptable conduct and draw a line where it needs to be drawn, to show us where we should not go, but what role does it serve in promoting self-control, self-command, self-government and genuine public service? What does the commission do to encourage and inspire us not only to answer the higher calling of serving the nation but to fulfil its promise? The commission may well reinforce compliance, but what does it do to renew a culture of genuine service and private integrity that serves the best interests of the public? It is the state of politics and the state of public service today, and the failures of trust and confidence, that have triggered this debate and which I lament. How does this commission promote the traditional values of courage, prudence, justice and temperance, those classical values that have come down through history to the present?

In my first speech, back in 2015, I quoted Michael Novak in his Templeton Prize address back in 1994, given in Westminster Abbey. He said this of freedom, and it's a speech I go back to regularly:

Freedom cannot grow—it cannot even survive—in every atmosphere or clime. In the wearying journey of human history, free societies have been astonishingly rare. The ecology of liberty is more fragile than the biosphere of Earth. Freedom needs clean and healthful habits, sound families, common decencies, and the unafraid respect of one human for another. Freedom needs entire rainforests of little acts of virtue, tangled loyalties, fierce loves, undying commitments. Freedom needs particular institutions and these, in turn, need peoples of particular habits of the heart.

Consider this. There are two types of liberty: one precritical, emotive, whimsical, proper to children; the other critical, sober, deliberate, responsible, proper to adults. Alexis de Tocqueville called attention to this alternative early in Democracy in America, and at Cambridge Lord Acton put it this way: Liberty is not the freedom to do what you wish; it is the freedom to do what you ought. Human beings are the only creatures on earth that do not blindly obey the laws of their nature, by instinct, but are free to choose to obey them with a loving will. Only humans enjoy the liberty to do-or not to do-what we ought to do.

Novak says:

It is this second kind of liberty—critical, adult liberty—that lies at the living core of the free society. It is the liberty of self-command, a mastery over one's own passions, bigotry, ignorance, and self-deceit. It is the liberty of self-government in one's own personal life. … If they cannot practice self-government over their private passions, how will they practice it over the institutions of the Republic?

That was a question put by James Madison.

The institution I would rather speak for now is the institution of critical adult liberty, the self-commanded ordered liberty that Novak speaks of. More than an external commission—an integrity police escort—what would we prefer is a mastery of one's own passions—bigotry, ignorance self deceit. We need among us more self-governance of our own personal and public lives. If we cannot practise self-government over our private passions then how can we practise it over the institutions of the Commonwealth? As Novak observes, for us in our nation and in our time, there cannot be a free, open and diverse society among citizens who habitually lie, who malinger, who cheat and who do not meet their responsibilities, who cannot be counted on, who shirk difficulties and who flout the law, among other things.

I agree with Novak: freedom requires the exercise of conscience, the practise of virtues long practised in Australia's best traditions. We want self-governing individuals to restrain immoral government. That is why we are in this House, that is why we choose to be elected representatives and it is a massive responsibility. It is given to us every three years, it is not to be taken for granted, and high standards are expected of those who serve in the government; that is why we have a ministerial code of conduct. Again, the best way to uphold these traditions is self-governance, self-command and self-control. That is why I support this commission. I want to make that very clear. I support this commission and the work that has gone into it through the joint committee but I also lament the need for the commission, the state of politics and the Public Service that requires it today.

As for the legislation and the framework before this House, I continue to question why members of the Australian Defence Force and other Public Service agencies are subject to the commission whereas trade union officials, who wield large political power, particularly with this government, are exempt. So I call on this parliament to support amendments to close this obvious and ominous loophole in the framework.

Surely this government's commitment to integrity and anticorruption should adopt a lead-by-example approach, and the unions should be at the forefront of answering the call. The unions and their leaders should have no problem joining the government at the vanguard of this reform, as they play an outsized role in driving and influencing this government. There is no integrity if it is only good for some but not good for all.

I return to my call for self-governance and ordered liberty. I support the institution of this commission. While I have always supported and aspired to the highest levels of integrity and public service in this place, I believe the commission should be fair, consistent and apply to the right constituencies, including trade union leadership. However, I believe the best hope we have for curing ourselves of corruption in the heart of government and in the heart of the nation is to defeat its impulses in the hearts of each one of us.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from the Gulag Archipelago said:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained"

It is a great quote. Again, I wanted to read it today to remind us of what we are called to in this place: high standards of public service, integrity and virtue. It is this private integrity and ordered self-governance that offer the best alternative to pursuing compliance over culture and resigning ourselves to a framework that at best can expose and enforce against wrongdoing but not prevent failures in integrity and the degradation of the Public Service. I thank the House.