Australia dragging its heels on public sector corruption in our own backyard

Corruption costs the global economy trillions of dollars a year and has the potential to damage the principles of democracy, justice and the economy. Australia is a relatively clean country, especially when compared to countries such as China, India, Indonesia and Russia, however a recent number of high profile domestic allegations highlight the need to be more cautious and aware of corrupt conduct that is occurring within our own borders.

From a local perspective, and according to Transparency International, Australia’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) rank has remained outside of the Top 10 for the fourth year in a row. The CPI ranks 176 countries from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean) and measures the perceived level of public sector corruption within that specific country. Australia has been criticised domestically and abroad for its apparent inaction in regards to its commitment to implementing anti-corruption measures.

Recent local events have highlighted just how deep this risk runs in Government, in particular at the Federal Government level where Australia has lagged behind its state counterparts in addressing this risk through the implementation of a federal regulator with proper powers to receive complaints and investigate corruption.

With the release of the exposure draft for legislation in November 2020, Australia now has an opportunity to gauge the intent of the proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC). Whilst the Government is to be acknowledged for the initiative taken there is a growing view that a corruption body designed by the very people it may later investigate, that also lacks critical components, will raise concerns about the effectiveness and intent of such a body. For example:

  • There is no provision for public hearings to occur – Transparency and balance in allowing public hearings into procedural or systemic departmental conduct does not create a risk that individual reputations will be damaged
  • It does not allow for whistleblowers external to Government to make complaints direct to the CIC – The complaint must come from Government agencies which creates a risk that confidential tip offs will not be disclosed to the CIC
  • The concept of two divisions (public sector and law enforcement) creates inconsistency when considering what can be investigated – Public sector complaints can only be investigated if a criminal offence has been or is being committed whereas law enforcement complaints consider “corruption of any other kind” where there is not a criminal threshold.

These are some examples of the inconsistency that exists in the current exposure draft of the two proposed Bills. With consultation now sought it is imperative that feedback through written submission is provided by 12 February 2021. We remain hopeful that our political leaders read the temperament of Australians and address the perception of transparency in the proposed CIC model. Without that we may be left with a toothless tiger.