Australia Today

Majority of Australians Do, in Fact, Support Public Corruption Hearings

More than two thirds of Australian voters want to see politicians held to account in public.
Labor voter with raised fist
Photo by Brent Lewin / Bloomberg via Getty Images

More than two thirds of Australian voters would want to see politicians held to account in public, even as the government trudges ahead with a bill that would see the hearings of a National Anti-Corruption Commission held behind closed doors by default.

Late last month, the Labor government finally delivered a draft bill for its National Anti-Corruption Commission. With it, however, came a “high bar” to have its hearings held in public, thanks to an undefined “exceptional circumstances” threshold, which a throng of legal experts and several crossbench MPs say could render the whole exercise counterproductive. 


Now, voters across the country are beginning to share the sentiment. 

According to a new poll conducted by the Australia Institute, 67 percent of those surveyed said the Albanese government’s proposed new Commission should be allowed to hold public hearings “under more circumstances” than are allowed under the legislation currently before parliament. 

Of that group, nearly a third said public hearings should be the default for any suspected corruption believed to be in “the public interest”, while 35 percent said public hearings should be the default for all hearings, across the board. 

Bill Browne, the democracy and accountability program director at the Australia Institute, said those in favour of the government’s controversial “exceptional circumstances” restriction make up less than 1 percent of voters. 

“The parliament could amend the draft laws to protect the public’s right to know and deliver a Commission with all the powers it needs to uncover potential corruption,” Browne said. 

“An amendment to remove the ‘exceptional circumstances’ restriction would be broadly supported, including across all voting intentions, according to the quantitative research,” he said.

 The poll surveyed what the Australia Institute called a nationally representative sample of 1,003 Australians. Of those asked, more than four in five Australians said the National Anti-Corruption Commission should be allowed to hold public hearings, with fewer than one in five saying public hearings should be limited in one way or another. 


Only 3 percent said public hearings shouldn’t be held at all, largely in step with the tilted response to the government’s tabled legislation late last month, which saw a consensus form around concerns that the bill in its current shape would fail to deliver on the very issues it sought to address: restoring faith and trust in federal politics.

Helen Haines, an independent MP who was the first to move a private member’s bill for an anti-corruption commission under the former Morrison government, told VICE the legislation is sturdy enough without the “exceptional circumstances” threshold.

She said Labor’s modelling could be stronger if it was more like what was adopted by the corruption watchdog in New South Wales.

“What we’ve seen with the anti-corruption commission in New South Wales is people like Eddie Obeid, who ended up in jail, exposed. He would never have been exposed, he would never have come to be found guilty of corruption, if it were not for the ability of the New South Wales ICAC to hold public hearings,” Haines said. 

“When you have a public hearing, other people have the opportunity to listen and hear and come forward with evidence, otherwise they may not even know about it.”

In its current form, the commission would be able to investigate and report on everyone from lobbyists and union heads to developers, donors and, of course, politicians, believed to be involved in “serious or systemic corrupt conduct” related to the federal public sector. 


Speaking to MPs in parliament on the bill’s arrival, Australia’s attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, said it will be able to take the initiative to launch its own inquiries in response to referrals “from anyone”, which can be anonymous.

In practice, the NACC would be able to get warrants and order property searches; execute arrests, bug phones and use other forms of surveillance, and force the production of documents, among other powers.

In an address to the National Press Club on Wednesday, Dreyfus tried to clear up some of the contention that has since surrounded the bill.

“There are important reasons why some hearings need to be conducted in private, including to avoid prejudicing an ongoing investigation or related criminal proceedings, to protect the privacy of witnesses or to ensure national security information is protected from disclosure,” Dreyfus said.

“The decision to hold hearings in public or in private will be made by the independent commissioner.”

Before Labor’s bill can pass both houses, a specially-formed parliamentary committee will now have a little over a month to thrash out the more granular particulars of the bill, before it’s expected to go to the Senate in late November. Several legal experts hope the “exceptional circumstances” threshold is lowered by then. 

One of them is Anthony Whealy KC, a former judge of the NSW Court of Appeal and chair of the Centre for Public Integrity, who told VICE the test could “inhibit” the commission’s ability to expose corruption. 


“It would be very unfortunate, because you shouldn't be having litigation about these sorts of things. It’s going to hold up investigations,” Whealy said.  

“It means that in order to show exceptional circumstances the commission would have to reveal to a court the whole nature of its investigation; what evidence it has got; what witnesses have told them in private hearings,” he said. 

“And to put all that out, in a situation where the person being investigated will be tipped off about the case against them before there's even an investigation in public terms, is completely undesirable.”

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