A blueprint for action on integrity

Since the Liberal-National Part Government came to power Australia’s ranking in Transparency International’s (TI) global corruption surveys has fallen.

Australia has slid 8 points in the global corruption rankings since 2012 and the 2019 report (the 2020 is coming soon and likely to be worse) put Australia in 12th place, scoring 77 points on the 100-point scale.

Now TI has released a Blueprint for Action for an Australian National Integrity System which aims to reverse the trend. It proposes five interlocking elements: a connected National Integrity Plan; a strong Federal Integrity Commission; a commitment to open trustworthy decision making; fair honest democracy; and, public interest whistle-blowing.

The features of these five core elements are detailed in 10 action areas which could be implemented over three to five years – if the commitment and willingness is there.

TI’s argument is that the world’s most corruption-free countries share some essential characteristics: a robust rule of law, independent oversight institutions and a public that can and does speak out against corruption.

On these criteria Australia is relatively corruption free compared to many other countries but the trends, and resistance to meaningful reform at Federal level, make it clear our international standings could well slip further.

Public cynicism and outrage ought to be a catalyst but too often they are ignored. Currently 66% of Australians’ believe corruption in government is a big problem – up from 61% in 2018.

An Australian National University undertaken just before COVID found that just 25% of Australians said they had confidence in their political leaders and institutions. It also found Australians’ satisfaction with democracy was at its lowest since the constitutional crisis of the 1970s with 56% believing democracy was not working. The common view was that government was run for a “few big interests” with only 12% believing the government is run for “all the people”.

You can hardly blame the public for such views given sports rorts; total refusal to accept Ministerial responsibility; raids on the media; whistle-blower prosecutions; funding cuts to the National Audit Office; and, stacking of organisations from Australia Post to the AAT with former politicians many of them unqualified for their positions.

The TI Blueprint describes the current state of integrity regulation and structures and features the work of Catherine Cochrane in her PhD thesis – Towards a national ICAC: a policy analysis of standing anti-corruption commission in Australia.  

The Blueprint also maps all the legislated public hearing powers of current, proposed and recommended anti-corruption commissions highlighting the gaps, failures and weaknesses.

The report is not a step by step guide but rather a set of inter-related priorities recognising existing State and Territory institutions but explaining how they could be integrated into a comprehensive and coherent system in which national institutions provide benchmarks and leadership and work flexibly with public, civil and private sector stakeholders.

Needless to say the proposed Christian Porter integrity commission fails to meet the need or bear the slightest relationship to the process recommended.

The fundamental recommendation is the co-design of a comprehensive, connected national integrity and anti-corruption plan which, once instituted is guaranteed sustainable funding and independence.

The proposed Federal integrity commission would have a wide enough scope to review any conduct which might undermine public trust; have legislatively-backed strong corruption prevention functions; and would enact new best practice investigation and public hearing powers.

The Blueprint also recommends action to reinforce parliamentary and ministerial standards; overhauling lobbying and influence regimes; and, of course, enforcing them.

To make us truly democratic and to prevent the ongoing farcical Clive Palmer interventions there needs to be caps on campaign expenditure; reasonable donation limits; real time donation disclosure requirements; all backed by enhanced actions and enforcement.

Effective codes of conduct for parliamentary and lobbying activities beyond the current farcical lobbyist register are also required.

Finally the Blueprint recommends enforcing consistent, world-leading whistle-blower protections; and, enshrining full ‘shield laws’ for public interest journalism and disclosures.

TI is not alone in the campaign. Helen Haines, the independent Indi MHR has unveiled The Beechworth Principles against which any federal integrity commission can be measured. The principles stipulate that a commission must have: broad jurisdiction, common rules, appropriate powers, fair hearings, public accountability and broad jurisdiction.

The principles have won widespread support from other cross-bench members and aspiring independents aiming to mimic their electoral success.

Meanwhile a range of investigative journalists from Adele Ferguson at Fairfax to the ABC Four Corners team are constantly exposing scandals.

Michael West, in his independent online investigative newsletter is running an ongoing campaign for a Federal ICAC saying: “It is not just the big scandals, such as the sports rorts and travel rorts, that eat away at our trust and faith in politicians and the system. It is the near daily stories of appalling behaviour – be it broken promises, the grants that don’t comply with the rules, the cavalier and unaccountable spending of taxpayers’ money, the ex-politicians who take up jobs in apparent defiance of the rules, the conflicts of interest and the jobs for the boys – that constantly chip away at our trust in politicians.”

If Scott Morrison and his Ministers are good at anything beyond three word slogans it is the capacity to produce any number of contorted words amounting to move along, nothing to see here. Sadly there is much to see, as reflected in the increasing demands for action from the community, Transparency International, Helen Haines and other MPs, Michael West and even to a certain extent the ALP.

Declaration of interest: The author is a TI member.