Greens to seek changes to Labor’s integrity commission legislation to protect whistleblowers

by Paul Karp
David Shoebridge reveals suite of amendments including budgetary independence and lowering bar to investigations

The Greens will seek to amend Labor’s integrity commission legislation to protect whistleblowers and lower the bar for investigations, in a test for government cooperation with the crossbench.

On Sunday the Greens justice spokesperson, David Shoebridge, revealed the party in the Senate would adopt a suite of amendments requested by transparency experts to align the Labor proposal with the crossbench bill championed by independent MP Helen Haines in the last parliament.

The changes include giving the integrity commission budgetary independence, lowering the bar for investigations to cover “serious or systemic” corruption and bringing stakeholders in the private sector within the body’s remit.

In consultations with stakeholders, MPs and senators, the attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, has suggested the government will improve protections for whistleblowers but it has declined to establish a whistleblower protection commissioner, another feature of the Haines bill.

On Sunday Shoebridge said: “We have started constructive engagement with the new Labor government and cross bench on the shape of a new federal Icac to be in place this year.”

“The government’s proposal is a good base but we know that a federal Icac with teeth also needs real financial independence, very broad powers to cover all corruption and follow promising leads, [and] to be able to protect brave whistleblowers,” he said.

“This new parliament has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an Icac that will future-proof the institution from governments that may not be so keen on scrutiny.

“I’m hopeful that with a new parliament, a new government, a bunch of new independents and a much expanded Greens presence that finally the adults are in charge. Where we land with the national Icac will be the first test of this.”

Legislating the changes would require Labor to adopt them in its bill, or an unlikely alliance with the Coalition.

Shoebridge told Guardian Australia the aim was to “come up with the strongest integrity commission that a progressive parliament can deliver”, adding that exchanges with Dreyfus had been “fruitful”.

Labor plans to introduce a bill for a national integrity commission as early as the September sitting of parliament, conduct a short inquiry through a joint select committee, and push to pass the bill this year.

Labor’s seven design principles largely fulfil independents’ wishlist for an integrity commission, and the bill received positive feedback this week from lower house MPs including Haines, and independent senator David Pocock.

Elements of Labor’s plan that were broadly approved included the ability to take referrals from the public, parliamentary oversight and the power to investigate past conduct and to issue public reports.

While Labor’s proposal included a broad jurisdiction to investigate commonwealth politicians and public servants, the Centre for Public Integrity wants its power extended to investigating those seeking to corrupt them, such as private contractors.

Although the commission can prioritise conduct that is serious and systemic, the fear is the threshold for an investigation must be lower because the commission will have insufficient information when it receives a tip to judge if misconduct is systemic.

Some stakeholders want the integrity commission be set up as an office of the parliament, giving it budgetary independence from the government of the day.

In June, the Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, signalled the opposition could support a national integrity commission, but called for a wider scope to include the ability to investigate unions.

“The reason I think it’s more important than ever is that under this Labor government, under the Albanese government, we are going to have a continuation of this unholy alliance with the CFMEU, the ETU, the MUA and the Labor party,” Dutton said.