The new federal integrity watchdog will only be able to hold public hearings in “exceptional” circumstances, Australia’s top law officer has revealed.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus didn’t deny this was a concession to clinch Coalition support for the Bill when he was pressed on the matter on Tuesday.
Asked if the high threshold for public hearings had been a demand from the Liberal Party, Mr Dreyfus said: “We think that this is the right setting”.
“(It) shows that the commission has to take that into account before deciding to hold a public hearing, but it will remain a matter for the commissioner to determine,” he told reporters at Parliament House.
Mr Dreyfus disclosed more details about the national anti-corruption commission the day before the Albanese government’s legislation is introduced to parliament on Wednesday.
“For the reasons that are set out in the Bill, we think that public hearings should be exceptional, and we think that the commission should be required to determine that it is in the public interest,” he said.
This means the national anti-corruption commission would have a higher bar for public hearings than its state counterparts.
Mr Dreyfus said Australians had “seen” that public hearings were now “more difficult to conduct”.
“They raise questions about reputational harm, which are not faced when you hold private hearings,” he said.
“Most of these commissioners’ work has been done in private. We would expect the same to occur with this new commonwealth agency.”
The Albanese government is yet to make its legislation public.
Labor has been in the final stage of negotiating on the laws to establish the commission, which it hopes it will pass through parliament by the end of the year, with the NACC up and running by mid-2023.
Mr Dreyfus has been seeking support from the Greens and crossbenchers at the same time as he is understood to have been discussing the laws with the Coalition in the hopes of striking an agreement in order to hedge his bets across the political aisle.
Amid concerns Labor could effectively shut-out the crossbench, Goldstein MP Zoe Daniel asked Mr Dreyfus during Question Time on Monday if the government would compromise the NACC to secure Coalition support.
Mr Dreyfus replied by saying he had consulted widely across the parliament and that the legislation reflected the principles Labor brought to the federal election.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton declared on Monday he was confident “there’ll be a Bill that we can support” following talks with the government.
Mr Dutton told ABC TV’s Four Corners the Coalition wasn’t concerned about the NACC’s scope and its ability to hold public hearings.
“I don’t want people’s lives destroyed; I’m not interested in something which is titillating for the media but ultimately not good for democracy in this country,” Mr Dutton said.
“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.”
Greens senator David Shoebridge said on Tuesday he thought the Coalition may choose to support the Bill “for its own reputational reasons”.
“I would welcome the Coalition coming in and supporting the Bill, but not if that is at the cost of a toxic deal with the Labor government which limits the effectiveness of the national anti-corruption commission,” he said.