Shining the light for the sake of democracy

Photo: Social Estate / unsplash
Clancy Moore I 6 december 2022

Originally Published in The Herald Sun

Transparency International Australia first called for a federal integrity commission in 2005. Now almost 18 years later, we have a well-resourced, independent and powerful National Anti-Corruption Commission that will prevent, detect and help stop corruption in our federal political system.

The passing of the legislation is a landmark moment for addressing corruption in our federal political system. It will lift standards of integrity, transparency and help restore the health of our democracy.

Over the last few years, we’ve become accustomed to the corruption and secrecy that cloud our federal politics. Pork-barrelling, car park rorts, Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison appointing himself to five ministries in the middle of the pandemic which remained secret from the public and the relevant Ministers.  These and other examples erode people’s faith in politicians. They weaken our democracy.

They’ve also contributed to Australia falling down the ladder in Transparency International’s global Corruption Perceptions Index over the last 12 years. In fact, we’ve gone down 12 points to score just 73 from 100. Last year was Australia’s worst result.

Without doubt, it is the most significant piece of integrity reform Australia has seen in 50 years.

The May election showed how much Australians wanted greater integrity in our politics. Record numbers of teal Independent MPs were elected. The ALP committed to introduce legislation before Christmas if elected. Like an early Christmas gift, the Albanese Government kept their promise with the legislation passing the lower house on Wednesday after amendments in the Senate on Tuesday.

There’s a lot to like about the legislation and just a few things that could have been better.

Importantly, the final legislation is very strong. The commission will have teeth to investigate serious and systemic issues of corruption.

Transparency International Australia called for the commission to have strong educational and prevention powers. We all know that prevention is better than the cure. On this front, the Government delivered.

Media freedoms were also beefed up acknowledging the important role that journalists, and their sources, play in shining a light on corruption.

New mandatory reporting requirements by the heads of Commonwealth Agencies is another win. This will help maintain and raise transparency standards for our valuable public service agencies.

The Government’s move to limit the scope of the definition of corrupt conduct in amendments this week is unfortunate. The crossbench and Independents unsuccessfully moved to have specific references to references to ‘pork-barrelling’ included in the bill – noting the public believes this to be corruption. These amendments were rejected.

The good news is that the scope of the commission is still wide and allows the commission to adequately investigate, prevent and stop a broad definition of corrupt conduct.

Despite amendments from the Greens, Helen Haines and others, the Government chose to keep the exceptional circumstances test for public hearings. We believe this is a very high bar for public hearings.

Most hearings should be held private but public hearings are important. They can help build trust in the commission and bring new evidence to light. The risk that some important examples of corruption could be dealt with behind closed doors and in secrecy puts a blanket on transparency.

Our research shows that this is the most restrictive test for public hearings in the country – except South Australia, which has no public hearings.

Independence was a key design principle for the commission. Transparency International Australia suggested a two-thirds majority, rather than the usual government majority, of the parliamentary oversight committee be required to approve the appointments to the commission. This was rejected.

At the last minute the Opposition floated an idea about a super-majority. The Greens and Senator Pocock also put forward a proposal for a majority plus one to approve appointments. The Government didn’t play ball with either proposal.

Time will tell how the oversight committee works and whether it will be free from political interference.

The integrity of the actual workings of commission was improved by better defining the role of the Inspector. The commission’s Inspector is to carry out investigations into corruption conduct of the commission and undertake audits amongst other functions. This adds a strong layer of protection and oversight.

After some horse-trading,  a few fireworks, and heated discussions this week in Canberra, the Government with support from across the parliament, has delivered a landmark reform. Up and running in July next year, the National Anti-Corruption Commission has an important role in accountability and protecting democracy. This is something all Australians care about.