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Anti-corruption commission would hold public hearings ‘in exceptional circumstances’

The Albanese government’s proposed National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) would have a broad scope but only hold public hearings “in exceptional circumstances and where it is in the public interest to do so”.

The “exceptional circumstances” provision immediately came under some questioning after Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus announced the design of the commission on Tuesday. Dreyfus will introduce the legislation for the new body on Wednesday. The government expects to have it passed in November.

Independent MP Helen Haines, who has been in the forefront of the battle for a federal integrity body, said the reference to exceptional circumstances would be the first thing she would look at when the bill came.

Independent senator David Pocock said: “The independent commission should be able to make hearings public if they believe it is in the public interest, not be constrained to do so in ‘exceptional’ circumstances”.

Dreyfus justified setting the bar at “exceptional circumstances” by saying public hearings “raise questions about reputational harm, which are not faced when you hold private hearings.

"And that’s why most of these commissions’ work has been done in private. We would expect the same to occur with this new Commonwealth agency”.

The independent commission, for which the government is allocating $262 million over four years, will be able to investigate “serious or systemic corrupt conduct” across the Commonwealth sector.

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This covers politicians and their staff, statutory office holders, employees of all government entities and government contractors.

It will be able to initiate its own inquiries as well as respond to referrals including from whistleblowers and the public; it will also be able to investigate matters that occurred before its establishment.

Dreyfus made it clear the commission – which will be overseen by a parliamentary committee – would have a great deal of discretion in deciding what fell within its remit.

Asked whether various scandals that occurred under the Morrison government, such as the sports rorts affair, would warrant investigation as potentially corrupt conduct, Dreyfus said that would be a matter for the commission to decide.

On retrospectivity, it would be up to the commission how far back it went.

Dreyfus said the commission would be able to investigate third parties “whose conduct influences the improper conduct of a public official, or the failure by a public official to act impartially”.

The bill had “a very broad definition of corrupt conduct”, Dreyfus said.

Pressed on whether people would fear the commission was being given too wide a remit, Dreyfus said: “Well, people should be afraid if they’ve been engaged in corrupt activities”.

The legislation contains whistleblower protections, and separately the government is strengthening general protections for whistleblowers.

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The attorney-general dodged questioning on whether anyone in the government might refer Morrison government scandals to the commission, but said it would be inappropriate for him, as minister responsible for the commission, to make referrals to the body.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton, who has had discussions with Anthony Albanese about the commission, said on the ABC Four Corners on Monday, “I’ve indicated publicly and privately to the prime minister that we will support a sensible integrity commission. I don’t want a show trial. I don’t want people’s lives destroyed.”

The bill will go to a parliamentary inquiry.

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