Another elephant in the room

While think tanks add many things to the political debate, activist groups rarely do. Worse we have to put up with the ‘Get Up illusion’ in which some activists believe that signing an online petition, or crowdfunding an ad, is effective political action or a way to deal with African war criminals.

But there are some exceptions. One of the stand out exceptions is Transparency International Australia (TIA) – the Australian arm of the very effective international pressure group Transparency International (TI) perhaps best known for its regular ratings of national corruption. For the record Australia is slipping down the table. In the interests of transparency the blog also needs to declare that it is a TIA member.

In fact TIA and TI are sort of a combination of an activist group and a think tank. The quality and range of its work can be seen at In the latest example of judicious activism TIA has asked members and others to circulate an ePostcard to their local candidate highlighting five key issues relating to transparency, integrity and accountability.

TIA has written to all the major parties and independents to obtain commitments on issues such as: instituting transparent political financing; establishing a Federal Anti-Corruption Commission; implementing a public register of beneficial ownership of all Australian companies; adopting and implementing world-leading whistleblowing protection legislation and practice; and fully implementing Australia’s obligations to the Open Government Partnership.

With election funding the proposal is for real-time disclosure of political donations and campaign expenditure “combined with consistent national rules on donation limits, disclosure limits and disclosure by third parties.” The blog recently heard a former politician talking about some policy aspirations which were undone by the tide of donations which came to their party as a result of one of their colleague’s assiduous cultivation of rent-seekers. Real-time disclosure would make this harder. Needless to say political parties would hate such disclosure but it would be a huge step towards overcoming the anger and frustration we are seeing in ordinary voters about the ‘money’ effect from the USA to the UK and Australia.

The anti-corruption agency should be a no-brainer. It could be funded in the first couple of years for less than has been spent on politically-motivated Royal Commissions.

The public register of beneficial owners seems arcane but it is a key to all sorts of other issues: from tax evasion/avoidance to money laundering. For all their high-minded comments about transparency, corruption and tax dodging George Osborne and David Cameron (with some precedents from Gordon Brown and Tony Blair) have made London one of the world centres for money laundering, tax evasion and the hiding of corrupt gains. The Panama Papers are the tip of the iceberg of this problem but give a sliver of an insight into the scale of the issue (forgive the mixed metaphors but the subject encourages it). Perhaps the best example of how bad the situation has become is the fact that the private-public partnership which funded new tax office premises in London ended up being off-loaded to an anonymously owned company registered in a tax haven. One has to concede that the British do hypocrisy better than anyone else in the world.

Well, as for whistle-blowing, what can you say about Australia when a doctor can be sent to jail for two years for exposing the fact that a refugee was raped in an internment camp (sorry refugee centre)? The hypocrisy on the subject is also astonishing. Malcolm Turnbull says there is no point in having the Federal Police investigate how Jamie Briggs’ comments, including personal details, about a women he harassed became public while the same Federal Police raided ALP offices to find out how documents which demonstrated what everybody already knew – the Turnbull NBN is a dud – were leaked.

The final TIA issue is the call to deliver on Australia’s obligations to the Open Government Partnership. This may also seem arcane unless you wonder why Australian infrastructure costs so much and why public-private partnerships end up dudding the taxpayer while delivering huge benefits to investment bankers. The conventional wisdom is that the huge cost is due to unions such as the CFMEU. The reality is that on major infrastructure everybody is in on the rort and at every stage of the process someone clips their profit slice. The TIA proposal would implement an Open Contracting Data Standard on all major infrastructure projects and private-public partnerships.

And, of course, when it comes to infrastructure politicians love new projects – just as all the rent seekers who benefit from them love the cop they get as a result. Yet one of the desperate needs in Australia is to do something about maintaining existing infrastructure. In the US the engineers’ professional association publishes regular reports on infrastructure maintenance needs indicating just how close to third world standards much of it is. In the UK and Italy – which are the two founders (albeit 2000 years apart) of modern infrastructure – the problems are also acute.

At least in the USA there is some data on the needs – unlike in Australia, the UK and Italy. The new Victorian infrastructure agency apparently plans to start collecting some data on the issue but what’s happening nationally, and when Victoria will get the benefit, is anyone’s guess.

Politicians have much to say about the behaviour of others, but as Tony Whealy QC, TIA Australia Chair, says: “The public is sceptical, and rightly so, that neither the Government nor the Opposition has had the stomach to institute a body to oversee and improve their own behaviour.”