Over the past decade, Australia’s score and ranking in the global Corruption Perceptions Index has fallen significantly. Its rank has fallen out of the top 10 least corrupt, from 7th to 18th since 2012. This is one of the justifications for a federal anti-corruption body.
What we have before us in 2022 are two documents proposing an anti-corruption agency – a 347-page draft bill for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC) from the government, and a one page statement from the opposition.
Both are responses to public unease, and are responding to a diminution in public standards. Standards in government have diminished over the past decade. There have been findings of inappropriate behaviour, both personal and political, and the responses have not satisfied the general public. This has placed Australia in a very unfavourable light when compared to other affluent Western nations.
Anti-corruption agencies fall into three categories – guard dogs that bite, watchdogs that bark, and toothless tigers. The government’s proposed CIC model has been criticised as a toothless tiger.
When dealing with the public sector (as opposed to law enforcement), it limits corruption to criminal behaviour, and it does not allow for the commission to undertake “own-motion” investigations. This means the commission cannot investigate public or whistleblower complaints. It can only act when it becomes aware of an allegation while investigating an issue or holding an inquiry. This is different to suspected corruption in law enforcement, where the commission can act on allegations. It does not allow for public hearings, and it limits what can be reported.
Not all corruption is criminal. Many activities are lawful but awful. But the bill does not recognise this. A good anti-corruption agency would have three main functions: investigation, prevention and education. The government’s bill has only the first, and even then in a very limited way. But there are 347 pages of text to say this.
The government’s bill will not prevent the stacking of tribunals and boards with party apparatchiks. It will not prevent attempts to buy votes with non-transparent pork barrelling. It will probably catch out small scale operatives who behave badly and rort our systems. As proposed, it will leave people at the top of the food chain relatively untouched.