National Press Club: The Case for a Federal ICAC

1st December 2021

National Press Club Address, TIA CEO Serena Lillywhite

“My thanks to the National Press Club, Laura Tingle and David Crow for their invitation to be here today and join this stellar panel, for what is arguably the hottest political issue.The case for a federal ICAC, a national integrity commission is clear, it’s a no-brainer. We need one, more than 80 percent of Australians want one, and Australia’s global standing on corruption is getting worse.

While all states and territories have functioning integrity commissions, for too long the view has prevailed that corruption, misconduct and integrity failings somehow, magically, is not a problem among federal politicians.

The public doesn’t buy that, and with trust and confidence in government almost halved from 86 percent in 2007, to just 41 percent in 2018, it’s hard to understand why any government would not prioritize integrity, transparency and accountability.

Integrity, transparency and accountability are values that any politician, any political party, should be boldly and proudly nailing their flag to.

Instead, the Commonwealth is now the only jurisdiction without an independent, specialist anti-corruption agency.

Every year Transparency International releases its Corruption Perception Index on public sector corruption. The index scores and ranks 180 countries from zero to 100, with 100 being perceived as most clean, and zero as least clean.

Every year Transparency International releases its Corruption Perception Index on public sector corruption. The index scores and ranks 180 countries from zero to 100, with 100 being perceived as most clean, and zero as least clean.

Australia currently sits on a score of 77/100. Doesn’t sound too bad does it, but the real story is the downward slide of 8 points in the last nine years, with Australia dropping out of the top 10 countries for the first time in 2014 and we have continuously failed to lift our game.

This analysis is based on aggregated data from organizations such as the WEF Executive Opinion Survey, the Economist Intelligence Unit Country Risk survey and the World Justice Rule of Law Index, among others.

In comparison, PNG, a country that last year scored just 27 /100, and is widely recognized as a high-risk corruption prone country, is heading up the scale with solid efforts by their government to tackle corruption. In 2020, the PNG parliament passed legislation to establish an Independent Anti-Corruption Commission.

We have done our own research, with Griffith University. In 2020, we asked citizens, How big or small a problem do you think corruption is in government?’ 66 percent said it was a very big or quite big problem. And 85 percent of Australians told us they believe that at least some federal members of parliament are corrupt.

The Museum of Australian Democracy’s research finds that if nothing is done by 2025, and current trends continue, ‘fewer than 10 percent of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions. This is a real worry.

Our next corruption perception index will be out on the 25 January, and its going to be very interesting to see if Australia continues to slide, as we lead into the election.

It’s now almost three years since the federal government promised, to set up an integrity commission within 12 months. But we continue to wait for a commission that’s fit for purpose.

The model that has been proposed has been widely slammed as grossly inadequate.We know, a strong integrity commission must have some fundamental design features:

  • It must be independent
  • It must have broad scope to investigate both criminal and non-criminal misconduct – such as the misuse of public funds
    It must apply equally to everyone – without carve out provisions to exempt ministers and parliamentarians from the same level of scrutiny as public servants
  • It must be accessible– allowing members of the public and whistleblowers, to raise matters for consideration without fear of prosecution and reprisal
  • It must have the powers to hold public hearings when this is a necessary and effective means of investigation, or when it is in the public interest; and
  • It must be accountable to the public and not beholden to political interests – for example, disclosing findings, both where there is a case to answer and where there is not. That’s one way to address concerns about reputational damage.

If we get this right, then such a Commission can fulfill its other very important role – that of preventing and deterring corruption and misconduct, and having an educational function. This will help send a strong signal of zero tolerance for corruption and misconduct. And help restore trust and confidence in government – and issue that must be addressed.

The lack of a federal integrity commission is a gaping hole in Australia’s integrity framework. It is the most important piece of legislation we need, right now, to restore public trust in our democracy. It’s the foundation this country needs for solid, forward-thinking policies that put the public’s best interest first, always.The single biggest problem for integrity in Australia is diminishing public trust that decision making is fair, honest and free of undue influence.

A strong Integrity Commission is the lynchpin of an integrity framework that also needs to demonstrate open, trustworthy decision making. To do this we need:

  • A parliamentary code of conduct and an overhaul of the
  • Ministerial Standards to ensure transparency and accountability
  • Strengthened oversight of lobbyists to tackle undue influence
  • Transparency and accountability of political donations; and
  • Better protections for whistleblowers

Last week’s extraordinary scenes in Parliament laid bare for all to see, the resistance to introducing, or even debating, a strong integrity commission that will shine a spotlight on all forms of corruption, misconduct and integrity failings – without fear or favour.

I want to commend Bridget Archer, the Member for Bass. What she did, crossing the floor to support a motion to debate the Helen Haines Australia Federal Integrity Commission Bill, was courageous and principled.

She believes that the values of integrity, transparency and accountability should rise above politics.

She showed that to demonstrate integrity, you have to stand up for integrity.

She has listened, and stood up for what most Australians want, an integrity watchdog with teeth. I think most Australians want to see all parliamentarians showing such leadership and integrity.

We do have an integrity problem that needs fixing, and we need to hold power to account. That’s why integrity, and climate change, will be the hottest election issues.

Candidates and politicians across the country are standing up for a strong commonwealth anti-corruption and integrity commission. The ‘Voices of Movement’ is gaining traction. It’s an unstoppable force. It’s an idea whose time has come.In the words of Victor Hugo:

Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.


In closing, I want to thank the press for their efforts to expose corruption, misconduct, and dodgy deals and decisions. It’s the efforts of investigative journalists and their sources, that are shining a spotlight on corruption and the abuse of entrusted power for personal or political gain. So, to all of you, I thank you.’