23 January 2020

Global corruption map


This year’s Corruption Perceptions Index report has put Australia in 12th place, scoring 77 points on the 100-point scale. Our rank has gone up one point compared to last year, but this is only because Canada and the United Kingdom have each slid down the ranking, inadvertently nudging Australia up.

Since 2012, Australia has slid 8 points in Transparency International’s global corruption ranking, and this downward trajectory is cause for concern. It followed a similar, though less dramatic, trajectory to Australians’ crashing satisfaction with democracy, which has halved this past decade.

This year’s CPI research highlights what the countries at the top, or the ‘cleanest’ countries, do have in common. These countries all share similar characteristics in a robust rule of law, independent institutions that provide oversight over political decisions, and a public with a low tolerance for corruption.

These are the very institutions and expressions that we must value and strengthen to prevent and stop corruption. Unfortunately, for a number of years the very institutions that keep us honest have been sorely tested.

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Robust rule of law

A robust rule of law goes hand in hand with an accountable and transparent government. It entails clear and accessible laws, an independent and impartial judiciary, and effective public institutions.

Last year, three high-profile whistle-blowers faced closed courts for blowing the whistle on egregious government behaviour. Witness K, who blew the whistle on Australian Government spying on East Timor to secure more favourable terms for an oil and gas treaty; Richard Boyle alleged improper use of debt-collection powers; and David McBride, a former military lawyer charged with leaking secret documents to journalists. Later in the year, Witness J emerged in Canberra – a secret man, who was trialled in secret and whose sentence remains a secret.

The laws around public sector whistleblowing are so unclear as to provide very little understanding on what can or cannot be said, or what is or is not in public interest. The abuse of powers by the Australian Government has not been put on trial. Transparency International Australia has long been calling for better protections for public sector whistleblowers.

The Government has used ‘national security’ as an excuse to thwart any legal requirement or public expectation to be transparent, shielding its decision from any scrutiny that would normally hold it to account. This is a worrying trend, and one we must watch and continually question.

Independent Institutions

Independent institutions oversee government decisions and policy implementation and ensure they are serving the public’s best interest, with efficient and fair use of public resources.

On January 15, the Auditor-General published an investigation into the Community Sport Infrastructure Grants scheme and delivered a scathing assessment. It found $100 million was not awarded to community organisations based on merit and need, but rather allocated to those in politically valuable seats.

Our independent public institutions provide powerful checks and balances. A number of them have come under attack, have been defunded, maligned or stacked with former politicians. Since 2013 for example, Government has appointed 60 people with Liberal National Party affiliations to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a body that reviews decisions by government. Insufficient funding for the functions of the Freedom of Information Commissioner has led to huge bottlenecks and record rejections of FOI requests. Charities and other civil society organisations have been threatened with funding cuts for engaging in advocacy.

To strengthen the health of Australian democracy, we should value and strengthen the independence of our public institutions and value the role they play holding the government to account.

A national anti-corruption commission is also at the heart of an effective system that works to investigate and stop corruption and promote political integrity. The Australian public overwhelmingly agrees we need one. It’s time we saw some action on establishing an anti-corruption watchdog, and one with teeth.

The Public

The public’s low tolerance for corruption, or to use TI’s words, ‘broad societal consensus against the misuse of public office and resources for private interests’ is a powerful check against corruption.

The public hold the powerful to account, but they need the media to shine a light on corruption or misconduct. Together, these are powerful forces against corruption. For example, when news broke that Bronwyn Bishop spent $5,000 to charter a helicopter to attend a Liberal party fundraising event, the public outcry forced her to resign as Speaker less than a month afterwards.

However, over the past few years we have witnessed worrying attacks on press freedom – brought into stark view last year when the Australian Federal Police raided journalists’ homes and offices. This goes hand in hand with the extraordinary attacks against whistleblowers who have dared expose corruption and misconduct.

Meanwhile last year we saw concerning rhetoric to intimidate protesters – such as the Minister for Home Affairs suggesting ‘mandatory or minimum’ jail terms and advocating distributing protesters’ names and photographs far and wide.

Democracy does not happen once every couple of years at the ballot box – it is a continual expression of what we want our nation to represent and how we want our public funds to be spent. Australian democracy needs loud Australians, for loud Australians are what flex our democratic muscles, loud Australians make our democracy stronger.

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The 2019 CPI report highlights seven recommendations to stop corruption and restore political integrity.

Most of these would not surprise the casual Australian observer, or at least not the 78 per cent of Australians who support real-time reporting of political donations, or the 79 per cent who want politicians to disclose who they are meeting with, or the two-thirds who want a national anti-corruption commission.

The CPI report provides yet more evidence of what many would already suspect. There is a clear correlation between the lack of transparency of political donations and corruption; and there is a clear correlation between countries that are corrupt and governments that only consult a narrow band of friends and allies to inform their decision.

To safeguard and strengthen our democracy we close the loopholes in a system that tempt corruption – such as political financing and revolving doors – and we must value and strengthen transparency and accountability and the very institutions and people who hold the powerful to account.

  • Manage conflicts of interest, including by stopping the ‘revolving door’ that allows politicians and senior public servants to jump from public office to company payroll, and vice versa, far too quickly. We need greater cooling-off periods, and they must be enforced.
  • Control political financing, including by having political parties properly disclose sources of income.
  • Strengthen electoral integrity, including by preventing and sanctioning vote-buying and misinformation campaigns.
  • Regulate lobbying activities, including by making lobbying transparent.
  • Tackling preferential treatment, including by ensuring public funds are not allocated according to personal connections or biased towards special interest groups at the expense of the overall public good.
  • Empower citizens, by protecting civil liberties and political rights, including protecting citizen activists, whistleblowers and journalists in monitoring and exposing corruption.
  • Reinforce checks and balances, including by promoting the separation of powers, and strengthening judicial independence.