Australia’s anti-corruption laws are historic – but the blanket of secrecy still needs to be lifted

Parliament House
Photo: Josh Withers / unsplash.com
28 September 2022

Published in The Guardian

Alleged corruption will be examined behind closed doors after the disturbing decision to hold public hearings only in ‘exceptional circumstances’

After more than 15 years of campaigning by transparency and integrity activists, the federal government has finally tabled legislation for a national anti-corruption commission.

This is a historic moment. An agency that aims to prevent and stop corruption is key to creating a healthier democracy. And while not perfect, it will lay the foundations for a proper federal integrity system.

But it’s worth having a close look at the legislation and where it can be strengthened even further.

In recent years our federal parliament has been under a cloud of misconduct allegations. Sports rorts, car park rorts, ministerial scandals and countless examples of “jobs for mates”. Recently we learned that our former prime minister appointed himself to at least six ministries behind closed doors during the pandemic. This trend towards secrecy has been growing, and it undermines people’s faith in politics.

According to our 2018 research, a staggering 85% of people think at least some federal members of parliament are corrupt. What’s more, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index reveals Australia is in 18th place, scoring just 73 points on the 100-point scale. This is the worst result Australia has recorded since 2012. In fact, since 2012, Australia’s score on the globally recognised index has slid 12 points – comparable to Hungary under Viktor Orbán’s regime. Australia should be a leader in transparent governance, not backsliding with nations led by far-right autocrats.

As promised, the new commission will be independent, well-resourced and empowered to investigate serious or systemic corruption. It will also be able to investigate third parties such as property developers, lobbyists, unions and others who may try to corrupt politicians and public servants. Independence is enshrined by the role of the commissioner and through cross-parliamentary oversight committee.

This is all good stuff. Prevention is better than cure. The strong prevention powers and education focus of the proposed commission will also help deter corruption across society. As will the mandatory referrals by government agency heads.

The news that the government will overhaul the Public Interest Disclosure Act to improve protections for people who blow the whistle on corruption is also significant – though the legislation doesn’t include an independent whistleblowing protection authority like the Helen Haines model. We need a centralised authority, a one-stop shop to ensure whistleblowers are properly protected and listened to. Otherwise searching for corruption can be like searching for a needle in a haystack.

As Transparency International’s experience in more than 100 countries shows, whistleblowing is the most effective means to bring corruption, fraud and other types of wrongdoing to light. Too often, people who blow the whistle on corruption are punished. This silences other people who see wrongdoing and want to speak out but are afraid of reprisals. The unhealthy mix of revolving doors of lobbyists and political donations that sees powerful interests get disproportionate access to political decision-making must be addressed too.

Without doubt, the legislation is a historic moment for our democracy. A step towards a fairer, healthier and more transparent government. It’s now up to our elected representatives to deliver on an even stronger and more effective agency that can detect, stop and prevent corruption, and raise the bar on integrity. This important reform and greater transparency will restore trust in our parliamentarians and help end corruption in our politics once and for all.

However, greater transparency is still needed.

The government’s announcement that public hearings will be used in exceptional circumstances is worrying. They didn’t consult on this matter, nor was it included in the ALP’s pre-election promise. It means that many hearings will be shrouded under a blanket of secrecy and alleged corruption will be examined behind closed doors.

Public hearings are vital to build the public’s trust in the commission, and importantly prevent and raise awareness of corruption. We hope the parliamentary committee will draw on Australia’s 30 years of experience in state-based public anti-corruption hearings to suggest changes to legislate clear, best-practice criteria for when public hearings are in the public interest.

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