Since 2012, Australia has fallen eight places in a global corruption index published by Transparency International. Despite holding a respectable rank of 12 out of 180 countries, this steady decline should be a cause of alarm for the Federal Government.
Within Federal politics, several factors are to blame. The revolving door between politicians and lobbyists, undisclosed political donations, the lack of an overarching anti-corruption body, and weak legal protections for whistle-blowers are among some of the reasons for Australia’s slip in ranking. Each of these factors raise important questions about the adequacy of current strategies to address corruption at the federal level of government.
Revolving door between politics and lobbying
The revolving door between politics and lobbying is fast becoming a normalized aspect of Australian politics. With a recent study identifying more than one-third of registered lobbyists in 2019 being former government representatives, legitimate concerns about potential conflicts of interests should be addressed.
Not only does being a member of the public service provide information on the inner-workings of government, it also provides access to decision-makers. The nature of federal politics - where large amounts of money, power and influence change hands regularly - is a particularly high-risk environment.
Whilst there is a 12 month restraint on Ministers and some members of the public service from engaging in lobbying activities, this is neither long enough nor adequately policed. Lobbying affects almost all areas of politics, including national security, weapons-manufacturing, public health and well-being (especially gambling and alcohol). As such, greater accountability and regulation is needed to reduce the risks of potential conflicts of interest arising.
Undisclosed political donations
Another factor contributing to the slip in Australia’s ranking is undisclosed political donations. Australia’s current federal political donation legislation does not require donations under $13,000 to be disclosed. This allows donors to bypass the legislation by making multiple donations under $13,000, sometimes equating to large sums of money.
In 2018, the Grattan Institute reported that 40 per cent of political donations received in the 2016 federal election came from undisclosed and untraceable sources. In 2018, former Liberal Party treasurer Michael Yabsley went as far as to call the practice “soft corruption”. Such a lack of transparency and regulation only increases the risk of corruption occurring, and not being detected.
No single federal anti-corruption body
Whereas certain states each have their own anti-corruption commissions, there is no overarching anti-corruption body at the federal level of government. Although the powers, effectiveness, and importance of these state anti-corruption commissions have been the subject of criticism, the very existence of these bodies is at least a step in the right direction.
In contrast, the miscellany of bodies such as the Australian Federal Police, Australian Public Service Commission, and Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI), do not provide an adequate or cohesive set of mechanisms to effectively investigate and prosecute corrupt behaviour.
This was a point similarly highlighted by the 2017 Senate Select Committee report on a National Integrity Commission. The report emphasised that a multiplicity of agencies, mechanisms and projects resulted in a “complex and poorly understood system that can be opaque, difficult to access and challenging to navigate”. The report also made seven recommendations, two of which included the implementation of a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner and a national integrity agency (with suggestions ACLEI could become the umbrella agency).
Following the report, the Australian government announced a proposal in 2018 for the introduction of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC). However, the proposal has been slow on the uptake by the Federal Government and heavily criticised by some commentators and academics.
However, a continued lack of transparency in government processes, and an unwillingness of the Federal Government to address deficiencies in the current strategies to prevent corruption are not a viable long-term solution. An anti-corruption commission can restore or strengthen the public’s faith in their political system, add a level of transparency, and demonstrate that someone is ‘watching the watchers’.
Lack of legal protection for whistle-blowers
Finally, one of the main drivers of corrupt behaviour within bureaucratic systems is believed to be a low probability of detection. Whistle-blowers can play an essential role in maintaining ethical standards of practice within the Federal Government. However, legal protections for whistle-blowers are severely lacking, with current legislation doing little to protect whistle-blowers against penalties and loopholes (e.g. defamation claims).
The government’s recent legal battles against four separate whistle-blowers also reveals that little has changed in the cultural attitudes towards the practice. The government has vehemently pursued the whistle-blower cases of Witness K, Richard Boyle, Bernard Collaery and David McBride, spending almost $3 million in doing so.
For democracy to thrive, we must re-evaluate the standards intended to uphold transparency and accountability within our federal governing bodies. The solution is not simple, and progress will take time. However, it’s in Australia’s best interests to begin to make change as soon as possible. Tackling the revolving door between lobbyists and politicians, clamping down on undisclosed political donations, establishing a federal anti-corruption body and increasing protections for whistle-blowers are only some of the much-needed steps towards accountability and integrity in our Federal Government.
Abigail Masters is a second year Bachelor of International Studies (Global Security) student at RMIT University, Melbourne.