Public servants could have their phones tapped in corruption investigations under draft legislation for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission released by the government on Monday.
Almost two years on from the government promising to introduce such a body, Attorney-General Christian Porter said the model proposed "learns from the significant mistakes of state integrity bodies and strikes the right balance between the need to protect the rights of individuals and the need to establish a powerful investigative body".
The government has been under intense pressure to release the draft legislation, which has been with the Attorney-General since December last year, but Mr Porter said it hadn't been appropriate to release it to the public until now.
According to Mr Porter, the Commonwealth Integrity Commission model proposes stronger investigatory powers than a royal commission, including the ability to compel witnesses to give evidence at hearings, compel the production of documents, search people and houses under warrant, arrest people, and tap phones and use surveillance devices.
It would have the ability to confiscate passports and officers of the commission would have the ability to assume false identities as part of investigations.
Mr Porter countered criticisms of the narrow jurisdiction of the commission, which would only investigate conduct considered likely to be criminal corruption, by saying it covered 143 offences and would introduce a handful of new corruption offences for public officials.
Those offences would include repeated public sector corruption and concealing public sector corruption,
The draft legislation retains elements of the proposed model first released in December 2018 that have been widely criticised, including keeping separate arms of the commission for law enforcement agencies and the rest of the public service and politicians.
It will have a more narrow "specialised" remit than integrity commissions in other jurisdictions in Australia, only investigating serious criminal conduct, with limited powers for the section covering most bureaucratss and politicians.
The new body would have a total of 172 staff at full capacity, absorbing the existing Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity.
"Australians rightly expect that those working in the public sector - including politicians and their staff - are held to the highest standards of honesty and accountability, which is why the new CIC has been given the most significant powers and resources to detect and deter criminal activity and enhance the public sector's long-term resilience," Mr Porter said on Monday.
The consultation process will run until February next year, after which the government will attempt to get the crossbench onside to pass the legislation.
The model for an integrity commission released by the government has been labelled weak and secretive by the opposition.
"Regrettably, they seemed to not have listened to the avalanche of criticism that descended on the proposal after December 2018," shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said.
Independent MP Helen Haines, who last week introduced her own legislation for a federal integrity commission to the House of Representatives, said it was no doubt the introduction of her bill, and the threat of government MPs crossing the floor to force debate, that had hastened the release of the legislation.
She committed to review the legislation before coming to a final position.
"I am deeply alarmed that this legislation appears to be the same weak model the Attorney-General served up two years ago, and is inadequate in several fundamental respects," Dr Haines said.
"A model like this would be ineffectual against the scandals we have seen over the last fortnight. Australians deserve better than that."
The main public sector union said it was better late than never for the draft legislation.
"There are however some substantial flaws with the proposed legislation that have not been addressed by the Minister; no scope for public hearings or direct referrals in the public sector division, and no retrospective powers," the Community and Public Sector Union's national secretary Melissa Donnelly said.
"In essence Australians will have to rely on politicians or agency heads to do the right thing and refer their colleagues. This is a real flaw, as we have seen in recent cases in NSW. The Commission must have the power to initiate investigations, and ability to find corrupt conduct."
Ms Donnelly also pointed out the recent funding cuts to the Australian National Audit Office, and said funding for the Integrity Commission must be "secure and safe from the government of the day".