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In an interview on the ABC's Insiders programme Social Services Minister Anne Ruston defended the strength of the government's proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission claiming "our particular bill suggests that the powers of the commission are well in excess of a royal commission."
But while the new body would have some powers comparable to those of a royal commission, it cannot be said that its overall powers would be "well in excess". The Royal Commissions Act is relatively brief, leaving scope for commissioners to use their powers broadly. In contrast, the much longer CIC bill imposes many constraints, including how investigations can be initiated and carried out. In particular, there are significant limitations on the powers in the proposed "public sector division", covering most of the public service, parliamentarians, higher education providers and research bodies. In this division, the CIC would lack the power to hold public hearings. Legal experts told Fact Check public hearings increased the effectiveness of royal commissions and contributed to their investigative ability. The findings of a royal commission are published in a report at the end of the investigation. The public sector division of the CIC does not have this power.
There are also limitations in this division on what types of conduct can be investigated, who can be investigated and how much of its work can be reported publicly, in contrast to royal commissions. Experts told Fact Check that these restrictions undercut the new body's powers in a way that did not apply to royal commissions. They also pointed out that the CIC would have less ability than a royal commission to exercise the powers it did have, because its proposed annual budget fell well below the cost of many single-issue royal commissions. The experts said when it came to coercive powers, the government's bill would establish a number of powers comparable to those of a royal commission. These include the ability to compel witnesses and evidence, to create penalties for failure to appear and to apply for search warrants and telecommunication intercepts.
Verdict: Senator Ruston's claim is overblown.